ROME – “Going on pilgrimage to the shrines is one of the People of God’s most eloquent expressions of faith,” Pope Francis told two priests from the Archdiocese of Hartford as well as 2,000 other guests who were invited to a conference in Rome Jan. 19-21 for those engaged in pilgrimage work.
“Pilgrims bring with them their own history, own faith, light and dark features of their own life. Everyone bears in his or her heart a special hope and a particular prayer. Those who enter a shrine immediately feel at home, welcomed, understood, and supported,” Pope Francis said of pilgrims who journey to a sacred place.
In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Father James A. Shanley, in his role as rector of the Cathedral of St. Joseph, and Father Michael A. Ruminski, archdiocesan coordinator of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, were invited by Pope Francis, along with rectors of shrines, to meditate on pilgrimages and how to encourage people to attend a place of pilgrimage.
“Pilgrimages are close to his heart,” Father Ruminski said of the Holy Father.
“Going to a holy place changes you,” Father Ruminski explained, reflecting on the pilgrimage he made in 2012 when he walked The Way of St. James in Spain. “It’s an extraordinary action to take. It removes you from your everyday life. It prepares you to receive something different. It makes you stronger, fitter, and builds relationships by the end. In the process, you’ve been changed.
“You’re open in a new way to the moments of conversion,” he said. “I’m being taught again how important those things are. As a director of pilgrimages, I’m here to direct people to something extraordinary – to see the mercy of God.”
To that end, the Archdiocese of Hartford has planned an opportunity for a pilgrimage for all parishioners – a jubilee procession and devotion to Divine Mercy – that will begin at Bushnell Park and lead to the Holy Door of Mercy at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford on April 3.
As part of the conference, Father Ruminski and Father Shanley made a pilgrimage of their own, visiting the Holy Doors of Mercy at all four basilicas: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls.
“They’re all beautiful and unique doors,” Father Ruminski said, “but walking through the door at St. Peter’s that was the first of the doors, the one that has been around for 600 years, that brought my work back to its home – its origin.”
During their audience with Pope Francis, the two priests from the archdiocese sat in the second row of Paul VI Hall, close enough to meet the pope and shake his hand.
“It’s very exciting to be in the same room with the pope,” Father Ruminski said. “You see the Swiss Guard, and the people stand up and start applauding. It’s one of those occasions where it’s such a tangible experience, you just enjoy the moment. It’s such a human experience to be standing in the same room and experience the energy and excitement of it all.
“It was thrilling to meet him, but just being united with an international group that is part of the Catholic Church united us in our identity,” Father Ruminski said. “It’s the pope that unites us and gives us that identity.
“As our mission would point out, it’s not just being united by the church but also being united in our experience of the mercy of God,” he added.
Father Shanley had a similar reaction to the conference.
“It was a great experience to be in Rome with people from all over the world who journeyed there to walk through the Holy Door of St. Peter’s and the other major basilicas,” Father Shanley said. “It really portrays the catholic, that is, universal, desire for mercy.
“In addition to the great honor of shaking the Pope’s hand, it was great to meet the rector of Our Lady of Knock in Ireland and those entrusted with ministry at other shrines and cathedrals around the world,” he said.
The trip offered other highlights.
Father Ruminski, who was ordained in 2014, celebrated Mass at Clementine Chapel in the basement of St. Peter’s. “Clementine Chapel, the Chapel of St. Peter, is closest to the bones of St. Peter. I was assigned to say Mass in one of the holiest chapels in the building,” Father Ruminski said. “That sticks with me in a very deep way.”
Father Shanley recalled meeting a noted author and advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.
“On our last full day, I spent some time talking to Sister Helen Prejean, who was also present, and she congratulated the people of Connecticut on their efforts to successfully abolish the death penalty,” Father Shanley said. Sister Helen is the author of Dead Man Walking.