Making Pilgrimages to Holy Places-In Reality or in the Heart

By Graceffo, Mark | Momentum, November/December 2006 | Go to article overview

Making Pilgrimages to Holy Places-In Reality or in the Heart


Graceffo, Mark, Momentum


A tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While our individual pilgrimages to nonviolence are essential, it is also important that we find ways to pilgrimage in community

As our nation and its schools and universities prepare to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in January, his witness to the power of nonviolence has never been more prophetic. With our country at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and antiAmerican sentiment rising throughout the world, we would do well to reacquaint ourselves with Dr. King's global vision for a just and peaceful world.

While perhaps known primarily as a civil rights leader, Dr. King had much to say about war and peace as well. As Catholic educators, let us commemorate King's birthday by exploring his spirituality of nonviolence, and consider with our students how our daily lives might better reflect a commitment to this path. I offer the following illustration from St. Peter's College, the Jesuit College of New Jersey, as one way to begin a shared exploration of Dr. King's life and work.

On September 21, 1965, St. Peter's College awarded Dr. King an honorary degree of doctor of laws and letters. In 2005, the 40th anniversary of Dr. King's visit to the college was cause for many organized activities on campus, one of which was a reading circle, where we gathered monthly to discuss his writings on social justice. Our first essay was titled Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, in which Dr. King explains how he came to embrace nonviolence as a way of life.

A pilgrimage, of course, is a journey to a place we believe is sacred, a place we believe is so infused with the holy that just being on the same hallowed ground has the power to change us. A pilgrimage to nonviolence, therefore, is an inner journey to a sacred place for the purpose of transformation. We know living nonviolently is holy because it is the way Jesus lived. Thus, to be on a pilgrimage to nonviolence is to be seeking to know Jesus' peace so that our lives can give this peace creative expression.

Dr. King's embrace of nonviolence began at an intellectual level during his graduate studies. But soon after becoming minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. King became involved in the famous Montgomery bus boycott, organized after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. The events in Montgomery were of great significance to his personal pilgrimage. The peaceful protest, sustained for more than a year, gave King a new understanding of creative nonviolence and the power it holds for both social and personal transformation.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has a long history of sacred pilgrimage. In Hebrew Scripture, the Book of Exodus tells of legislation concerning the three agricultural festivals requiring Israelites to present themselves to the Lord-the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks (Shavu'ot) and the Festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot). Known as the pilgrim festivals, these celebrations required adult males to journey to Jerusalem, bringing with them an offering from the harvest with which God had blessed them.

With the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century, Christian pilgrimage became more commonplace. The number of Christian pilgrims rose sharply after Constantine's decree, with papal Rome and the Holy City of Jerusalem being popular destinations. …

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