A reluctant pilgrim?

By Paul Swift

They are a constant feature of city centres, alongside the buskers and street entertainers, though they rarely attract the same response. In fact, they are more likely to be ridiculed. These are the Christians you see with microphones and Scripture references which they bellow out with confidence, immune to the awkward glances of shoppers. I have to admit, I've always felt little connection to them. Mine is a quiet spirituality: I enjoy the peacefulness of Mass, the stillness of church and the opportunity to talk to God in my own words without forcing them upon others.

Imagine then my feelings on processing through Rome, carrying a large wooden cross and accompanied by priests, deacons and Liverpool Archdiocese's Christian Education Department! I had travelled to Rome with the RE coordinator from my school, St Anne's Catholic Primary School, and two fellow St Helens head teachers. There were teaching staff from other Archdiocesan schools and our genial tour guide, who was keen to remind us that we were pilgrims, not tourists. This was clearly the case, as often we were the subject of a tourist's long zoom lens or curious expression.

Our first night was memorable, not only for the privilege of having a private Mass in the side chapel of one of the basilicas, but for the feeling of being a tourist attraction as several individuals pressed their faces up to the glass to study us!

Another highlight was the papal audience for which we had queued for seats from 6.30am – jostling with pilgrims from around the world as everyone, no matter how old or young, scrambled for a prime location. We were fortunate enough to secure the seats that our guide had promised would allow for unobscured views of Pope Francis ... and were not disappointed as the sun rose over St Peter's Square and the Holy Father passed within touching distance. 

It was later that day that we found ourselves processing behind a large wooden cross (sometimes in defiance of the Roman traffic), singing, praying and celebrating the Year of Mercy, with the gusto of a street preacher! Initially self-conscious, we found ourselves lifted by the passers-by who stopped to smile, joined in with the hymns, took photographs or simply bowed their heads in prayer. As we entered St Peter's and made our way towards the altar a rush of emotions overtook us in a moment that will last long in our memories – and gave us much to reflect on as we returned to our everyday lives.

And perhaps, when I next see a Christian preaching on the rain-splashed streets of Liverpool, I will be transported back to the Vatican and understand that it is within us all to spread the Good News.