Wisconsin Wonder: A pilgrim seeks a guide

When you strip away distractions, you might come closer to the part of yourself calling out for more. Not more stuff. Not more flashing lights. But more substance of the purest kind; the kind only God can provide.

It’s goodness. It’s hope. It’s love.

Catholics believe were are continually journeying through our lives, as Pope Francis said, until the final and marvelous goal…reaching Heaven.

But sometimes that spiritual journey, also becomes a literal journey…a pilgrimage.

Today we begin a series of episodes about a visit to the only place in the U.S. where the church has approved a Marian apparition…in Wisconsin.

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This episode is the first of three about The National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, WI. This is the first and only Church-approved Marian Apparition site in the United States.

In 1859 the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a Belgian immigrant, Adele Brise. Mary identified herself as “The Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners,” and told Adele to teach children their catechism, how to make the sign of the cross, and how to approach the sacraments. And then Mary said, “Go and fear nothing, I will help you.”

Our next episode will go a little deeper into the apparition, and the miracles at Champion, but today we’re preparing for that pilgrimage.

If you’ve not heard of Adele Brise, you’re in good company. I only somewhat recently learned about it, a few years ago, from a Jesuit priest, Fr. Carlos Esparza, whom I met while visiting family at Georgetown University. He told me about his visit to this National Shrine in Wisconsin, and he experienced something I thought was quite miraculous on its own.

It seems like a natural fit to have Fr. Carlos help prepare us for our series about Champion, but also to give us thoughts on the spiritual and physical pilgrimages we can undertake anywhere.

The sweet scent of roses

Fr. Carlos visited the Champion Shrine in the summer of 2018, acting as chaplain for a group from the Order of Malta who annually makes a pilgrimage to the site outside Green Bay. The group wants to build up awareness of the Shrine, and the fact the Church has deemed the apparition as something worthy of belief.

“As you come into the place it’s kind of a very rural location, as you might expect based on just the story of where this apparition took place, and not much really has developed around there,” Fr. Carlos said, pointing out the site is between two dairy farms. “I was walking off the bus, going to the Shrine (we’re probably about maybe 50 yards away from the entrance) and I just take a big you know whiff of the place. And I go, “Wow that smells really nice,” because what I had smelled was roses; some aromatic, you know this very fresh scent, sweet scent.”

Fr. Carlos remembered that other pilgrims have talked about the smell of roses as being a sign of Mary’s presence, but initially he thought he was just smelling flowers somewhere nearby.

“I said this [about the rose scent] to a knight, and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, I mean yeah, you can smell that cow manure from the place,’ because there’s all these dairy farms. And I went, ‘oh no, I smell roses!’ And he looked at me kind of weird, and goes, ‘oh yeah, that’s one of the signs here,'” Fr. Carlos said.

Moving into the lower chapel of the Shrine–the site of the apparition–Fr. Carlos said the atmosphere of the space was very peaceful, naturally so.

A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the lower chapel of the Shrine. [Photo: Tony Ganzer]

“I think that’s like one of the gifts that Our Lady gives to us, and that’s what she’s offering. You know her son Jesus says the same thing: he promises us he’s going to be with us till the end of ages, and he also promises his peace. He goes peace be with you. And so these are the things that we know from the resurrected Christ, and so Mary is sharing that from her Son,” Fr. Carlos said. “That’s one of the gifts that a lot of pilgrims get is peace while they’re there; a sense of being able to recollect; a sense of knowing that God is present to him; and knowing that Our Lady is there very much interceding for us through her Son.”

People pray in many forms, and the Shrine has space to accommodate that variety, both in the Sanctuary and out in the Wisconsin nature. The Stations of the Cross, and various statues, populate the grounds, where pilgrims can pray for physical and spiritual healing.

And the site has documented miraculous healings of both kinds.

On the day Fr. Carlos visited, it was maybe 90 degrees and humid, he said. And while indoors, in tight quarters to celebrate Mass and pray a Rosary, it could be uncomfortable with a group of 100.

But on his way into the vestibule, the only thing Fr. Carlos could smell was again the overpowering gift of roses.

