Ascension of the Lord A
My parents still live
in the very same house as the day I was born nearly 40 years ago.
Much of my family still attends Mass
in the very same church where I was baptized.
And yet despite such stability—increasingly rare, these days—
from an early age I got a clear sense
that the Catholic faith, while essentially unchanging,
is something intended to constantly be on the move.
I learned that lesson by going on pilgrimage.
I have fond memories from childhood summers
of crossing Lake Champlain and going to Mass with my family
at St. Anne’s Shrine in Isle LaMotte, Vermont.
I remember looking intently
through photos, postcards, and souvenir books
which my grandparents would bring back from their visits
to religious sites in what seemed to me then
the far-off and exotic lands of Canada.
with Br. Roland Gaudette, my beloved French teacher
and great encourager of my priestly vocation,
on many a class trip from Catholic school.
I know that, for some of you, this is your first visit
to Br. André’s rather “modest” monument to good St. Joseph.
But I also know that many of you
have your own stories quite similar to mine
and have made the journey up Mount Royal a few times before.
We Catholics are a people with deep and sturdy roots.
But we’re also a people who, by our very nature,
are meant to stay on the move.
We’re here in Montréal this afternoon on a parish pilgrimage—
and one of a most particular sort
as, just one month from today, in place of its four predecessors,
a new parish is established in Malone
and named for St. André Bessette.
As we come to pray at the tomb of our new patron,
it’s worth reflecting on what it means to be on pilgrimage.
A “pilgrimage” is “a journey to a holy place,”
and the word comes from Latin,
literally meaning “to go through the field”—
in other words, to wander over some distance.
Pilgrimage differs from other sorts of travel
not only in the sanctity of its destination,
but in the change that’s meant to take place along the way:
tourists go out to see something;
pilgrims head out to become somebody.
It’s also worth taking a moment to reflect
on what it means to be a parish.
In the Catholic tradition,
a “parish” is a sub-division within a diocese,
under the care of a pastor and maybe some other priests,
encompassing all the Catholics who live within its territory.
I was surprised a few months back
to discover just where this word comes from.
The word “parish” comes from Greek words meaning,
literally, “beside the house”—
in other words, to be away from home.
Thus, our English word “parish” comes from the very same word
that the New Testament uses to mean “pilgrimage.”
While we generally think of a parish
as a fixed and well-defined group of people,
attached to a fixed and well-defined location—
usually, a single parish church building—
by definition a parish is actually a community
that’s absent from its homeland,
that’s sojourning in a strange land:
a parish is collection of pilgrims;
a parish is the Church on the move.
As this Sunday we celebrate the Lord’s Ascension
(for us New Yorkers in exile today, for the second time in a week),
we hear two angels addressing the Apostles
left on the mountain top, staring up at the clouds:
“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?”
I can almost hear the eleven answering those angels back,
“Where else should we be looking?
We’ve followed Jesus down the dusty roads
and across the rough waters of Galilee.
We’re not about to change course now.
We have every intention of following him to heaven, too.
But before we head out, before we begin to move,
we must make sure our hearts are firmly fixed
on their ultimate destination.”
Pilgrims, like parishes, are by definition
those who are away from home—
making the true goal of them both to get back there,
transformed for having taken the journey.
The Only Begotten Son of God
came to earth in human flesh on a pilgrimage of love;
his purpose all along
was that we might make the return trip with him.
Why else would he promise to be with us always,
if not to be our constant companion on the way home?
Baptized into Christ Jesus,
who has taken his place in glory at the Father’s right hand,
our true citizenship is in heaven.
We haven’t arrived yet:
we’re still across the field, still outside the house…
…but we are on our way.
“You know,” he once said,
“it is alright to wish for death
as long as what you really want is to go to God….
When I die, I’ll live in heaven,
so I’ll be much closer to God than now,
and I’ll be able to help you even more.”
St. André, your life’s pilgrimage complete,
from your place in heaven
pray for us pilgrims still on the way,
pray for our new parish just now coming to be,
pray for a Church that is ever on the move.