Our parish has a long tradition of pilgrimages – I won’t try and list the destinations in case I leave something out – and they are part of our parish story. Traditionally in the Catholic Church pilgrimages have been undertaken as an act of penitence (perhaps particularly if you walk all the way); they are a key part of popular devotion for Catholics, stressing the importance of holy and special places where we can feel particularly close to God and the saints. They also take us out of our normal everyday lives, perhaps even of our ‘comfort zones’. They are important for parishes because through the journey people have the chance to get to know each other better. In addition to parish pilgrimages which are being organised all the time, you have the chance to go on journeys organised by Catholic papers (e.g. the Tablet trips to various places) and some pilgrimages have a special quality such as the Camino de Santiago to Compostella in Spain which some of you have undertaken. Of course they are not always problem-free; as you might expect, problems in relationships sometimes arise.

Another feature of this parish, which I suspect is increasingly unusual elsewhere, is that normally a priest accompanies year 6 in St Mary’s school on their annual school journey; I have been doing this most years now for twenty five years and we went last week to the PGL centre in Hindhead in Surrey, shown above. Some of you reading this will have happy memories of journeys to the Isle of Wight, Devon, Hampshire and Sussex (and many stories). Since I say Mass for the children and staff each day, you could say that it has more of a character of a pilgrimage than school journeys where this is not the case. Perhaps this a rather bold claim, but if you think about some of the characteristics of a pilgrimage I listed above in relationship to comfort zones and getting to know one another better, these are certainly things which we aim to do. I ought to stress that we are very fortunate that the staff in our school are prepared to do this (last week’s was the first since 2019 because of Covid), at a time when teachers and other school staff members are under growing pressures. While we should be grateful that this is an important part of school life, we do need to realise that schools are finding it increasingly hard to organise school journeys, partly because of rising costs. For staff members being with the children for such an activity, at the very end of their primary school experience is special, even privileged; of course this doesn’t mean, any more than it does for parish pilgrimages, that problems don’t arise. I ought to add, in case you’re wondering, that the chaplain does not have to join in abseiling, zip-wire, fencing and so on (though he is free to). The Mass on school journey is special, with bidding prayers and other parts of the Mass led by the children, bringing to God prayers for their families and school, and thanking him for the new experiences.

A good thing to try and show is simply kindness. What we try to do on our school journey, and on parish pilgrimages, is well expressed in these words from Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, devoted to ‘fraternity and social friendship’:

‘Saint Paul describes kindness as a fruit of the Holy Spirit….an attitude that is gentle, pleasant and supportive, not rude or coarse. Individuals who possess this quality help make other people’s lives more bearable, especially by sharing the weight of their problems, needs and fears. This way of treating others can take different forms: an act of kindness, a concern not to offend by word or deed, a readiness to alleviate their burdens. It involves speaking words of comfort, strength, consolation and encouragement and not words that demean, sadden, anger or show scorn. Kindness frees us from the cruelty that at times infects human relationships, from the anxiety that prevents us from thinking of others, from the frantic flurry of activity that forgets that others also have a right to be happy. Often nowadays we find neither the time nor the energy to stop and be kind to others, to say “excuse me”, “pardon me”, “thank you”. Yet every now and then, miraculously, a kind person appears and is willing to set everything else aside in order to show interest, to give the gift of a smile, to speak a word of encouragement, to listen amid general indifference. If we make a daily effort to do exactly this, we can create a healthy social atmosphere in which misunderstandings can be overcome and conflict forestalled. Kindness ought to be cultivated; it is no superficial bourgeois virtue’. (sections 223-224)

On a school journey or a pilgrimage we have to learn to be kind – it’s not rocket science. In a society increasingly marked by harshness and unkindness, by individualism and selfishness, it’s a very simple and clear message. So do consider signing up for one or more of our parish pilgrimages; and please pray for year 6 children in all our schools – who have had a disrupted primary school experience – as they go to secondary schools in the autumn.

Fr Ashley