The Holy See
back up

    Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of the Migrants and Itinerant People


Workshop for Pilgrimage Coordinators and Shrine Directors

from the Dioceses of the United States



Archbishop Agostino MARCHETTO

Secretary of the Pontifical Council

Esteemed brother priests,

dear brothers and sisters,

“Though I am shriveled like a leathern flask in the smoke, I have not forgotten your statutes” (Psalm 119,83).

These words of Psalm 119 come to my mind as befitting the situation we are going through in this moment.  Our countries, I would say all humanity, for one reason or the other, are passing through difficult times.  Terrorist violence requires a decisive response on the part of all who love peace.  However, it should not make us forget the law of God, which amounts to affirming the ability to overcome evil with good, to defeat violence with justice, respecting human rights or, in words like those of the biblical reading that we heard, not abandoning the path of wisdom.

“All wisdom comes from the Lord” (Si 1,1).  Thus the Book of Sirach begins with a profession of faith that sums up the whole reflection developed throughout the book.  It is also like a proclamation and an admonition for all who are making their pilgrimage through the path of life and history.  It is important, necessary, for all who go forward.  Let us go forward, step by step, in a life so often rushed and so much in need of raising our eyes a bit higher,  beyond what is immediate.  And that is what the sacred author does:  He lifts us out of our little world of every day to make us contemplate the ages, the depths, the heavens, the uncountable grains of sand on the coast, and the drops of rain.  He makes us turn time back, he frees us of our confined, measured, and finite time (which we do not know how to define, as St. Augustine said), so that our meditation goes back before the ages, before the works of our hands, before the personalities of our histories, before all those fleeting things in which we ourselves or others glory.  It’s scary to take that step back; it strips us of our securities, certainties, and calculations.  It gives us, as our viaticum and our walking stick, the fear of God.  Let us courageously make this pilgrimage to the very end.

“Before all things else wisdom was created” (Si 1,4).  Here we are at the beginning, the final point of our stepping back.  Here is the key for us to understand what path we are going down and in what history we find ourselves.  The point of departure of history is the creation of Wisdom.  In some way we already know this.  We recall the pages of Genesis, detailed and poetic, day by day, which makes us think so easily of the detailed miniature of some skilled painter or of the repeated scenes (three, with three more for decoration) of a theater piece.  However Sirach views this first unfathomable week from the inside, looking at it, we could say, through the eyes of the artist, of the Creator.  And it speaks to us of a “contemplative God,” a “reflective God.”

Here there is the first teaching:   The Creator God did not go around asking anyone for a model for his work.  This is a necessary and even novel teaching during the centuries when Genesis was being compiled; it was also so even in the times Sirach wrote, when the gaze of man had been concentrated – in a certain sense – on his own strength and autonomy.  And it is all the more necessary today, when it so often looks like our one saving strength is technology and the machine, and we imagine history as the meshing gears of blind and fatal forces that we have to surrender to with no way of escape.

God was contemplating in his wisdom.  From it he took the measures for something new, for creation.  We recall the echos of those words in the ecclesiastical tradition: pondus et mensura.  Let us think again of the teaching of St. Augustine.  Perhaps it is a bit in contradiction with our categories of today, for in it “the new” indicates “the finite,” what has started to be, creation, ourselves, history.  The measure instead is God himself and, above all, His beauty.  So then the new, the finite, ourselves, and our history have been and are formed according to the model of divine beauty.  Let us put it this way: Our finiteness and our newness arise from the gaze of God who contemplates His wisdom.

And this is only the beginning.  Let us read Genesis again: God “presented to the man” all the things that He had made “to see what name he would give them” (Gen 2,19).  And we all know what name means for Semites.  With what words shall we define this first episode in the history of humanity?  God associates with his creative work – something new – that which he had placed in the Garden of Eden.  Now God invites man to take the word, to so begin a dialogue, to take up a responsibility laden with consequences, and man answers by giving names to animals and things.  According to the biblical account we can see in this gesture of man the completion of the mission God had entrusted to him by placing him in Eden “so that he would care for it and cultivate it” (Gen 2,15).  However we can also understand that it is the fruit of the first “communion” between the man and God.  If man is associated to the creative work of God, that means he is made a participant, in a certain form, in that divine contemplation of the wisdom in which all things were made. 

What is more, this is a very nice way of teaching.  God made man participate in his own wisdom though now the same wisdom is expressed in the form of a commandment, of law:  From the tree of knowledge of good and evil “you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die” (Gen 2,17).  And Sirach reminds us of this divine pedagogy by uniting terms that for us seem opposed: fear and joy, glory and peace (see Si 1,11-12, 18).  It is the teaching that recurs through the whole Old Testament and the conviction that accompanies the Israelite even in his most desolate moments: “Your statutes are the theme of my song in the place of my exile” (Psalm 119, 54); and “I have not forgotten your statutes” (v. 83).

History, however, beginning with that of the Chosen People, the depositary of the Ancient Law, was not a history of wisdom applied and put into practice.  Idolatry was like a symbol and summary of forgetting this history, of the withdrawal of God: the prototype of all sins.  When man forgets not only the wisdom of God but also His Law, he sets as criteria of his history – the history of the Holy People – egoism, violence, injustice, and his most material instincts.  Thus man definitively forgets his origin: that dialogue in which God shares with him the contemplation of His wisdom.

And here enters the call to conversion, its hope and promise: “On that day man shall look to his maker, his eyes turned toward the Holy one of Israel” (Is 17,7).

