To some, walking 115 kilometres in a week might not sound like the perfect start to a New Year.
But for a small group of faith-filled pilgrims, including one brave 79-year-old, it’s a walk in the park – the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains National Park that is!
In early January, pilgrims from across Sydney gathered for the annual Epiphany Pilgrimage, a journey that traverses the Blue Mountains in celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany.
This year’s participants included 79-year-old parishioner from St Thomas Aquinas Parish, Springwood, Ken Robinson, who had completed the full pilgrimage for the third year in a row, and baby Benedict from St Finbar’s Parish, Glenbrook, who was carried for two days of the journey.
Participants also journeyed with chaplain Fr Dom Murphy OP from the Archdiocese of Sydney.
“It always feels like such a gift to start the new year with the pilgrimage, but this year, that felt especially true on the back of 2020,” pilgrimage organisers Jesse and Briony Mowbray from St Finbar’s Parish, Glenbrook, told Catholic Outlook.
“To begin 2021 by really consciously seeking God’s grace in our lives and offering ourselves to Him anew with trust and hope was very significant,” they said.
Pilgrim Rebecca Hall from Holy Name of Mary Parish, Rydalmere, added, “while stress and tension seemed to be ruling the headlines (with good reason), our pilgrimage group was hopeful, joyous and calm.
“Amidst everything else that was going on in the world, we were able to take the time to be in the calming presence of God and offer praise.”
The annual January pilgrimage is a seven-day journey from Our Lady of the Way Parish, Emu Plains, through the bush trails of the mountains, visiting the various parishes of the Blue Mountains for prayer and reflection, and concluding at the Chapel of the Magi in Bell.
Participants can choose to walk the full length of the pilgrimage, or can walk sections of the journey.
With restricted numbers due to the pandemic, the organisers explained that there was a particular sense of intimacy amongst the 11 who completed the full pilgrimage.
Rebecca described that the sense of camaraderie weaved itself throughout the journey – whether it was handing around cups of tea or celebrating the last person to finish a steep climb.
Briony added, “without a doubt, the greatest joy for us is sharing the journey with others – not just the physical walk, but the deeper journey that takes place within each of us as we accompany and encourage each other.
“Everyone got to know each other really well. One of the pilgrims commented that ‘we started the pilgrimage as strangers, but we’ve finished as great friends’ and that was certainly true of this year’s group.
“It was such a delight to sense the Holy Spirit’s presence among us and meeting each of us where we were personally at in our life.”
The final day of the pilgrimage this year because the route normally followed by the pilgrims ordinarily passes through sections of the Blue Mountains that were devastated by the Black Summer bushfires of 2020.
Last year’s pilgrimage was ultimately cancelled due to the fires, but a shorter day trip was organised to continue the tradition.
Jesse reflected, “Looking out over the fire-ravaged areas of the Grose Valley at Blackheath was a stark reminder of the devastation they caused last year.
“And yet, when you get closer to the individual trees, you can see new growth and life emerging from the burnt trunks and ash – it’s a beautiful reminder for us all that Christ conquered death to bring new life.”
A blessing of the pilgrimage is the engagement of the parish communities of the Blue Mountains Deanery, who provide meals, warm showers, and places to sleep and pray throughout the week.
“Spirits were still high this year in the communities despite the restrictions,” Rebecca said.
“Behind masks were smiling and welcoming eyes, great hospitality and fantastic discussion.”
Jesse added, “The Blue Mountains parish communities were overwhelming in their hospitality, going above and beyond to make the pilgrims feel welcome.
“We are so thankful for the way that they have embraced the pilgrimage as an opportunity to be a witness of love.”
Despite all the ups and downs of 2020, the pilgrimage organisers hope that the pilgrims were able to encounter and experience Christ on the journey, and are able to remain hopeful in the Lord in 2021.
“The Church of Christ is resilient, and in the context of 2020, we hope that this year’s pilgrimage helps us to remember that as Christians, our hope and joy is in the Lord, who came as one of us and who remains always with us on our journey,” Briony said.
For more information about the Epiphany Pilgrimage, or to complete the trek throughout the year, visit www.epiphanypilgrimage.org