Pilgrimages and teenagers are two things that don’t usually mix. But for my brother and me, it was an enlightening experience.
Following the footsteps of St. Teresa of Avila, we were in a group with our parents, a university administrator, a Carmelite priest, and five women who were senior citizens. My brother, Nacho, and I were the only kids. While he and I were excited for this trip out of the country, we were reminded gently by a good friend, our tita, that, “You are pilgrims. Not tourists.” We began the day reading about St. Teresa’s life and her words of wisdom. We prayed the rosary every day on the bus. We had Mass every day. We visited the place where St. Teresa was born and the first monastery she founded. We met lovely nuns and kind priests who were trying to live life as she had. We prayed in the churches, monasteries, and cathedrals she prayed in. We talked where she talked and walked where she walked and walked some more. At the end of the day, while we were physically exhausted, we had a lot to think about.
Early one morning, Nacho and I walked a short distance from our hotel on the outskirts of Avila to a hill where four Roman pillars stood. Standing there, we were in the place where St. Teresa and her little brother were caught running away as kids. They wanted to go to the Moorish lands to be martyred, like the saints of the church and their own personal heroes. Their uncle caught them just in time and ordered them back home. It was nice being there with my own brother. We took a few pictures and watched the sunrise side by side, like what St. Teresa and her brother would’ve done, though they probably wouldn’t have taken selfies. In the quiet, we watched rabbits run in the shrubbery in front of us and birds pecking the ground for their breakfast. The ancient walls of Avila stood proudly at a distance. We were in the hometown of a saint; a saint we were getting to know better every day.
“Grabe, noh?” we said. And that’s all we could say.
Sometimes, Nacho and I would talk on our downtime about or trip. We had many observations and questions. “Why is the Crucifix a symbol of the Church?” he asked. “It’s so sad.”
“Maybe because,” I said, trying to remember what I learned, “in some ways it’s beautiful? That someone loved so much that He died for love? That even if it hurt, He still chose us over Himself? That it’s a reminder that we are loved and our lives have value and importance because it was died for?”
“You know, it’s sad that a lot of churches are empty,” I said to Nacho, sitting in a beautiful cathedral. “There are mostly tourists here, not anyone really praying.” Even our tour guide, who knew so much about the art, history, and craftsmanship of the cathedral, was no longer a practicing Catholic. “People are looking for meaning in their faith, and sometimes, all these churches can feel empty. Sure, they’re filled with masterpieces and incredible feats of craftsmanship, but sometimes it can all seem like human beings showing off.” We looked around us. The cathedrals were beautiful celebrations of God, Jesus, Mary, and the Church but for some reason, there were times when it felt like God wasn’t there. Maybe it was because rich people paid to be buried there as a status symbol.
“It’s a good thing you helped serve in the Mass,” I told him. “Actually personally serving God could be what’s missing in some people’s lives.” He smiled proudly.
In a small convent in a small town far away from the city, we visited five Filipino Carmelite nuns. They were assigned there to help save the convent from being demolished, due to too few nuns living in that small and very simple space. When we met them, they were so excited to see us. They thanked us for coming, asked us about our journey, and laughed and smiled, touched by being visited by their kababayan.
“Kamusta po ang buhay dito?” our companions asked through the grills that separated us. They smiled softly. “Ayon, mabuti naman. Mahirap, but we are very happy.” They offered to sing Salve Regina for us before we left for our journey. Their voices were melodious and their faces were glowing. They were holy and at peace, and we thanked them for praying for us. They pray for us and so many others every single day. That is their pure and very noble vocation. We were sad to leave them.
We were able to participate in a late-night procession in Fatima with hundreds of other pilgrims venerating the image of Our Lady of Fatima. People were walking on their knees fervently praying for their intentions and offering up the discomfort and pain. People were praying the same rosary in different languages, all united. It was like all these people were visiting their mother, Mary, and asking her for favors, like, “Please tell Jesus to help my mom, she’s very sick,” or to thank her for her help, like, “Thank you for helping my prayers reach God.” Hundreds of candles lit up the serene face of the image of Our Lady while the pilgrims’ singing Ave Maria was the most beautiful thing I have ever heard.
“I feel like this is holier than the cathedrals we visited,” I whispered to Nacho, illuminated by candlelight. St. John Paul II himself once came here before and offered the bullet that shot him to Our Lady. He, too, was once a singing pilgrim illuminated by candlelight. “I think I’m going to cry.”
“It’s like,” Nacho said, “every single candle is a person praying for someone and for something, and we’re all praying together to God with Mama Mary’s help.” Flags from different countries waved in the air, women in hijabs were clutching rosaries, grown men were tearing up, and little children stared and listened wide-eyed at their surroundings, participating and singing along. It really felt like God was there.
Coming home to the Philippines, I felt differently about my religion and our relationship with God. Our faith can be private and intimate, like St. Teresa’s intense personal relationship with God inside a cloistered convent. It can also be unifying and uplifting, like the hundreds and thousands of pilgrims who visit Fatima every year. As a young person, I feel like we, the youth, long for both.
Young people want to feel united and a part of something bigger than themselves, but also familiar and aware of who they are and of their individual identities. I have friends who are active in their churches, singing in the choir, playing in the band, organizing activities, and offering it all up in service. I have friends who make it a point to go to Confession and Communion regularly, who pray novenas before an important exam, who hear Mass on their birthdays, and discover who they are with God’s guidance.
Pilgrimages aren’t usually for teenagers, but I think they can be. You can be inspired by the saints that have done so much good in the world, learn more about the origins of your beliefs, and strengthen your own faith. And the best thing is: you’re a child of God. You will always be guided and loved.