Penance and Pilgrimage: Solidarity in Suffering

Dr. Leon J. Podles

From the Mount Calvary talks on Spiritual Disciplines

March 23, 2018


We have just come from a mini-pilgrimage; we walked with Jesus along the way of the cross as he did penance for the sins of the world, even unto death.

He did everything. Isn’t Christ’s sacrifice sufficient atonement for all sins? Why should we do penance?  Is asceticism really Christian, or is it a mixture of works righteousness and masochism?

And why do we go on pilgrimages? Isn’t God everywhere? Isn’t Christ present in every tabernacle? Why do we travel to holy places?

First I will discuss the whys and hows of penance. Then I will turn to a penitential pilgrimage, the great Holy Week pilgrimage from Santa Fe to Chimayó in New Mexico and then to the even greater pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, which I made in 2010.

I will also give some practical hints for those leading ordinary Christian lives who feel called to do penance or to go on a pilgrimage.

Penance is the voluntary affliction of pain on oneself. We all have pains that are not voluntary; they range from an annoying neighbor to cancer. Mostly, these pains are sufficient for Christians as a road to sanctity; St. Therese of Lisieux taught this little way and it is the way most Christians should follow most of the time.

Asceticism is not quite the same as penance, even if both involve pain. Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, which means athletic training. Paul frequently uses this metaphor to explain the Christian life. All men know that we need self-discipline; without it we cannot accomplish anything worthwhile. To gain any virtue, natural or supernatural, we have to be willing to accept pain, that is, we have to show fortitude.

Fortitude in Greek is andreia, which means manliness, and both pagans and Christians are exhorted Be a man. Die to defend your country, die to give witness to Jesus – and to do this, we must have fortitude, and to have fortitude, we must learn to suffer pain, to beat our body to subdue it.

Christians accepted pain and torture and death in the arena. After the age of the martyrs the monks saw themselves as warriors, struggling against the armies of demons. Fasting was a struggle in which men were called to compete and show themselves men, but fasting was usually seen in light of the struggle for chastity. Gerald of Wales tells numerous stories of men who fought sexual temptations: St Benedict by rolling in nettles, St. Amonius by piercing his body with a red-hot iron.

These practices were designed to combat evil tendencies, to clear the ground of vices so that the virtues could grow, to assert the power of the soul over the body and its desires.  But there is something beyond that for Christians, something which the pagans could not envision.

The Franciscan movement in the Middle Ages emphasized our identification with the humanity of Jesus, especially with his passion and death, just as we have tried to do in making the Stations of the Cross. Francis was the first person in the history of Christianity to bear the stigmata, and many saw him as the angel of the Apocalypse, bearing the seal of the living God, heralding the end of the world.

Penance is not self-discipline, it is our participation in the innocent suffering of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world.  Christ who knew no sin, became sin for our sake so that we might become the righteousness of God.  He bore the sins of the world, but he did not commit the sins of the world.  He was blameless, and opened not his mouth, says Isaiah.  Paul declares that he fills up in his flesh what is lacking with respect to the suffering of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church (Colossians 1:24).  That doesn’t mean “Jesus didn’t do enough so I have to make up for his inadequate effort on the Cross.”  Rather, it means that as Christians, as part of the Totus Christus, the whole Christ, we bear the cross with Jesus and offer our innocent sufferings, voluntary and involuntary, in union with His sufferings for the good of others—including others who are sinners as guilty as hell. It is in the awareness of our radical solidarity with each other and with Jesus that we can offer penance for one another.

What could be lacking in the sufferings of the God-man? Only one thing – our participation in them. We were bankrupt and could never satisfy the demands of divine justice. Yes, Christ paid our debt in full. No, we don’t have to suffer any more, but if we are honorable, if we seek to honor Jesus, if we would be honored by His Father, we will desire to share in his sufferings, as we have just sought to do in the Stations of the Cross. We can honor God by voluntary suffering to expiate our own sins – and the sins of others, living and dead.

