A cold drizzle falls over Philadelphia. The dampness leaves dark blotches on sidewalks, and the wind pushes streaky clouds across the gray sky. It’s the sort of day that requires a good coat and a strong spirit. It’s also the sort of day that makes you grateful for every chance to stay inside.
But this past November, in a room on the first floor of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center, Anne Ayella prepares a group of thirty or so hearty souls for a walk that’s been planned for the last month.
Ayella considered cancelling the event because of the weather, but this small pilgrimage is in support of migrants and refugees, and as she tells the assembled, “just think about what all the refugees in the world walk in.”
In September 2017, Pope Francis introduced the Share the Journey Campaign by asking the faithful to embrace the experience of migrants and refugees. One way to do this is by organizing or participating in such a pilgrimage—a symbolic walk of solidarity with our sisters and brothers in their journeys for safe and just lives.
Ayella, currently a Catholic Relief Services Diocesan director who recently retired from the Nutritional Development Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia after 37 years, considers a pilgrimage an example of the Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger. She organized the event as “a concrete way to be in the shoes of people … and be in touch with what people are going through.”
Using resources available through CRS, Ayella assembled a series of prayers and readings and asked volunteers to lead the group in reflections and meditations at each of four designated stops along the walk—essentially, the circumference of the city block that is home to the pastoral center and the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.
At the corner of Race and 17th Street, Vince Small, a retired English teacher who saw the notice of the pilgrimage in the bulletin of his parish, St. Margaret’s, in nearby Narbeth, offered the first reflection on solidarity in suffering. Afterwards, he explained, “When I was delivering the reflection I was feeling—I was fighting back tears a little. It was profound.”
“I thought the idea of just recognizing that everyone really is—who are these people if they’re not my brothers and sisters? What am I doing professing a faith, you know?”
Small sees Share the Journey as a call to be active. “I see the fear that people [refugees] live with—good people, people contributing to the community,” he says, “And it makes me feel terrible. Protective. Go to these kinds of things. Call senators.”
Mary Bell, a parish ambassador at St. Raymond of Penafort parish in Mt. Airy, works closely with other parishioners to support a family of eight refugees from the Congo and characterizes her work teaching English to the family as her “ministry.” She sees her participation in the pilgrimage as another piece of this vocation. “This walk is not for me,” she says with conviction. “I’m not demonstrating anything for me. I got it. It’s a demonstration for others to see that there’s people out here that [benefit] if you just give a little.”
As the group wound its way around the block, they stopped at a small shrine dedicated to “Philadelphia’s saint,” John Neuman, patron of immigrants, and shared a prayer “for those who leave their homelands longing for freedom and new opportunities.” They ended near a statue of the Blessed Mother and prayed that families in crisis might find hope.
The whole walk was completed in thirty minutes, and Ayella felt pleased with both the planning and the results. “I felt like it was prayerful and there was unity,” she says. “Like we were all sort of walking together as a family. Like we are one body.”
Planning a pilgrimage is “so doable,” she adds. “And I would encourage anyone to be creative and use your space and the resources and make it work for you.”