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Pilgrimage and Catechesis: Creating Space for Christ

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Amid the honey-colored stone houses on a narrow street in the Mediterranean island of Malta, one building reveals a hidden gem.  At the back of the Dar il-Hanin Samaritan Conference Centre, the large reflection garden invites awe. Crisp, bright, and peaceful, the garden starkly contrasts its bustling, rocky surroundings. It contains prayer mazes, private reflection booths, and a fountain symbolizing Baptism that points to the architectural “cross” of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. I had the privilege of walking through this garden last week, as one of 19 pilgrims to Malta, at the invitation of the Society of Christian Doctrine (SDC). Walking slowly through this physical space, I could not help but be drawn from the ordinary rush of life – into a stillness, a deeper contemplation.

The task of Catechesis is to create such spaces: space for prayer, space to encounter the person of Jesus Christ, space to linger with the Word of God. Pope St. John Paul II wrote that “the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ” (Catechesi Tradendae). Of course, this space is spiritual, not merely physical. Nevertheless, the SDC believed that a giant reflection garden was paramount to its conference center’s spiritual purpose. Physical spaces certainly can have the power to draw us into a spiritual space.

Used during retreats and conferences for members of the Society, the reflection garden provides a space for their own spiritual growth and renewal. This place is just one of many spaces in which the members encounter Christ through prayer. As the organization that is almost singlehandedly responsible for catechizing Malta’s youth, the Society recognizes the importance of first creating spaces for its members, the catechists themselves, to have prayer, contemplation, and intimacy with Jesus Christ.

How do we create space for Catechesis that brings people, especially children, into relationship with the Person of Christ? A relationship with Jesus Christ flourishes when we also develop relationships with the people around us. Recognizing this, the Society of Christian Doctrine operates more than 40 catechetical centers throughout Malta. When my fellow pilgrims and I had the privilege of visiting one center, we saw Catechesis that was far from the stiff, textbook-centered order that prevails in many American religious education programs. Malta’s catechetical centers are equal parts fellowship and learning the faith. Starting and ending with friendly “football” (soccer) matches, catechesis at the centers grows naturally out of the vibrancy of life. In these houses and buildings across Malta, children and adults are brought together five or six nights every single week to grow in communion with each other and with Christ.

Perhaps no one is more immediately aware of the power of physical space to encourage a relationship with God than our group of pilgrims in Malta last week. At its heart, a pilgrimage is a journey of the soul. Yet seventeen students from the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College chose to spend their fall break traveling to a tiny island 5,000 miles away from home. The pilgrims shared a hope that something about this country, its places and its people, would allow us to grow in faith in a special way. Together, we shared ten beautiful days – praying in dozens of historic churches and chapels, standing in the very grotto in which St. Paul lived for three months in the first century, witnessing the incredible faith and continued devotion of the Maltese people, walking through the catacombs where Malta’s earliest Christians were buried, playing soccer and swapping stories with Maltese children, and swimming in the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.

Yes, our fall break was a pilgrimage of the soul. But our physical travel and the people we encountered throughout the week created space, making our spiritual journey possible. Our tasks now are to continue finding that space in our ordinary lives, and to create that space for those we encounter.

Whether it is our local parish, the Grotto beside St. Mary’s Lake, a living room shared with friends, a breathtaking ocean view, or a soccer game with children, let us all seek out space to encounter Jesus Christ.

Alex Viegut

Alex Viegut is the Church Life Intern for Catechetical Leadership at the University of Notre Dame, where she is completing her senior year of study in Psychology and Education. She is interested in the development of children's theological imaginations. Her current work investigates how different models of Catechesis can nourish these imaginations through practice and invite even the youngest children to participate most fully in the life of the Church.