Every year in early September there is a small spectacle that occurs for those to see between a small farming village outside of Vienna, Austria, to the ancient Cistercian Monastery of Heiligenkreuze (Holy Cross) some thirteen miles away. The International Theological Institute (ITI) makes a pilgrimage to that venerable monastery through harvested fields and vineyards laden with ripe grapes and through the famous wooded hills of Wienerwald, to venerate the largest relic of the true Cross north of the Alps, for the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross. It is an act of consecration for the beginning of the year of theological studies, for as any true theologian knows, theology is done on ones knees. It is a spectacle surely though for the Institute was founded for the studies of marriage and family and there are many families that come, some young with the first on the way, some with their four or eight. The fall semester of 2015 marked a certain watershed moment, when the children outnumbered single students – fifty-four children. It is not an easy decision to decide to take a whole family on such a pilgrimage, because parents know that their children who at first run excitedly along striking the path ahead will slowly tire and may end up on the ground before the end, not willing to move unless placed over the shoulders like sleepy and heavy lambs – an extra burden to parents who themselves may feel the pain of such a long walk. So why do they do it?
The whole Church, as Body of Christ, is both visible and invisible, and its members are all those who have been baptized into Christ. Those dead and living. The members who make up the visible Church here on earth are the Church Militant, they are the members who are fighting, they are on their way, they are pilgrims passing through. The pilgrimage is an act of devotion that is then an analogy, a mirror, to our entire life’s journey. The plodding through a beautiful land full of myriad and rich wildlife, enjoying the bounty of earth, the laughter and joy of children, friendship, praying together, but it also includes hills, sometimes overbearing heat, sometimes rain and flooded paths, crying and complaining children, sore feet and backs – all to get to the Cross… Our life is a journey to the Cross and it is there that we join our own sufferings to Our Lord’s, and it is through the Cross that we receive the overabundance of grace and love that He pours out on us his children.
The Pilgrimage is a way to reflect upon what our entire life’s journey must be, of the pleasant and the painful, the sorrowful and the joyful, shining a light and giving new clarity to our path, encouraging us, giving us hope – no, not the discouragement of the Cross, but the Exultation of the Cross and the Victory of Jesus Christ. This is why the families and students of ITI are willing to endure some passing trials in this act of devotion every September, for it is an act which ends most sweetly with the abundance of grace and care that Jesus wishes to mercifully pour out on those that approach Him with love. For us to make the journey that ends with the worship of Mass and the Eucharist and then the placing and pressing of that precious wood of the Cross on which Our Lord died, to our lips, heart and head, brings us into the inner sanctum of our theological studies, into the beating heart and Mystery of our life giving Faith.