In his 1984 encyclical “Salvifici Doloris” (Of Salvific Suffering), which deals with human suffering and redemption, Pope John Paul II noted that: “The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished.”

In doing so, we share in Jesus’ expiation of sins: our sins, and the sins of the world. We can do penance for sinners, for our enemies, for the enemies of God, for those who hate Him and commit unspeakable acts. In the Middle Ages priests were encouraged to do penance for the sins of the penitents who confessed to them. The Curé of Ars gave light penances to serious sinners, and did the rest of the penance himself.

The saints have done severe penances, including flagellation. The Penitentes in the Southwest of the United States have continued the Franciscan tradition of severe penance. It was sensationalized by Protestants who encountered them, but the impulse is deeply Christian. To understand the Penitentes and to understand penance I recommend the novel Dayspring by Harry Sylvester.

The premise is that an Anglo anthropologist Bain is trying to study the Penitentes. He pretends to convert to Catholicism and he joins the Penitentes and shares in their penances, including flagellation.  The Anglo Bain is married, but his wife is in California, so whenever he feels the urge he gets a local girl for his bed, and thinks nothing of it. At one ceremony at the morada, the chapel of the Penitentes, the Penitents are carrying large crosses in the deep snow around the morada. One falls, and Bain tries to get him to get up, warning him that he may die. The Penitente replies, I deserve to die, I committed adultery.

In their Holy Week procession, the penitents wear robes and hoods in humility to conceal their identities. The Anglo anthropologist Bain is pulling the death cart by a harness around his chest. It contains a skeleton figure with an arrow pointed at him. As he drags it, and its wheels are fixed, the harness digs into his flesh and he bleeds. He looks at the corrupt Anglos who have come to sneer at this procession and the superstitions Hispanics.

Because of the heat or fasting or whatever, Bain sees the faces of the Anglos distorted into almost diabolical evil, showing the vices that had twisted them. He thought:

“For all of them, for himself, it was suddenly possible for Bain to believe that he was doing penance… As in a haze…he saw the procession come to its little Calvary. The blank cross stood above them…the morada was having no crucifixion this year, with a live Hermano bound by ropes to the cross…Standing there, for one brief instant Bain thought of offering himself for a crucifixion. In terror he rejected the idea; thought, later, that he had never had it. Immolation, he knew, in anything, save possibly his work, was not common to him.”

Such severe penances should be undertaken only with the permission of a wise and experienced spiritual director, and never on one’s own. They can sometimes contain, as has long been recognized, elements of pride, of male competition, and even of sexual masochism, and are generally regarded by the clergy with suspicion.

But there are many small penances we can do in our ordinary life. The Little Way of Therese of Lisieux and Opus Dei both suggest many ways of cultivating the spirit of penance in ordinary lay life. Don’t take an aspirin the second you feel a headache coming on. Kneel up straight in church when you can. Take over unpleasant tasks from other people, for example, cleaning out a noisome trash can.  I have to do physical therapy at the gym, and sometimes it hurts. Whenever I feel like skipping it, I offer the pain I will feel for my sins and for those for whom I am praying. In general, for the laity, the best penances are those that help other people directly or that make us able to help other people, physically or spiritually.


A pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place. It is an act of natural religion, found in most religions. It is an enacted parable. We all sense that our life is a journey from the mysterious darkness from which we have all come into the mysterious darkness into which we are all going. The Son of God himself made a pilgrimage, coming forth from God and returning to God. We also sense that, in some places, the veil between this visible world and the invisible world is thinner than it is elsewhere.

The ancestor of Christian pilgrimages is the Jewish journey up to Jerusalem, to the temple, the dwelling place of God on earth. The great Christian pilgrimages were to the Holy Land, to Rome, and to Santiago de Compostela, to which I will return.

