Journeys spiritual and political

Brendan O’Regan takes the pilgrim trail

I didn’t think I’d like it. The previews I’d seen of BBC 2’s new series Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve gave me the impression that it was going to be a secular take on the pilgrimage idea, which could rob it of its spiritual depth.

And it had its problems. Reeve could be a tad irritating at times and the focus was too much on him, but I actually warmed to the first episode, Tuesday of last week on BBC 2. Reeve had been brought up Christian but wasn’t a person of faith any longer, though he said he wanted to be but that he couldn’t share the Faith ‘yet’. He admired the pilgrims he met, even felt protective to a pilgrim walking around the country with a wheel-equipped cross on his shoulders. He was impressed and awed by what he saw, e.g. the majesty and mystery of Lincoln Cathedral, and struck up an appealing rapport with the religious people he met along the way – I was especially impressed by the clergyman who outlined the meaning behind the architectural design of that cathedral, and the lady who served him up some tasty medieval food that the pilgrims might have eaten.

Last week Reeve travelled from Lindisfarne in the north of England to Canterbury in the south. Lindisfane had a natural beauty, but that wasn’t at odds with the spiritual dimension. Walsingham, a shrine to Our Lady beloved of Catholics and Anglicans, had a particularly interesting history, but I was taken aback to see some protestors with anti-Catholic signs challenging a procession there. One man interviewed declared the Catholic Church to be a cult, and indeed ‘occult’, but such negativity was rare in the programme.

Reeve suggested that while many pilgrims were spiritually motivated, some just wanted an adventure away from home, and some even saw it as an opportunity to sin away from their own communities, though he did accept that they may originally have had pious intentions. London was seen as a source of major temptations for the pilgrims! The arrival in Canterbury was a fitting end to the episode, and still to come we have the Camino de Santiago, Rome and Jerusalem.

Pilgrimage was of course identified primarily as a spiritual journey reflecting our journey through life, and one man who came to the end of his earthly journey last Thursday night was Nelson Mandela. It was one of those moments shared by a substantial chunk of the human community, an item of news you tend to remember in a personal context – I was driving home from Dublin. Media coverage was wall to wall after that. RTÉ Radio 1’s Late Debategot first shot at it as the news was announced just before they went on air and Audrey Carville coped with the change of topic with coolness and professionalism. I was impressed by the live contribution of Fiona Forde, an Irish journalist working in South Africa. Despite the news being so fresh she presented an informative, confident and insightful report.

I can’t remember any death being such a media event since that of Pope John Paul II in 2005, and like Mandela he lingered on quite a while in his final illness. As in that the case I’m sure the media outlets had their obituaries ready quite a while ago.

Our latest Pope causes media ripples on a regular basis and it’s fascinating to watch. Last Friday night’s God Sloton RTÉ Radio 1 had its finger on the pulse as usual and covered Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation on the Joy of the Gospel. Discussing it were Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick diocese and Brendan Butler of We Are Church. It was a worthwhile discussion but I felt that for much of it they were not really engaging with each other, instead making their own separate points. To me Butler didn’t seem that well informed on some points – he thought gay people as such were excluded from Eucharist and seemed to suggest that Catholic teaching or current medical practice insisted on a woman carrying a “dead foetus”. If he meant a baby with fatal abnormality, then surely an unborn baby with a terminal illness is no more dead than an adult with a terminal illness. Unfortunately, with all the usual issues getting most of the time, the Pope’s observations on economics didn’t get enough attention.



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