One of William Verbryke, S.J.’s, favorite stories of pilgrimage when he was in charge of novices in the Detroit Province involved two young Jesuits who decided to hitchhike together from San Antonio, Texas. Westward ho!
They began at a truck stop, sticking out their thumbs, thinking truckers would be more willing to pick up hitchhikers. No luck.
After awhile, a disheveled-looking man walked toward them. They worried that he would ask for money, and they had only $35 each to last the whole month. But the homeless man surprised them.
“If you’re looking for a ride,” he said, “you should go stand over there.” He pointed to a different part of the road.
Turns out, he knew what he was talking about.
“They were worried about having to give their money away to the old man,” says Verbryke, director of the Jesuit community at Xavier, “but instead they were learning to trust in God, because someone they thought they would have to help ended up helping them.”
The tradition of the Jesuit pilgrimage has had a long history since Ignatius Loyola experienced his own pilgrimage that led to the creation of the Jesuit order in 1540. The experience was so profound that he penned it as a requirement for men who wanted to join the Society of Jesus.
In the U.S., the pilgrimage has not always been a month-long trek on one’s own to learn how to trust in God. It has taken on various forms depending on the province, the decade and the politics of the times. Prior to Vatican II in the mid-1960s, for instance, life at the novitiates where novices first enter the Jesuit order was more insulated and monastic.
Novices were introduced to the idea of pilgrimage and might be asked to go through the motions, such as walking as a group one day from one parish to another and back, or counting volunteer work in a hospital as a pilgrimage experience. Doing an actual pilgrimage was considered not practicable—especially when the political atmosphere at the time made it dangerous.
John Heim, S.J., director of the Music Series at Xavier, recalls the anti-Catholic attitudes—directed at men who, by joining the clergy, avoided the draft—in the 1950s.
That all changed after Vatican II instructed the orders to revisit their foundations, Verbryke says.
When the Detroit province added a pilgrimage experience, it was a modified two-week trip. It has since become a month-long experience with the merger of the Detroit and Chicago provinces with the Wisconsin province, which has always practiced the monthly pilgrimage.
When Verbryke returned as a novice director in Detroit from 2002-2010, he found sending his young charges out into the world for 30 days with nothing but a little cash and a bus ticket quite nerve-wracking—for him. He required them to check in weekly to let him know they were okay. Usually the calls fall off toward the second half of the month as the novices become more accustomed to being on their own.
Novices spend time before their trip in discussion with their spiritual directors about what they want to accomplish on the pilgrimage and where they should go. Their trips vary—one novice went to Mexico City to tour the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and related sites, another spent the month reuniting with his sister. One decided he would spend the month walking, so he took the bus from St. Paul, Minn., to Milwaukee and started walking back, averaging 15 miles a day. He stayed at Catholic rectories, convents and monasteries at night and grew so scruffy looking that the novitiate received nine calls to confirm his identity.
Novices are supposed to encounter poverty and doing without typical comforts, but they are allowed to accept donations as long as it’s within reason. They carry a letter of introduction from the novice director explaining the purpose of the pilgrimage. Verbryke said he once got multiple calls from one parish that didn’t trust the novice’s story and wanted to make sure he was legit before offering him a place to stay.
“Most of our novices are willing to do it, but some are so fearful of the unknown and of being without the comforts they’re used to,” he says. “We tell them to be prudent and don’t take any risks.”
Matt Dunch, S.J., now teaching philosophy at Xavier, was one of the fearful ones. His pilgrimage was only for a week, but it nearly scared the pants off him. He took a night bus from Detroit to Washington, D.C., with plans of staying at a Benedictine monastery for the week.
“It was my first bus trip,” he says. “It was so foreign to my experience of flying with no connections. The bus was stopping in these God-awful places. I was just puzzled. It was not a negative experience, and I know that’s how most of the world works.”
When he got off the bus in the morning and made his way to the monastery by the early afternoon, he was greeted with a resounding “no” by the monk who answered the door in jeans and a sweatshirt. Dunch was stunned. This was not what he expected, but as he walked away he had an odd feeling of lightness and relief that his plan to hunker down at the monastery failed. Being rejected wasn’t so bad after all.
He got a warmer reception at a Jesuit community house, which let him stay for two nights. Then he stayed with a priest friend in Arlington who invited him to a dinner event for youth with the Archbishop of Baltimore. Dunch, who has a slim build, to borrow black clerical clothing that hung on him like a gunnysack. But he was happy to be in a place where he felt welcomed and to meet such an important member of the Church.
The next day, sitting near Capitol Hill, he was swarmed by an entourage of 200 members of Congress, led by senators Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, who had just passed legislation raising the minimum wage. It was a heady moment for Dunch. He ended the week touring historic Jesuit sites and attending a friend’s wedding, happy to have survived his week of pilgrimage having learned something about himself in the process.
“My overall experience was that it loosened my grip on having to plan everything in advance,” Dunch says. “I was petrified of the idea of the pilgrimage, but I’m more trusting now.”
Stories like Dunch’s prove to Verbryke the value of the pilgrimage experience.
“They realize they do have a safety net, but so many of the people they meet on the road do not. They learn about a whole slice of humanity,” he says. “The only failed pilgrimage experiment is the one they don’t process. We always ask them later, where did you meet God in this?”