A pilgrimage is not necessarily penitential, although travel is often uncomfortable and inconvenient and sometimes dangerous. But most pilgrimages include a more or less strong penitential emphasis. We have our own penitential pilgrimage in the United States. The poor Hispanics of New Mexico in the 1930s joined the National Guard to escape starvation during the Depression. They were stationed in the Philippines and therefore were on the Bataan Death March. After the war the survivors began to walk from Santa Fe to the shrine at Chimayó. Now tens of thousands of pilgrims walk from Santa Fe through the desert to that shrine every Holy Week.

Their penitential pilgrimage involves taking on some hardship, some deliberate suffering. As the priest at Chimayó put it, “In coming to Chimayó, people participate in Christ’s journey to Calvary.” Some penitents do this quite literally, carrying homemade crosses along the road, some of them as much as eight feet tall. One of them, a young man from Santa Fe, carried a cross to Chimayó, hoping for personal transformation on this pilgrimage. “I’m kind of the bad seed of the family,” he told a reporter from the Albuquerque Journal, “and no one could believe I was going to do this, and do it alone. But I needed some direction in life and I came to ask God to help.” For others the hardship is in the long journey, like that of the man who walked all the way from Albuquerque for the healing of his church community. Still others make the last mile of the journey on their knees, like the mother who came with prayers for her son, who has been diagnosed with HIV. An Anglo agnostic walked it; by the end he was weeping for the sins and sorrows of the world, and knelt at the foot of the cross.

The greatest pilgrimage in Christendom for over a thousand years has been the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Jesus had commanded his apostles to go to the ends of the earth, so James went to Spain and preached in Galicia, the rainy corner in the northwest, facing the Atlantic. Later, he returned to Jerusalem, became its bishop, and was killed by Herod—the first apostle to be martyred. His followers put his body in a boat, which they then put adrift on the sea. It came ashore in Galicia, and his body was taken and interred in what is now Santiago de Compostela. (There is in fact a first-century Roman cemetery there). The memory of his tomb was lost.

But then, in the ninth century, a Galician shepherd looked up and saw, above a certain field, stars dancing in the sky (a meteor shower?). He told his bishop, who investigated the site and found the tomb of St. James, Santiago, where he built a church. Pilgrims started coming, and churches and refuges were built all along the route to accommodate those who were coming to the campus stellae, the field of stars. During the Middles Ages a half million people a year walked to and from Santiago. Today hundreds of thousands of people each year still walk that path.

In 2010 I walked from St. Jean Pied-de-Port on the French border across northern Spain to Compostela, 500 miles in 40 days. People often asked me, How did I find the Camino? It would be more accurate to say the Camino found me. Churches have their angels; so perhaps pilgrimages also have them. Many pilgrims sense that the Camino has a personality that has called them and guided them. The angel of the Camino reaches out to those whom God wants to walk the Camino, and sometimes they are the most unlikely people.

A gay German comedian, couch potato, and Christian Buddhist, Hans Peter (Hape) Kerkeling was lounging on his bed when day when he suddenly got the idea I am going to walk the Camino de Santiago. So he began. About halfway through he was sitting exhausted in a café thinking Why am I doing this? I don’t even believe in all this stuff. A stranger sat down at his table. He glanced up, and saw the message on the stranger’s t-shirt: KEEP ON GOING! So Hape did, to the end. He wrote a book about it, which became a best seller in Germany, and I came across a graffito, Sankt Hape, Bitt’ für uns.

So the angel of the Camino also reached out to me, although at least I am a hiker and a Christian. I began preparation by hiking in the Rocky Mountains, making my will, and making a general confession. Walking 500 miles at age 63 presents hazards.

In 2010 my friend, Father Al Rose, said mass for me in the Lady Chapel of the Cathedral  on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. He said this blessing over me, which uses the themes of journeying that are so deeply embedded in the history of salvation:

Handing me my backpack, my mochila, he said:

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, shoulder this backpack, which will help you during your pilgrimage. May the fatigue of carrying it be expiation for your sins, so that when you have been forgiven you may reach the shrine of St. James full of courage, and when your pilgrimage is over, return home full of joy.