This is also something good to keep in mind.   Because conversion, going back again to the “way” of the Lord – this biblical synonym for law and wisdom – is also a work of God if we let it work in us.  This is clearly explained to us by the episode we heard in the Gospel.  We alone “couldn’t do it.”

The disciples were in a discussion with the scribes.  We can just imagine their embarrassment.  In fact till the end of history, when all is over, they will not dare to speak about it.  And if they do, it will only be to express consternation at their ineptitude.  It is also possible that the scribes were not only mocking them for their failure but through it attacking the Master himself.

Jesus comes down from the mountain, the Wisdom and Word of God as the Scriptures and Vatican II call him (see Dei Verbum, n. 2), approaches the circle of people and joins the discussion.  The father of the possessed boy speaks and explains the situation.  Jesus forgets about the apostles and does not ask what they have done.  He is interested in the boy, lets them repeat the story twice, but basically the one who will really be questioned is the father.  And he seems to immediately grasp Jesus’s intention: “I do believe. Help my lack of faith” (Mk 9,24).  And Jesus accomplishes his work: “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you: Get out of him and never enter him again!” (Mk 9,25).  Let’s note the first words: “mute and deaf spirit”; they are the same words the Bible uses to refer to idols, to this constant temptation of the People of Israel, in that it forgot the Law and Wisdom and abandoned life.  Just like a dead person the boy remained there.  “But Jesus took him by the hand and helped him to his feet” (Mk 9,27).

On his feet: That is how man on earth should be.  There could possibly be a more anthropomorphic image, but it is a good metaphor that expresses, in the end, the disposition of man for dialogue.  It in turn manifests the dignity in which God established him, which indicates the responsible freedom he has been called to.  If we would see someone on the street walking with his head to the ground and his feet in the air . . .   If it’s a bit for play, for showing strength and balance, then fine, we understand it.  But if he would think and act that way?  No, God wanted man with his head up.  But how many walk spiritually upside down today, with their heads down?

Only afterwards and “in private” the disciples dare to speak: “Why is it that we could not expel it?” (Mk 9,28).  “He told them, ‘This kind you can drive out only by prayer’” (Mk 9,29).  He does not speak now about faith; he supposes it, at least in its initial form, in the following and the constancy with which the disciples remain joined to Him.  Then he speaks to them about prayer.  And in the context of the narrative of Mark, this can very well take us back to the episode that came just before, namely the Transfiguration.  There the three chosen disciples “saw” and “heard”; they contemplated Jesus, surrounded by Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, and proclaimed “my Son, my beloved” (Mk 9,7).

They “contemplate” as Adam did, in the primordial beginning of history, however, we could say, in a much easier form.  Now “communion” in the divine contemplation has a name and a “human” face: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Brother.  Now wisdom, in that it has to be lived and put into practice, is a very concrete “way”: the path of Jesus.  This is not about giving names but about recognizing the one name, before which we have to fall on our knees.

Can we not call all this “pilgrimage”?  I think so.  The pilgrim starts down the road with a petition, the one on the lips of the father of the boy in the Gospel: “I do believe. Help my lack of faith.”   The roads he travels, the meditation he keeps to during the journey – and we hope that he does it, – the places he visits, all this is destined to help him deepen his faith, his confidence, and his surrender to God.  The pilgrim’s path leads to the Sanctuary, the place of the Presence, to contemplate the Glory of the Lord there, the glory shared by Our Lady and the saints.  (Here St. Ambrose’s commentary on the Psalms that was in the Breviary last Thursday would be nice to cite, but I leave it to your reading.) This is the Glory, which must then shine in all his works and which is the holiness that should transform his life and action in the world, after he has knelt prostrate on the Sanctuary floor.  In this regard, I recall my impression in Byelorussia upon seeing young people prostrating themselves on the ground as we priests did for the sacrament of Orders, but with the arms open.  Pilgrimage in our days fortunately can and must be lived with all the possibilities it offers: penitential walk, moment of catechesis and of formation, the chance to meet with the others and with their needs, memory of the history of Salvation and of the Church.  On return, when the pilgrim goes back to his home and takes up his every day history again, he should be more “wise,” more filled with the “fear of God,” in the biblical and Christian sense, and, for that matter, more joyful and peaceful.

For ourselves gathered here today in Rome, we are called to work so that this may really be so.  We ourselves are pilgrims but also pastors, servants of our brothers and sisters on pilgrimage.  And it will have happened sometimes that at the end of a pilgrimage, in the silence of our church, we will also have to say to the Lord: “Why couldn’t we do it?”  “Why couldn’t we manage to get all the participants in this pilgrimage to return home ‘wiser,’ holier, and more committed?”  And for myself, “Why am I not wiser, holier and more committed?”  Jesus has already given us an answer and showed us the way: prayer.  Prayer, contemplation, has to impregnate our whole apostolate so that it is not our advice that reaches the pilgrim but the voice of Jesus himself, the hand of Jesus who lifts him up and gets him on his feet.  In the next number of People on the Move, there will be an article of Fr. Giuseppe De Luca, which might be of interest to you precisely so it may be “the voice of Jesus, the hand of Jesus,” which lifts up the pilgrim and lifts us up too.  The article will be entitled:  “Sermons to myself” and that is significant.

May the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, “show us” her Son and help us to contemplate his face so that our mission may be truly beneficial for the Church and for us, her sons.


* February 24, 2003