It was in the Season of Creation in 2022 that Stephen, our Mission Office Administrator, first suggested we go for a walk in Cornwall. Plans were underway to visit the diocese of Plymouth for the annual Mission Appeal in 2023, and it was quickly realized that, according to tradition, Cornwall is thought to have been travelled across by St. Columban and his 12 companions on their missionary journey from Ireland to Europe.
Thus, the Columban Way Pilgrimage was born. It would take place during ‘Laudato Si’ Week in May and so we wove together the themes of mission and ecological conversion in our prayers and reflections along the way, featuring the voices of Columbans in China, Pakistan, South America, the Philippines, and Britain. We worked closely with Caritas, CAFOD and the Youth Ministry in the diocese, and the parish of St. Mary in Bodmin, to plan a pilgrimage for us, for the local Church and for anyone who wished to join us in person, in prayer or in spirit.
We do not know the exact path St. Columban took as he crossed Cornwall, so we followed the route researched by organisers of the Columban Way, a long-distance walking path being plotted from Bangor in Ireland, where Columban spent 20 years as a monk, to his final resting place in Bobbio, Italy. Columban travelled by boat, so we would follow the rivers, from the Camel estuary at Padstow in the north to Fowey in the south, where the river of the same name flows into the English Channel.
On 24th May, a group of nine Columbans, co-workers and two young Columban friends, aged 21 to 75 years, set off for Cornwall praying the words of St Columban as we journeyed south. We would walk 28 miles over three days, blessed with bright sunshine.
St. Columban would likely have stayed in Bodmin, and we too chose Bodmin as our base. Fr. Ciaran, Fr. Robbie, and Kate, the parish secretary of St. Mary & St. Petroc’s parish gave us the warmest of welcomes, providing us with shelter and space to unwind each evening and to prepare for the next day’s challenge. The beautiful church of St. Mary was the intimate setting for a commissioning service on the first night at which we committed to pray for Columban benefactors and their intentions. The next day it was a joy to celebrate Mass with the parish community, who then treated us to a delicious feast.
A high point on the journey was visiting the children at St. Mary’s Catholic Primary School in Bodmin at the end of the first day’s walk. Fr. John Boles and James Trewby, our Justice, Peace and Ecology co-ordinator, gave an assembly before the rest of the pilgrims arrived. Welcomed by the teachers, we were led to the classrooms to be quizzed by curious pupils keen to learn about our experience as pilgrims and missionaries. The next day, the whole school turned out to send us on our way!
In every religion and every age, pilgrimage has a special place. For every person who goes on a pilgrimage, it will have a different meaning and purpose. At its heart is our human search for God. For me, it was an opportunity to walk part of the path taken by St. Columban, who became a lifelong wanderer for Christ. Pilgrimage is a metaphor for the Christian life. When we are on pilgrimage, we can find ourselves in vulnerable situations where our defences are down and our hearts are a little more open to allowing ourselves to be taken by God. The experience of encountering the divine in the places and the people we meet along the way, hopefully leads to some transformation within us where we are given the grace to shed old ways of being for the new life that God holds out to us.
We were joined on the pilgrimage ‘in spirit’ by more than 50 people who signed up as ‘virtual’ pilgrims and followed our progress, prayers and reflections via email and social media. On the final day, we were joined by Sebastian, a young man in the middle of his exams, whom we first met at the parish Mass and social on the first night. He decided to walk with us from Lostwithiel to Fowey and his presence and company were a blessing to us all. Join us in praying for the life that God holds out for him.
A huge thanks to our sponsors, whose prayers and generous donations were an inspiration. Alongside its many other benefits, pilgrimage proved to be a great way to raise funds for the work of the Columban missionaries!
Watch the video playlist about our pilgrimage experience.
We invite you to become Columban Way pilgrims and to walk, as we did, listening to and reflecting on ‘the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’.
There are many ways to be a pilgrim. Design a walk near to where you live, walk an established pilgrimage route (like the Columban Way!), or let the words guide you on a retreat or recollection day. Download the Columban Way Pilgrimage prayers and reflections booklet for your own pilgrimage.
Tell us about your pilgrimage by email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Fr Pat O’Beirne is a member of the Mission Awareness Team in Britain. He worked previously in Taiwan, Fiji, and China.