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A Modest Pilgrimage

In Christianity on March 29, 2014 at 5:12 pm

Christian pilgrimage is a rich tradition. Some of us first encounter the notion of pilgrimage as students, studying Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Others arrive at the idea intuitively, wanting to see Jerusalem and The Holy Land, or St. Peter’s in Rome, or Notre Dame in Paris. On these pilgrimages and others, the journey is one of spiritual significance. A pilgrimage is not just “travel,” with a religious destination at its end.

With that in mind, let me propose a modest pilgrimage—to Greenville, South Carolina. The town is chronicled in “Letter Nine” of George Weigel’s wonderful short book, Letters to a Young Catholic. Heady stuff, to be listed with St. Peter’s (“Letter Two”), the Sistine Chapel (“Letter Eight”), Chartes Cathedral in France (“Letter Twelve”), The Basilica of the Holy Trinity in Kraków (“Letter Fourteen”), etc. Some measure of modesty is regained, however, when one notes “Letter Six” is about Chesterton’s pub, The Olde Cheshire Cheese.

Why on earth would South Carolina, where Catholic Christians represent less than 4% of the population—the least Catholic state in the U.S.¹, save Mississippi and Tennessee—be a point of pilgrimage?

St. Mary’s Catholic Church
The reason is the public prayer of the Church, “Why and How We Pray,” as George Weigel terms it in describing St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the mother church of Catholicism in Upstate South Carolina.

We live at a time when the Sacred Liturgy is celebrated in ways ranging from awkward to awesome. By God’s grace, Fr. Jay Scott Newman has made worship during Solemn Mass at St. Mary’s “awesome,” in the truest sense of the word: reverent, transcendent, and content-rich, as the Church’s public prayer must be. The prayers of the liturgy are underscored by a program of sacred music second to none, thanks to Choirmaster Arlen Clarke and Organist Robert Lee. The beauty of the church architecture, the visual coherence of St. Mary’s campus, and a robust program of Christian education all confirm that Christ is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. Come, let us adore Him!

Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church
Over the years since Weigel’s book was published in 2005, robust Catholic orthodoxy has continued to take root in Greenville’s red clay soil—finding favorable conditions for growth and health.  Perhaps this stems from a biblically literate population, as a result of the strong fundamentalist/evangelical history of the region, many of whom are now experiencing a longing for “More Christianity,” in Fr. Dwight Longenecker‘s fine phrase. Fr. Longenecker is pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, a vibrant parish of families and faith-filled young Catholics. His own pilgrimage began in an evangelical family, followed by graduation from fundamentalist Bob Jones University, and then theological studies at Oxford University.

Most readers will recognize Fr. Longenecker’s allusion to C.S. Lewis’ much loved Mere Christianity. A longing for more Christianity recognizes, implicitly at least, that the trajectory of protestant belief since the 16th century has been largely subtractive: remove books from the Bible, deny God’s continuing grace conveyed through the Sacraments, and express the Faith as a set of propositions to be believed, as much as a Person to be followed. This is almost certainly the basis for Dr. Scot McKnight’s findings in “From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic.” More Christianity is possible and God-ordained—it is Christianity Richly!

Prince of Peace Catholic Church
Finally, while on pilgrimage to Greenville be sure to visit Prince of Peace, where Fr. Christopher Smith, STD/PhD is is Parish Priest. Fr. Smith is a Greenville native and a convert to Catholic Christianity, as are Frs. Newman and Longenecker. Fr. Smith celebrates the Sacred Liturgy in both the ordinary (English) and extraordinary (Latin) forms. In addition, his two homily series—The Creed in Slow Motion and The Mass in Slow Motion—are wonderfully helpful guides to understanding the Christian faith itself, as well as the rich culmination of 20 centuries of Christian worship. Both series are available on the church’s website.

Finally in terms of why one might make a pilgrimage to Greenville, the work of these three extraordinarily gifted shepherds bears much hope for dispelling centuries of misunderstanding of the Catholic Faith. If one reads Eamon Duffy’s, The Stripping of the Altars, or Dom Bede Camm’s, Forgotten Shrines, the terrible consequence of hostility between Christians becomes clear. In the southeastern part of the United States, where English roots and amazing tales about “what Catholics believe” walk hand in hand, these men and their parishes model Christian charity without abandoning the immense richness of “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).  May we pray earnestly for that day, when all will see and understand Christianity Richly!


¹ 2010 Religious Census: Religious Congregations and Membership Study (RCMS)