The editorial of the month

The editorial of the month by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

I’ve never been a big traveler. My family did not go on vacation to any far-flung or exciting places when I was ­growing up—it just wasn’t our thing—and it was on a mission trip to Guatemala in my senior year of college that I flew for the first time. I did wind up in Europe for four years ­after graduating, but even then, though I went on a few trips, I was more than happy to stay put in the small Austrian ­village where I lived, adhering to my routine.

The issue for me is not so much being in different ­places as getting to different places. It’s the lines, crowds, and cramped spaces. Even packing is an ordeal. Fortunately, my wardrobe is rather easy to manage nowadays, but I have a terrible time deciding which books to bring.

Having said this, however, I can honestly tell you that one of the greatest experiences of my life was the pilgrimage to France I led two years ago this month, when I was just starting out at Magnificat. It was the first pilgrimage we sponsored. Truth be told, I felt like I was leading a retreat on wheels.

The eldest daughter of the Church

France is an amazing country. There is so much natural beauty, so many charming villages and beautiful churches, and such a multitude of saints, a pilgrimage could easily occupy two months instead of two weeks. Our trip started at Lourdes, which is a tough act to follow. But from there we saw the medieval fortress-town of Carcassonne, spent a night in Avignon, and then a few nights in Saint Maximin, where we saw the skull of Saint Mary Magdalene. Some of us even hiked up to the cave where “the Apostle to the Apostles” is said to have spent her final years in solitude and prayer. We enjoyed a boat ride along the Mediterranean coast off Cassis, and joined the Cistercian monks for Mass at the medieval abbey in the Lérins Islands. We prayed in the chapel at Paray-le-Monial, where Jesus revealed the mystery of his Sacred Heart to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque. We spent a morning overcome with gratitude, and more than a few tears, on the Normandy beaches where the Allied forces landed on D-Day. The pilgrimage concluded with three beautiful days in Paris. At the end I couldn’t resist stealing Humphrey Bogart’s famous line from Casablanca: “We’ll always have Paris.” (I’ve never claimed to be very original or witty.)

Finally, though it goes without saying, the food was outstanding every step of the way. In France, even hotels apparently offer haute cuisine.

The greatest saint of modern times

Among all these delights, however, one day’s itinerary remains especially close to my heart: our visit to Lisieux on October 1, Saint Thérèse’s feast day. We started at the Carmelite monastery where she was a nun along with three of her sisters, and where she wrote Story of a Soul, one of the most popular spiritual books of all time. Off to the right as you first walk into the chapel is a beautiful shrine containing the Little Flower’s tomb, on top of which is a stunning life-size effigy of the saint. She is lying down and looks utterly peaceful, as if she has just spoken her dying words: “Oh, I love him! My God, I love you!” Predictably, the shrine was loaded with flowers, the go-to offering of countless pilgrims. The aroma that day was intoxicating.

I then had the joy of offering Mass for our group in a private chapel of the nearby basilica built in her honor, which also houses the relics of her parents, Louis and Zélie, both canonized saints as well. We concluded with a tour of her adorable childhood home, Les Buissonnets (“the little bushes”), described so lovingly in her autobiography. On an ordinary street in an insignificant town, and not so very long ago either, the woman whom Saint Pius X would call “the greatest saint of modern times” was raised by two other saints. Standing in front of the fireplace in the family kitchen, one could think of the words she would later write about the grandeur and simplicity of our Christian vocation: “I understood that the Church has a heart and that this heart is burning with love; that it is love alone which makes the members work, that if love were to die away apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. I understood that love comprises all vocations, that love is everything, that it embraces all times and all places because it is eternal!”

Making our pilgrimage home

A number of years ago, I met an elderly couple that traveled regularly to Europe, but always and only by ship. They were instructed on departure, they said, to change their clocks by one hour each day. After a week at sea they would disembark in the Old World full of life and free of jetlag, already adjusted to the new time zone.

I can’t help but think of the great voyage we are all on aboard the Barque of Peter, the Ark of Salvation, the holy Church of God. This sacred vessel will carry us safely through so that we arrive well-adjusted, wide awake, and brimming with energy on the shores of our eternal homeland. And so we carry on, dear friends and fellow travelers—yes, restless at times and perhaps frightened by storms—but with joyful hope that we will one day be gathered at the hearth of divine charity that burns eternally in the heart of God, and with Thérèse “spend our heaven doing good on earth.”