For over a decade there has been an annual pilgrimage from Loyola House, a Jesuit retreat centre in Guelph, to the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland.
A pilgrimage close to home: Martyrs' Shrine

The most famous pilgrimage in the Christian world right now is the Camino de Santiago de Compostela across northern Spain. However, there is also a pilgrimage just as challenging, a lot less expensive, and just as transformational (at least for eight days), and by comparison to the Camino, is right in our backyard.

For over a decade there has been an annual pilgrimage from Loyola House, a Jesuit retreat centre in Guelph, to the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland.

Anyone who has studied Canadian history will be familiar with the names Jean de Brebeuf, Gabriel Lalemont, Isaac Jogues, Charles Garnier, Antoine Daniel, Noel Chabanel, Rene Goupil, and Jean de Lalande, the eight young men from France who gave up their lives between 1642-1649 in bringing Christianity and education to the Huron nation in Canada. Each of the martyrs is remembered by the pilgrims on one of the days of the eight day pilgrimage.

The pilgrims walk about 20 kilometres a day and cover 160 km. There is always a cross-bearer leading the pilgrims followed by two people carrying an “ark of the covenant” on poles. The ark is full of hundreds of prayer petitions from people who know the pilgrims.

From Aug. 1-8 this year there were 87 of us and we were later joined by 50 people from Burlington and about 1,000 Polish pilgrims from Mississauga.

People in our group were laity, deacons, ministers, and priests from various Christian backgrounds — Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, United, Mennonite, evangelical — and from many parts of North America — Vancouver, Quebec, Indiana. There was a nice balance of children, women, and men from ages 12 to 85.

In the Christian spirit of not leaving anyone behind, a supply car always travelled beside us for anyone who could not keep up with the group.

The reason the pilgrimage is transformational is its structure: Mass at 7 a.m., a reading based on themes from the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola, walking in silence for a half-hour praying for the prayer petitions, meditating on one of the themes, and reflecting on the martyr of the day. Later there was an optional opportunity to say the rosary as we walked, and a sacred circle where we could share what we got out of the day.

Some of the themes we meditated on were:

  • Invitations or gifts of God that have shaped my life (based on Jeremiah 1: 4-8)
  • Becoming more attentive to God’s presence and action in my daily routine (Jer. 29:11-14)
  • Growing in awareness of God’s merciful response to sin and injustice in our world (Romans 1: 19-23)
  • Growing in awareness of my own blindness and insensitivity to sin and evil (Luke 18: 35-43)
  • Learning from the role of Mary in the life and death of Jesus (John 19: 25-27)
  • Understanding death as a reality and teacher of values (Romans 8: 18-25)
  • Deepening my love for Jesus and his way of life (Philippians 4: 4-9)
  • Growing in my ability to make good choices on important issues (Mark 1: 35-39)

Beyond the themes and reflecting on the faith and courage of the martyrs who were subjected to the most gruesome methods of torture by the Iroquois, the most powerful part for me was the community that quickly formed.

Most of the day was spent sharing with others about our faith stories as we walked along. Listening to 86 other faith journeys all day for eight days straight was an experience I am sure most of us will never forget. Consequently, everyone did their best to be compassionate, help, and support each other on this challenging hike.

As one former pilgrim said, “If everyone in the world lived as we did for eight days, there would be no more injustice, violence, or war.”

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[Source: London Free Press]

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