As he handed me my walking stick, my baston, he said:

Receive this staff as support for the journey, so that you are able to arrive safely at Saint James’s feet.

Receive this shell as a sign of your pilgrimage. With God’s grace, may you behave as a true pilgrim throughout your entire journey.

As he handed me the scallop shell, the symbol of St, James, he said:

O God, you who took up your servant Abraham from the city of Ur of the Chaldeans, watching over him in all his wanderings, you who were the guide of the Hebrew people in the desert, we ask that you deign to take care of this your servant, who, for love of your name, makes a pilgrimage to Compostela.

Holding his hands over me, in blessing he said:

Be a companion for him along the path,
a guide at crossroads,
strength in his weariness,
defence before dangers,
shelter on the way,
shade against the heat,
light in the darkness,
a comforter in his discouragement,
and firmness in his intention,
in order that, through your guidance, he might arrive unscathed at the end of his journey and, enriched with graces and virtues, he might return safely to his home, filled with salutary and lasting joy.

May the Lord always guide your steps and be your inseparable companion throughout your journey.

May the Virgin Mary grant you her maternal protection, defend you in all dangers of soul and body, and may you arrive safely at the end of your pilgrimage under her mantle.

May St. Raphael the Archangel accompany you throughout your journey as he accompanied Tobias, and ward off every contrary or troublesome incident.

Go in the peace of Christ.

And do I went. The next day I left my home, quoting the title of Kerkeling’s book: Well, I’m off then – Ich bin mal weg. I walked from the French border to Compostela, 500 miles, 1,000,000 steps, in forty days.

For hours I would hear nothing but my own footsteps. I was mostly alone with my thoughts, like most pilgrims, even those who travel in groups. I examined my conscience and my life, and faced some truths about myself, acknowledging things in me I did not like, and turned them over to God. I was a hermit on the road.

But I was not alone. I was in a file of pilgrims five hundred miles long. People were always offering to help, were always wishing me a Buon Camino. My ancestors in Germany lived on a branch of the Camino, the Jacobsweg. They had almost certainly walked the Camino, on the very stones of the Roman road I was walking on. Perhaps they were praying for their descendants, for me. I was praying for them. I heard some young Dutchmen offer to help an older woman find her hotel. She told them she didn’t want to delay them. They replied, the important thing is not to arrive first in Santiago, but to arrive together. We would all arrive at our final goal together – that is what I hoped for. I felt solidarity with them, with everyone who is making the mysterious journey through life.

I decided to devote every morning to thinking about everyone I had known in my life, trying to remember all the good things about them. I prayed for my family, my friends, my playmates, my teachers, my coworkers, my neighbors. I prayed for my enemies and those who had injured me. The hardest day was when I prayed for the sexual abusers in the Church that they would repent and turn to God for healing that they might be saved.

For hours and days and weeks I said Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner, thousands of times, tens of thousands of times, hundreds of thousands of times. It is engraved on my mind. Once I woke from general anesthesia repeating that prayer; another doctor told me I was saying that prayer under anesthesia.

The Camino was full of prayer of every type. People walked along praying. Their walking itself was a prayer. The Camino itself was a prayer. There were formal monuments with prayers along the path, but I liked the informal ones best.

For a mile or so, the Camino runs along the expressway, and a chain-link fence separates the path and the roadway. On this fence pilgrims have woven tens of thousands of crosses of sticks and twigs and bark. I added mine. In forest roads pilgrims had gathered and arranged stones in the shape of a heart, crowned by a cross enclosing the words Paz and Amor, peace and love. People had written in yellow paint on their houses: Yo soy el Camino I AM the Way.

