Twenty miles are covered this day, but on more challenging terrain, followed again by a night in a hayfield. Despite these privations, on Sunday morning, July 30, another sixty pilgrims arrive to join the final ten-mile push to the goal: Sacred Heart Mission, Idaho’s oldest surviving building, built by Fr. Pierre De Smet and the Coeur d’Alene Indians a hundred and sixty years ago, and now preserved by the same tribe in Cataldo, Idaho.
After noon on Saturday, completely out of cellphone range, in an area where no vehicles can reach the group for water or first aid, the pilgrims trudge through a dense pine forest, catching glimpses of still more mountains receding in the distance, of lakes reposing in the valleys, of other pilgrim chapters behind or ahead around the bends of the narrow path. At such a moment, they seem to be traveling not just in space, but also backward in time toward the founding of the Old Mission.
The pilgrim can practically see the giant figure of Father De Smet, scaling these mountains in the 1830s, carrying the Faith like a torch, or perhaps Chief Circling Raven, foretelling in the 1700s that the Black Robes would come, and receiving visions of the salvation of God. Walking in such august footsteps, nothing so paltry as blisters, sunburn, thirst, heat, dirt, can daunt the Catholic heart; rather each new challenge offers opportunity for a greater sacrifice to the honor and glory of God. This attitude is especially fitting to cultivate in a region evangelized according to St. Ignatius Loyola’s motto, Ad majorem Dei gloriam. In trial and tribulation, the traveler is united to the true Jesuit spirit.
On pilgrimage the Catholic partakes in a uniquely physical way in the history of the Faith. When one walks the Camino, the dust of a million pilgrims, carrying their spiritual crosses to Santiago, puffs under each footstep. If a person participates in the annual Chartres Pilgrimage, he shares the spirit of those medieval lords and ladies, who spontaneously dismounted their horses and exited their carriages to place stone upon stone for Mary’s honor and thereby build the most beautiful cathedral in Europe.
If a Catholic braves the journey to the Holy Land, in spirit he dons the Cross of the Crusader; as a reward, in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, et cetera, he is allowed to taste the very air which the God-man breathed when He walked among mankind. Human beings are composed of soul and body; both need to be nourished with the elements of the Faith. Pilgrimages open the door to a brief window of time, during which modern men can live immersed physically and spiritually in Catholic Tradition.
Modernity has divorced mankind from the Christian civilization which shaped the world for twenty centuries. Separated from this ancient structure, it can be hard to imagine what the saints and leaders of bygone Catholic eras experienced as they traveled the world, converted nations, raised up religious orders, established dioceses, begot new souls for God. Pilgrimage is all the more valuable then, not just as a spiritual exercise to call the soul back to fervor, but as a physical link to the pilgrim’s Catholic forbears. Today’s people—and the younger they are, the more this fact holds true—are not firmly rooted in reality.
The digital age has made it far too easy to disassociate oneself from anything painful or challenging, and most Catholics are comfortable, forgetting the need for rigor in the spiritual life, for self-denial, abstinence, mortification, so that they may hear the call of God and respond to it with the joy that comes from careful training. A fifty-five mile hike, accomplished in two and a half days in late July—the driest, hottest period of Idaho weather—and aimed at touching the very Heart of Jesus Christ, is an antidote which the pilgrim can take to neutralize the inevitable traces of poison in his soul, which come from daily living in a toxic world.
Looking at the Cataldo Pilgrimage from this point of view, the presence of young people in the chapters becomes particularly notable. 2017’s pilgrimage saw an increased number of teenage and young adult attendees. In fact, an entire pilgrim chapter on Sunday morning was composed of members of the local SSPX youth group. Its name is Exsurge, a summons in Latin to all its members to ‘rise up’ in the service of God. Heeding the call, forty or so young Catholics, ranging in age from seventeen to thirty, united behind a banner of a phoenix resurrecting from flames, and followed the emblem across ten miles of Idaho farmland. Facing them as they trudged, the back of the banner displayed the cross, surrounded by the reminder, ‘Know, Love, Serve.’ Going back to the simplest components of the Faith, these young people hope to embrace the Catholic vocation—so simple and yet a life-long challenge—which they learned in the first lessons of their catechism.
