This year, annual rite asks pilgrims to unplug

Columbia News ServiceMarch 13, 2013 

Participants gather together during last year’s Pilgrimage of New York at the Church of Saint Francis Xavier on 46 W. 16th St. in Manhattan.


— When Matt Schiller arrived at the Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini Shrine in Upper Manhattan for a pilgrimage last year, he did something no ordinary New Yorker would do: He turned off his cellphone. And Schiller, an advertising and business manager, is prepared to do it again this month.

He is one of more than 100 pilgrims from across the country who have signed up for the Pilgrimage of New York on March 23. This year organizers are encouraging pilgrims to leave their smart devices at home. Organizers say such devices distract participants from connecting with other pilgrims on both a human and spiritual level, an important part of the experience.

Schiller agrees. But like many, he suggests that completely disconnecting from technology is not a simple task.

“The only two devices I brought were my digital camera and my cellphone – the camera to photograph the faces and places along the route,“ Schiller said. “My cellphone was turned off and in my backpack just in case of an emergency.”

As pilgrimages march through a modern age, some are being more deliberate about pushing back against the encroachment of personal devices. The Pilgrimage of New York’s website says participants can choose to bring a cellphone to use only in case of an emergency.

The exclusion of technology from pilgrimages encourages participants to get into the mindset of the pilgrims studied and revered in history books and religious texts.

“The pilgrimage allows you to step into an identity and think about not just who you are but who you would like to be,” said George Greenia, a professor of Hispanic Studies and founder of the Institute for Pilgrimage Studies at the College of William & Mary.

Avoiding the urge to check emails and text messages, even for one day, encourages the tech-obsessed to commit to what Greenia describes as “communal choreography” or engaging in an experience with like-minded strangers.

Participants in the Pilgrimage of New York will visit various places of worship throughout the city. But the event will begin with opening prayers at the Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini Shrine and end with a special mass at the Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in lower Manhattan. Both represent the northern and southern-most “holy places in Manhattan,” said Patrick Howley, a New York Pilgrimage producer and director of special events for the Cathedral of Saint Patrick’s Young Adults group.

However, there is more to being a pilgrim than just visiting holy sites. That’s why it’s important to distinguish between the term pilgrim and tourist, said Cheryl Claassen, a professor of anthropology at Appalachian State University. Unlike tourists, she said, pilgrims generally make some kind of pledge to God prior to their journey.

“For some, the pilgrimage is a thanksgiving act and for other people it’s a show of good faith,” Claassen said. When the pilgrimage is on foot, “there needs to be some kind of hardship. For foot pilgrims in Mexico, for example, the amount you bleed is indicative of how sinful you were and how much you needed to have done the pilgrimage.”

The absence of technology represents a kind of hardship, Claassen says.

Minus the use of any electronic devices Eileen Mahoney has participated in pilgrimages in New York, Lourdes, France and Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Mahoney, a special education teacher in Westchester, N.Y., said it’s not about where you do a pilgrimage. But how you do it. Leaving electronic distractions at home is part of a bigger journey that ultimately leaves all material possessions behind, she added.

“We’re all traveling here on this Earth,” she said. “We’re not here to stay…. In that sense we’re all pilgrims.”

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