When I describe our Senior Pilgrimage to other high school principals, their typical reaction follows this sequence: 1. Quizzical look. 2. Furrowed brow. 3. Some version of: "Are you out of your mind?!"
Yes, I repeat with bemusement, we do indeed drive five busloads of 17-year-olds in the full throes of adolescence to a remote salmon hatchery on the banks of the Cowlitz River, with the intent of sending them on a 12-mile hike along a country highway, on their way to a huge bonfire and then a massive campout in tents. All 250 of 'em.
Every parent of teenagers can appreciate my colleagues' incredulity.
The ultimate goal, of course, is not just a campout, but a profound, transformative spiritual experience for our seniors, both on an individual and collective level.
Last weekend, that's exactly what happened for 250 members of the Class of 2020, as they "walked in the light of the path set before them," which they now realize is the Light of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, teenagers don't always walk in the light, even Jesuit students. Before darkness descended that night, we reminded students that both apples and words can be dangerous if hurled with malice or even carelessness. But, knowing that the Pilgrimage is a unique and privileged moment, the seniors didn't need much reminding; they kept each other in check along their journey together.
At prayer-and-skit stops along the route, the Pilgrimage Leadership Team encouraged their classmates to reflect, for real, on just what kind of senior year they wish to create. The leaders reminded their friends of moments from their Jesuit journey thus far (Freshman Fun Night! Lanyards!). They asked the seniors to ponder what legacy they wish to leave, and what it really means to care for one another.
Each stop was followed by a mile or so of silence. In a world where no idle moment passes without a glance at our smartphones, silence is seriously sacred when 250 teens walk down a country road together, contemplating compassion, as the sun streams over Northwest farms sluiced by streams and backed by mountains.
Ten thousand and one conversations occurred along the way, some casual and fleeting, some never to be forgotten, as some repaired relationships and reconciled and others met new friends for the first time.
Among the highlights were the student reflections, as well as a cameo-via-cell from newly ordained Deacon Billy Biegler, SJ. Mr. Biegler reminded the pilgrims that, "Last year, you learned that you are loved by so many people, and by God. This year, you are learning that the gift of love comes with a price: You are charged now to love one another, the way that God loves you..."
Arresting reflections by Chris Beardall and Kenzie Gross reminded the seniors that, in sharing a 12-mile trek followed by a ritual washing of the feet, the usual hierarchies of high school life were also being washed away—"and we are now, finally, all the same, having traveled the same road, together."
At a gorgeous Mass in the oldest Catholic mission in the Northwest, the seniors took a deep drink of the divine. From witnessing Lizzie O'Mahony, Jack Kelley, and Gilbert Smith installed as Eucharistic Ministers, to listening to the celestial strains of the Chamber Choir singing "Shelter Your Name," to blowing the stone roof clear off St. Francis with a rousing rendition of "Lead Me, Lord," the seniors realized this was a Mass like no other.
As the exhausted but visibly touched parent support crew led by Liz and Tom Kelley looked on, the seniors, remarkably, still had plenty of energy in store for the bonfire. Campus Minister extraordinaire Don Clarke strummed Taylor Swift, Ed Sheerin, and "Shallow," and the seniors danced and sang with the pure joy of being alive, and being together.
It was all enough to make a weathered and well-traveled principal kick back and smile, knowing that my principal friends will just never believe such a beautiful moment is possible...
Paul J. Hogan