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Nomads and pilgrims


The American actor Frances McDormand has been described as one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation, and is known for her portrayals of quirky, headstrong characters.

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Her latest movie is Nomadland and is based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a working nomad who leaves her hometown after her husband dies and the sole industry closes down, to be ‘houseless’ and travel around the United States. Nomadland explores many themes; along with the hardship and the heartache, there is also serenity in this way of life, even a kind of euphoria. The film is worth a look

For some retirees to load up the car and van and head off to join the grey nomads touring around Australia has been a fervent dream. Having laid down the responsibilities of a lifetime of work, this freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘for’ is refreshing in mind, body and spirit, so much so that one couple I know has completed five trips around Australia. Being a nomad is another aspect of life heavily impacted by COVID.

Some nomads are listless and drifters; some intentional and some have everything planned down to the last detail; some delight in having less deadlines to meet; some delight in not being able to be in mobile phone contact; and others enjoy meeting new people.

Whole cultural groups are nomadic by nature. It is estimated that there are about 30 million people who belong to such groups.

Our Church is one such group. We use a slightly different term to describe this experience, ‘pilgrim’. Going right back to Abraham and Sarah, being on ‘pilgrimage’ is the natural state of the Church. Just read Church history and this becomes supremely evident.

‘Pilgrim’ and ‘pilgrimage’ are not some fashionable buzz words which will fade in time. They are the essential prism through which we look to understand our identity and mission as the Church. However else we might describe our life of faith, being a pilgrim is central. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, The Light to the Nations, affirms this most orthodox view.

It has often been said that what we see depends on where we stand. In these anxious induced COVID times, we can stand frozen, transfixed by fear, caught in the cul-de-sacs of life. Every pilgrim needs to rest for sure, and regain strength, yes. Yet this rest is only that the journey might continue. Our destination is the Kingdom of God.

On the cusp of two significant events in the Church in Adelaide and Australia, namely our Diocesan Assembly and the beginning session of the Plenary Council, we stand in the light of grace and with hearts of thanksgiving as we stand together as pilgrims.

The Way of a Pilgrim is the English title of a 19th century anonymous Russian, seemingly autobiographical, work, possibly by a monk, detailing the narrator’s journey across the country while practising the Jesus Prayer devoutly, with the help of a prayer rope and the study of the Philokalia. It helped to plant the word pilgrim into our Christian vocabulary.

It opens with the words:

By the grace of God I am a Christian person, by my actions a great sinner, and by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth who roams from place to place. My worldly goods are a knapsack and some dried bread in it, and a Bible in my breast pocket. And that is all.

Would that we had such a vision. One of my hopes is that each of us think of ourselves as a pilgrim. At a time when we are longing for the ‘way out of COVID’, thinking of ourselves as pilgrims, our natural state as believers, is more urgent than ever.

A pilgrim always travels with other pilgrims, never alone, and while our Archdiocese is increasingly diverse in nature, each of us can have a pilgrim’s heart and a pilgrim’s voice. Together.

In doing so we see what the faithfulness of God, our true Good Shepherd, looks like. Being a pilgrim also means that we are to be shepherds, one to another.

I would like to conclude by a reflection by Saint John Henry Newman:

Let us put ourselves into His hands, and not be startled though he leads us by a strange way, a mirabilis via, as the Church speaks. Let us be sure He will lead us right, that He will bring us to that which is, not indeed what we think best, nor what is best for another, but what is best for us.

In the same way the voice of the The Way of a Pilgrim speaks to us, this is the voice and heart of a pilgrim speaking. Dare we join him? Let us deepen our pilgrim voice and pilgrim heart especially as we gather as a Diocesan family for our Diocesan Assembly and as we prepare for the first session of the Plenary Council.

God is good, good indeed.


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