As in years past, Fr. Gianluca Carlin and I made on a pilgrimage to Assisi with a group of youth from our parish in Cologne. By now, the pilgrimage has become a tradition. Several years ago, we began proposing a week of walking, from Città di Castello to Assisi, in order to encounter and become more familiar with St. Francis through visiting the places where he lived. Gianluca proposes the moment to his high school alumni and we invite the kids from the parish who are finishing their preparation for Confirmation.
The first time we did the pilgrimage was in 2010. I was a seminarian doing my year abroad in Cologne and it was truly an adventure. The route, less beaten than the one leading to Santiago, was not always clearly marked. Often, at the intersections, we had to ask which road to take. I drove a little van that carried the luggage, and I had the responsibility of buying the food and drinks that were necessary for the breaks during the walk. The first day was a complete disaster: it rained abundantly and we had to eat lunch on our feet, rushed, because we were not able to find a shelter. The medieval church where we were supposed to stop for a break was only open in the summer months. Our morale was literally at zero. The adverse situation pushed us to discover an old country house along the route that was secluded in the middle of a forest, which two elderly people had fixed-up to welcome the pilgrims that passed.
From that year forward, the country house has become a non-negotiable stop on our pilgrimage and the two owners have become acquired grandparents of all those who accompany us. Their hospitality, simple and warm, doesn’t communicate through words but through their gestures, in the way they welcome us and through their simplicity in sharing their table with us. It is often one of the most memorable moments for the kids.
As we walk, we pray, sing, and, daily, read a verse from the Gospel of John: the first encounter with Jesus, the healing of the man born blind, the episode of Peter’s yes and his betrayal, the question addressed to the Apostles at the sea of Galilea by the resurrected Jesus: Do you love me? For a considerable amount of time we maintain an atmosphere of silence.
For me, every year is a new experience. Something happens. Every year someone lets himself be provoked.
After listening to the section of the Gospel, profound dialogues are facilitated with the kids. It’s enough to hear the short exchange between Jesus and the first two Apostles: What are you looking for? Master where do you stay? Come and see. “And you, what are you looking for – I ask them – during this pilgrimage and in your life?”. Then the questions begin exploding. Walking becomes for many the beginning of a mutual search, the beginning of a response.
Along the route, many of the places recall the road of St. Francis: in Assisi, every stone speaks of him. The kids always remain impressed by the amount of people who come desiring to meet and get to know this impetuous man who left everything preferring to follow Christ and to live a life of love towards the very last person. The beauty of the landscapes helps one to identify with the wonder and gratitude that St. Francis had for the Creator.
Often the kids ask me to tell them the story of my vocation. But is it really true that Christ can fill our hearts? How did you know that it was your path? And what does God have in mind for my life? This is the challenge they discover have within them as we begin heading back home.
(avide Matteini is the vice pastor in the pastoral unit of Kreuz-Köln-North, in Germany. In the photo, a view from Assisi.)