Pilgrimages are an ancient tradition for Christians, and Catholics in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown Diocese have two opportunities to honor those old ways in this Year of Faith.
The first is a pilgrimage to Rome in July with Bishop Mark L. Bartchak. Participants will have the chance to see Pope Benedict XVI at his summer residence about 15 miles from Rome, said diocesan spokesman Tony DeGol.
The pope isn't usually in residence at the Vatican in July and August so he made special arrangements for the pilgrims from the Altoona-Johnstown diocese to visit his summer residence, known as Castle Gandolfo, DeGol said.
The pope will bestow a special blessing on the group and lead them in the prayer, "The Angelus.''
Father John Slovikovski, who is in charge of Year of Faith activities for the diocese, said the pilgrims from the diocese will be very close to the pope. They will be able to see him from about the same distance as they would if they were halfway inside the interior of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament or from the middle of its center aisle to the altar.
Slovikovski said the pilgrimage to Rome is important because it helps Catholics get back to their roots.
Rome is the place where many of the saints the church is founded upon are buried and where early Christians were persecuted. It is the place where the early church was formed and where those first Christians practiced their faith in the catacombs.
"You are going to the place where the heart of our belief was born,'' he said.
A second pilgrimage is planned for Sept. 14 to the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., which is the largest Catholic church in the Americas.
At the basilica, activities will begin with a prayer service followed by reconciliation offered by the bishop and parish priests. Pilgrims will have time to tour the side altars dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The bishop will preside at Mass at 3 p.m.
The basilica is one of several sites that is part of another feature of the Year of Faith that is also an ancient tradition in the Catholic Church - plenary indulgences.
An indulgence is "a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions,'' according to "The Catechism of the Catholic Church.''
Those conditions for the Year of Faith include, for people in the local diocese, making a pilgrimage to the basilica in Washington, D.C., going on the pilgrimage to Rome, or pilgrimages to the Cathedral in Altoona, the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel in Loretto or St. John Gualbert Cathedral in Johnstown.
Those seeking the indulgence must also go to confession within a reasonable period after making the pilgrimage and receive Holy Communion while fully participating at Mass. They must also pray for the intentions of the pope, the Apostle's Creed, the "Our Father'' the "Hail Mary'' and the "Glory Be'' prayers. Prayer cards are available at all diocesan sites.
The pilgrimage to Rome is scheduled for July 8 to 16 and the cost is $3,499. For more information, call 695-5579 and ask for DeGol or visit www.ajdiocese.org and click the pilgrimage to Rome link.
For the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., parishioners should watch their church bulletins for information on buses and cost.