Following in the footsteps of John Paul II, a pilgrimage to the Marian sanctuary of Subukia, in Kenya: an occasion to grow in faith and in unity.

For almost fifteen years now, we have organized a pilgrimage with our parish to the marian shrine of Subukia, which was inaugurated following the visit that John Paul II made to Kenya in 1980 and then in 1985. At the time, the project was entrusted to the diocese of Nakuru, which is in the geographic center of the country, in order to bring together persons from the different tribes of Kenya. The equator passes through that valley, making the sanctuary a point of encounter between the two hemispheres as well.
Thanks to the education we have received in the movement of CL, the act of making a pilgrimage has always been an important moment in the lives of our communities. The teaching of Fr. Giussani helped us to rediscover this concrete expression of our faith, that suggests in a fundamental and relevant way the nature of the life of the Church: “a company guided towards Destiny”. There is no simpler nor more concrete gesture than that of making a pilgrimage together.
It is also a way to educate to the faith and to unity that is valid for the whole nation, which is afflicted by the wound of tribalism, one of the painful weakness of African countries. Provoked artfully and fomented by politicians without scruples, it has brought Kenya to the edge of tragedy many times. In 2002, we began to organize the pilgrimage either in May or in October, months traditionally dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to the rosary. The distance of the sanctuary from the parish is over 350 kilometers, which run through unpaved roads, requiring an uncomfortable, 5 to 6 hour bus trip. In the years, we have improved the organization of the trip, arming ourselves with megaphones to use in the buses in order to turn the hours spent traveling into moments of silence, listening, prayer and communion, all focused on our point of arrival which is the Madonna. The last kilometers are dedicated to preparing the confession that all desire to make at the end of the journey, with a common examination of conscience that reverberates in the silence of each person’s heart.
When we arrive to the valley of the sanctuary, we pray the Stations of the Cross while we go ascend on foot up to the chapel of the Madonna, built next to a spring. Then we celebrate the Holy Mass, underneath a very African straw roof, and this crowns and concludes the pilgrimage.
When the Mass is over, everyone wants to help themselves to the spring water that flows from the side of the hill. Then, we descend quickly in order to enjoy our bag lunches, in the shade of the imposing church that, shortly, will be completed.
The return trip to Nairobi is a feast, which expresses itself in songs that don’t stop until sundown, when the exhaustion begins to make itself felt. With the dark, a final period of silence arrives, in which we say the last rosary, in order to meditate on the day we spent together thanks to this pilgrimage which, in time, has seen a continuous increase in pilgrims up until last year, in which there were 400 people. It is an occasion in which every person of the parish wishes to participate.
I remember a year in which, due to rain and mud, we had to spend the night on the road. Among the pilgrims, there was an elderly lady, extremely faithful to daily Mass at the parish, afflicted by a deforming arthritis in her knees. She was leaning on her cane and walking with great difficulty. I was surprised to see her. When I realized that she was bracing herself to climb the hill with the help of two friends, I asked her: “Rachel, do you want to do the Way of the Cross as well?” Smiling, she responded, “Yes, if the Lord gives me the strength.” I saw her again later, resplendent, and I went to embrace her. “How did you manage it?” With another disarming smile, she told me, “With the help of these two friends and of the Lord. I told Him, ‘I will go up this hill together with you, and I offer it to You for all of the forgotten souls of Purgatory’”. I was left speechless. During the trip home, the bus got stuck in the mud and, while we exited, someone had to carry her on their back. I remember seeing her laugh: “If you don’t become as little children…”


(Fr. Alfonso Poppi is the pastor of St. Joseph’s Church of Kahawa Sukari, in Nairobi, Kenya. Pictured, a moment from the pilgrimage to the marian shrine of Subukia.)

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