ON PILGRIMAGE
A Glimpse of Catholic Culture

April 1999By Thomas Storck

Thomas Storck, who writes from Greenbelt, Maryland, is a Contributing Editor of the NOR and author of The Catholic Milieu.

Every August the small town of Carey in Wyandot County, Ohio, about 50 miles south of Lake Erie, fills with prayer and pageantry as Catholics gather to honor the Mother of God on the feast of her Assumption into Heaven. Latin-rite Catholics from across the Midwest, Chaldean-rite Catholics from the Detroit area, and various ethnic groups with their special songs and rituals and garb — all flock to Carey for several days of activities that center on the veneration of a statue of Our Lady of Consolation that has been here since the church that bears her name was first built around 1870.

When I was an Episcopalian, one of the attractions of the Catholic Church was her frankly populist atmosphere, her capaciously maternal ingathering of diverse nationalities and colors and tongues. For anyone, Catholic or not, with some fondness for that aspect of the Faith, Carey in August is a stirring place to be. Though the shrine is visited throughout the year, the week leading up to the feast of the Assumption each August 15 is the highlight. One can attend the sacred Liturgy in a variety of rites and languages, walk in or watch processions, sing hymns or hear them sung. On the eve of the Assumption the pilgrims gather, several thousand strong, before the basilica of Our Lady of Consolation to pray the Rosary in a candlelight procession. The Bishop of Toledo begins the prayers, and the crowd follows him, with banners flying and the image of Our Lady held aloft, to the park where he celebrates Mass. On the feast day there are more sacred Liturgies, opportunities for confession, and a grand procession with a relic of the true Cross.

Does the word “pilgrimage” bring up images of dour faces and pious talk? Those who’ve been to Carey — like those who’ve read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — know that Catholic pilgrims spend no small part of their time hobnobbing and telling merry tales. At Carey one can see teenage pilgrims wandering around in small groups, sometimes carrying radios, and not always looking especially pious. And among the pilgrims who camp out for the nine days of the novena, there is said to be dancing and other festivities. Truth be told, for these pilgrims, as for Chaucer’s, a pilgrimage is in part a vacation. But no Catholic should be surprised or shocked by this. Just as the Incarnate God did not spend all of His time on earth praying or preaching, but supplied wine for a wedding feast, so pilgrims rightly mix supernatural and natural joys, knowing that God created both and that both, when used without sin, are ways of honoring our Creator. As St. Paul wrote, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

I have visited Carey probably a dozen times, mostly during the Assumption festivities. Though I enthusiastically urge others to do likewise, I do not suggest that one should visit as a sociologist or as an observer of quaint religious phenomena. The best way to go is as a pilgrim, a supplicant of the Queen of Heaven, asking her intercession amid the many trials of this life. If you are (as I am) a product of our dully uniform secular culture, you will probably find yourself staring (as I do) at the exotic richness of the many Catholic cultures around you. But even as we stare we can worship, and we can thank Our Lady of Consolation for what her cult has created.


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