The Camino is a parable of the Christian life, which is a life in Him who is the Way. I frequently felt I was living in a parable or an Ingmar Bergman film. I would look ahead of me to see a red clay road with a line of pilgrims walking up to a tall cross silhouetted against the sky. I would kneel at the foot of the Cruz de Hierro, the cross of iron, and leave the stone I had brought from my home, as millions of pilgrims had done for over a millennium, casting my burdens at the foot of the cross. I would sit on plazas in front of Romanesque churches, watching the grapes and wheat being harvested, and then go in to receive the Bread and Wine of life eternal. Pilgrims would say to me, You look very tired, can I help you carry your pack? And so fulfilling the law of the Lord.

On October 31, 2010 I arrived in Santiago. I looked up to the baroque façade of the cathedral at Santiago Peregrino, St. James the Pilgrim, who was welcoming us, but he had been with us all along, even if we did not know it. Groups of young people would come into the plaza and burst into song. Pilgrims would spot fellow pilgrims they had met somewhere along the Camino and embrace them: “Amigo, Peregrino! You made it—how wonderful.” That was the most important thing, not just that I had made it, but that we all had made it. I felt as many pilgrims feel: just one more step and I would be through the veil, into heaven, which was drawing close around me, especially in and through my fellow pilgrims

I met my wife, who had flown to Santiago ahead of me. As we embraced, I quoted the Bard: Journeys end in lovers’ meeting. We stayed in the building which had been built for pilgrims by Ferdinand and Isabella.

The next day I presented my passport, which had been stamped all along the way, and received my certificate, my Compostela, testifying that I had completed the Camino to honor St. James. I then entered the cathedral. Above the main altar is a life-size statue of Santiago, and behind the altar are stairs to climb to give Santiago an abrazo and to tell him one’s dearest prayer. I hugged him and asked him: “Santiago, please welcome me and my family into Paradise.” I then went to the chamber under the main altar that houses the reliquary that contains his bones. I knelt on the stone floor with other pilgrims, and we prayed, close to one who had walked with Jesus on earth, who had gone to the ends of the earth to tell people that Jesus was Lord and had risen from the dead. We were all pilgrims, still together on the way to Him.

I have spoken about the Camino. If you want to see it, watch Martin Sheen’s The Way. The premise is that a father, played by Martin Sheen, is alienated from his adult son who is bumming around the world. The son, portrayed by Martin’s own son Emilio, is killed at the start of the Camino, and Martin goes to retrieve the ashes. He decides to carry the ashes of his son on the Camino all the way Santiago, and meets others who are also on difficult journeys. The movie gives an accurate picture of the physical and emotional experience of the Camino – except the actors are much too clean at the end!

I have talked about major pilgrimages — but we all can do some sort of pilgrimage. It’s like fasting: do what you can. America being what it is, most pilgrimages will involve driving at least part of the way. Visit a church. Go to the Cathedral, walk around the outside one or twice or thrice saying the rosary.  Go to the Franciscan shrine in Washington. In the runup to the first Iraqi war, my family made a pilgrimage to the shrine in Emmitsburg to pray that war be averted. Our prayers were in part answered: deaths among the American soldiers in Iraq were fewer than they would have been in peacetime. If you can, do the last yard or five yards or ten yards of your journey on your knees.

The journey to God begins with one step. If we learn to detach ourselves from earthly things and undergo small inconveniences and hardships on the journey, we prepare ourselves for the last stage of our earthly pilgrimage.

Albert-Marie Besnard said of the pilgrim:

The day when the Lord calls him, he will be neither disturbed nor surprised. He will have known this departure, he will have loved it—this manner of going and leaving all things, ready to take them up again or never again to find them, as God wills. Renunciation will be familiar to him, he has rehearsed it and drilled it, he is ready. For one day, having taken the pilgrimage seriously, he finds death sweet and promising, and this fatherland which he has searched for on earth in parable, he is ready at last to find in eternity.

Leave a Comment