As you might imagine, Rome is full of visitors, here in the tens of thousands. Some are here as pilgrims; most have come as tourists. The two reasons for travel are decidedly different, and together provide an important question to ponder with respect to one's approach to life in general. Do I approach my life as a tourist or pilgrim?
The pilgrim undertakes a journey to a holy site, usually seeking insight or transformation, and often willing to endure sacrifice along the way. The tourist, by contrast, is one who travels away from the home environment, usually for a short time, in order to sightsee and experience new things, before returning to normal routine, picking up where one left off, as it were. A friend once put the difference this way: tourists pass through places, while places pass through pilgrims.
Christians understand the earthly journey as a pilgrimage. Its ultimate end is Heaven. To reach this destination we embark upon an inner, or spiritual journey, to "places" such as truth, love and forgiveness. As we allow these places to pass through us we are increasingly transformed into the people God has fashioned us to be: His children, living in communion with Him and with one another. It is not a journey we undertake on our own, but with the prompting and guidance of God's Holy Spirit. At times it is a difficult journey, because it inevitably involves the surrender of the comfortable and the familiar, but one that leads finally to joy.
This joy passes by those who approach life not as a pilgrim but as a tourist. Life is a journey with no direction, like being on a merry-go-round at an amusement park - going in circles and constantly distracted by the fantasy that surrounds us. The happiness arising is at best fleeting and illusory and often covers over a persistent sadness.
Yesterday at Mass we heard Jesus pose the question: Who do you say that I am? We also heard St. Peter give the answer: the Christ. Today we mark the nativity of St. John the Baptist, the model of total self-negation and complete orientation toward Jesus. Jesus is our destination. When we approach life as a pilgrimage to him and the salvation he brings, when we focus on him and his love rather than ourselves and our less-than-clear desires, then we have touched the true meaning and purpose of life and find lasting joy.