In the midst of the distractions of life—and the modern world is particularly distracting, and particularly to the young who are inevitably more swayed by the currents of the day—this vocation is hard to hear. How does the soul know God and then love Him so much that every action of every day springs out as an act of homage to His divinity? How does one remember, moreover, that this is the path to be followed at every moment? God does not shout at souls to keep their attention on Him, and thus it is easy to forget that simply accomplishing one’s duty of state, but always for His sake, is the best way of serving Him. It can seem boring or frustrating, even depressing, to be only a student or a single working person, as most of these young people are. To counteract the lure of idleness or sadness or rebellion from one’s state, the soul needs occasionally to step for moment outside the hurly-burly and look at life from a different perspective.
The pilgrimage to Sacred Heart Mission offered the youth group a perfect opportunity for such a shift in viewpoint. Instead of walking from a parking spot to a desk at work, or strolling along the beach on the hot summer weekend, the Exsurge members marched in the footsteps of Black Robes and Braves toward an old church, built by simple people solely for love of the Sacred Heart. The Coeur d’Alenes made sacrifices to welcome the bearers of the true Faith; Father De Smet and countless other missionaries to the Northwest made even greater sacrifices in abandoning everything they had ever known for the sake of the natives’ souls. Our Lord made the greatest sacrifice of all in surrendering His Heart to a spear, so that the Church might be baptized in the last drops of blood and water that gushed out in the moment after His death.
Embracing such a path of oblation in imitation of Christ and His saints awakens the soul to its Catholic vocation. The human being was not created to suffer; rather suffering came in the wake of Original Sin as a way of partaking in the propitiation Christ would pay His Father. Only through this knowledge can the soul find meaning in tribulation, understanding that times of difficulty are part of God’s call for each soul to be perfect as He is perfect. From such a conviction springs love, because the Creator condescended so much to His creatures as to invite them to share in His work of redemption. With knowledge and love, then, the human person looks around in the world for opportunities to serve, to prove by action that Faith, Hope, and Charity are alive in his soul. Occasionally the opportunity he will find is a pilgrimage, wherein he will participate in the activity of millions of Christians over the ages, traveling to those sacred places established in two thousand years of Church history. The cycle will begin again of removing oneself for a few days from the current of the world to live instead within the current of Faith and thereby remember that human beings were created solely for God.
The SSPX pilgrimage to Cataldo occurs every year in late July. Since Exsurge was founded in 2014, at least a few of the members have represented the group each year. Because of work and family commitments, a limited number can be present for all three days, but always a handful of members will show up on Friday morning at dawn to begin the path towards Sacred Heart Mission; another few will arrive on Saturday; and by Sunday a good half or more of the 70-person group will be present for the glory of God. The members who walk all fifty-five miles serve as a sort of magnet to draw their friends to the campsites each consecutive morning, offering up their prayers and sacrifices for the others so that they too will share in the grace of pilgrimage. The young people are thus drawn into the Communion of Saints, like comrades-in-arms offering their own spiritual nourishment to their fellows in the present, but also entering into the grace merited in the past by the very Jesuit missionaries in whose steps they tread. As part of the Traditional movement within the Church, the youth group thus uses the pilgrimage to reinforce their link to the age of missionaries, to the crusades, to the apostolic era when Christ and Peter and Paul traveled the known world with the good news of the Faith.
Doubtless there are some who look at a group of Catholics sacrificing a few days at work for a hot, uncomfortable hike to an obscure, unused mission church in Idaho as a futile, and even irresponsible exercise. In fact, though, it is a chance to immerse oneself in the experience of the early Christians, the Medieval Church, the missionary expansion, the salvific action of Christ Himself. For young people especially, who live in a world where everything is always new and changing, thanks to constant updates and improvements to electronic devices and digital communication, the pilgrimage can be a crucial, yearly event which reconnects them to the Tradition of the Church, in its ancient and changeless beauty.
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