“For me it was very special because I think it was a way for Mary to say you know, ‘I am here as you start your day, but I’m also here with you as you leave.’ And so I mean that was a special gift of grace I received myself on my pilgrimage as you know a constant reminder of again the resurrected Jesus Christ says, ‘I’m with you to the end of the ages,’ and Mary herself is saying, ‘I am also with you because I’m leading you to my Son.’ And so as I walked out there that day I knew that I had the support of Our Mother Mary and going forward in my own life and my own journey and because I brought a lot of prayers there too for my own self, but also for a lot of people who asked for healing,” he said.

Many miles a pilgrimage need not take

Fr. Carlos has been able to expand in his faith through many pilgrimages. He walked the Camino Ignaciano over two weeks–the way of St. Ignatius Loyola in Spain, which he said overlaps with probably a third of the Camino de Santiago.

He made pilgrimages to Rome, Jerusalem, to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

“Sometimes we feel like we have to go so far away to encounter God, especially on the pilgrimage, we want to do something grand. And so for Wisconsin to have our shrine here in the United States, it’s much more easily to get to right?” Fr. Carlos said. “The message that Mary gives to Adele is first: I want you to help others be saved, salvation, and catechize. There’s no big scheme, but the big thing she tells us is, ‘I will help you.’ And I think that’s what Mary wants to tell each and every one of us that, ‘I am here for help, I can help, I can assist you. You come to me, I will lead you to my son Jesus.’ And when you have Jesus with you what else do you need?”

Having a site like the Champion Shrine is nice because it’s closer than Spain, Fr. Carlos said, and it is also heartening to have a place where wonderful, miraculous things occur right in our own backyard.

But he encourages us to think about pilgrimages in the big picture.

“Even for those who don’t can’t make it to Wisconsin, you can show that act of devotion, the act of prayer, the act of consent of faith of inviting Mary to help you; inviting Mary to walk with you, and having her son Jesus walk with you in your own home, in your own neighborhood,” he said. “People make pilgrimages every day, whether it’s just visiting the local churches in their diocese, you’re going to Mass there on a different Sunday, or sometimes people make the walks you know if it’s a downtown area, and they can walk the two or three churches and say a little prayer at each church, so there’s different ways you can do that pilgrimage. But the thing is, I think what the most important part of the pilgrimage is once you start you’re on a journey, and the pilgrimage is just not the destination of the church you go to. You know the destination is our own life, hopefully our destination leads us to Heaven and so I think that’s the idea that we’re on the way, all of us are on the way.”

It’s not over until it’s over

Fr. Carlos likes to tell people that a pilgrimage isn’t over when you reach the site you’re visiting. So long as you’re still traveling, you’re still on pilgrimage.

He arrived back at his home airport in Houston, and as he’s talking with other pilgrims when his suitcase falls over, spilling a coffee on a chair.

Fr. Carlos goes into a panic, apologizing to a mother with two or three kids, saying he’ll find napkins; he’ll make it right.

“I come back and she just says, ‘It’s okay…things happen,'” Fr. Carlos said. “Her voice was so calm and serene, it was the same calmness and serenity I had at the pilgrimage, at Champion. At that point I said wow: it made me remind myself how present God was in this moment, this mother taking care of her own children could put up with a priest dropping/knocking over her coffee!”

Fr. Carlos wasn’t even wearing his collar, so the mother was just being nice, but her serenity was disarming.

“It made me realize this person herself is exhibiting the holiness, exhibiting the kindness, the gentleness that Our Mother had that we’re called to also do to others. So it was a wonderful moment, and so it was very aha for me and kind of a very in its own sense a religious experience for me,” he said.

“For those who make these pilgrimages, whether it’s walking in your own neighborhood, whether it’s going to Champion, whether it’s going some other grand pilgrimage to Spain or Holy Land, but make sure you bring others,” Fr. Carlos added. “Bring their intentions, their thoughts, and lay them at the altar of Christ because Christ will help you. Christ will heal you because that’s what he desires, and Mary leads us to Jesus, and she will also bring about that healing too if we ask her.”

Preview from our next episode

Fr. John Broussard will tell us: “Across the world, not just the United States but across the world, something that we were all awakened to was the weakness of our faith. You know the pandemic wipes…spreads all across the world, and what happens? We we turn away from God in so many instances. I think that was an important realization for us, and making Our Lady’s message to Adele all the more relevant. “Teach the children how to approach the sacraments.” Well that’s going to mean approaching the sacraments with great faith, great belief that I believe that these are the instruments of my salvation and they’re more important than anything that I could go through or suffer or experience here on this earth.”

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