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A pilgrimage of discovery in Spain

Sr Mary Kenefick SMG led a group Catholic students on on a four-day pilgrimage to Spain in June. Antonia Chow describes the experience. 

 An early start on 11th June saw us arrive at Barcelona shortly after noon, and we travelled to Montserrat after a brief stop for lunch. The prospect of the mountains struck us with such force as to move one of the students to say that this was surely evidence of God’s creation. We walked up the slope leading to the Basilica around which the Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat was built, and a sense of tranquillity descended as we passed the courtyard and walked inside. The interior is magnificently decorated with frescos and statues, and the statue of the Virgin of Montserrat is situated above the main altar. Our Lady holds the infant Christ in her left hand and a globe, symbolising her Queenship, in her right hand. Among the side chapels is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament which has an altarpiece of Christ’s Body, depicting the Holy Wounds and the Resurrection. After a period of silent prayer, we joined in the daily Rosary and Vespers and were especially moved by the music sung by the Escolania de Montserrat, one of the oldest boys’ choirs in Europe. 

The following morning the monastic bells roused us from our sleep and we participated in Lauds with the monks. The mist rising from the mountains offered a majestic sight as we spent the morning exploring the surrounding area and interactive exhibition. After lunch, we were treated to a spectacular performance of Salve Regina by the Escolania before embarking on the Via Crucis, which was the traditional path pilgrims travelled to reach Montserrat. Unfortunately, the Santa Cova Funicular leading to the Chapel of the Holy Grotto, where shepherds found the image of Our Lady, was closed. However, we instead took the Sant Joan Funicular up to a higher part of the mountains, then hiked to the hermitages of saints and to the peak of Sant Jeroni, the highest summit of Montserrat from which almost all of Catalonia can be seen. After Vespers, which left no less stunning an impression than the first time, we gathered in one of the apartments to make our own dinner and share in delightful conversation and reflections of the day. 

The early risers amongst us gathered to watch the sunrise at half past five the next morning. The square felt very different in the stillness of dawn compared to the liveliness in the day. Although sad to leave Montserrat, we were eager to continue our pilgrimage onwards to Manresa, the city where St Ignatius of Loyola spent eleven months following his life-changing injury from the Battle of Pamplona in 1521. We arrived at the International Centre of Ignatian Spirituality and were warmly greeted by a resident priest, Fr Augusti SJ. It was a wonderful coincidence that a priest from America was on retreat at the Centre and it was arranged that he would celebrate a special Mass with us in the Cave of St Ignatius, which had an elegant yet discreet altar and chapel. Many in the group were reduced to tears from this intensely spiritual experience, and the sermon on vocation and discernment particularly resonated with us as university students. Ignatius’ days of solitary confinement and sombre meditation felt very palpable, revealed in the scratches of two crosses which were said to be made by his fingernails. We were then taken on a tour of the antechamber and the ground floor of the Centre, carefully constructed around the chapel. 

After a delicious lunch, Fr Augusti offered voluntarily to take us on a tour of the upper floors, where we found, to our delight, a chapel on every level. After a short break, he took us to the places in the city where Ignatius experienced important revelations, including the former Hospital of Santa Lucia where he mainly stayed while at Manresa, eating with the poor and helping to look after the sick. According to witnesses, St Ignatius underwent spiritual rapture and lay motionless for eight days on the floor of his ward in December 1522. Some pilgrims believe that the Spiritual Exercises were revealed to him during this mystical experience. Now converted into the Chapel of the Rapture, it is here that his life story is truly brought out: one of heroism, sorrow, mission, a life which fluctuated wildly from profound consolation to crippling desolation. St Ignatius proclaimed, however, that the rest of his life could not be compared against the eleven months he spent at Manresa.

We then visited other chapels and sites before praying at the Basilica of Santa Maria de la Seu. Afterwards, we made our way back to the Spirituality Centre where we prayed the Rosary in the multi-faith chapel and shared our reflections on the terrace after dinner in the sunset. 

We left very early the next morning and crossed the River Cardener to the train station via the Old Bridge, the only entrance into the city back in St Ignatius’ time. We were headed back to Barcelona where we were taken on a tour of Sagrada Familia, the magnum opus of Antoni Gaudi which showcased the life of Christ from birth to death, accompanied by prominent depictions of Our Lady and St Joseph. The interior made use of colour, structure, light and geometry to depict the seasons, and the names of all the parishes in Catalonia, Spain, and the rest of world are written on the stained-glass windows, symbolising the universality of the Catholic Church. We were not only amazed by Gaudi’s vision of a landmark which would educate the everyman on the life of Christ, but also his humility in allowing others to complete the work for him, devoting his time to drawing sketches and creating models instead of compromising the scale and detail by endeavouring to finish it in his lifetime. There have been nine generations of architects since Gaudi and the church is expected to be completed by 2026. The pilgrimage ended with a visit to the Barcelona Cathedral and the church of Santa Maria del Mar, followed by our final sharing of reflections. 

Despite the early starts and late nights, the pilgrimage was a most fruitful and rewarding experience. We visited three remarkably different places: the semi-secluded Montserrat, the intimate Manresa and the animated Barcelona, all of which bear faithful witness to the Catholic faith. Fr Augusti said, ‘When in Montserrat you look outwards, but when in Manresa you look inwards.’ Coming from different walks of life but brought together by our Catholic faith, the three places offered three universal perspectives on our personal vocation to holiness: searching for God in nature at Montserrat, searching for God from within at Manresa, and searching for God in the impact we have on the lives of others at Barcelona. Our faith has undoubtedly been strengthened by this experience, guided by the exemplary role model of St Ignatius.