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St William of Perth

By Kirsten Schouwenaars-Harms

The Pilgrim’s Example

“For the Church, pilgrimages, in all their multiple aspects, have always been a gift of grace"

(John Paul II)


My earliest memory of going on a real pilgrimage is as an early teen, visiting the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fátima, Portugal. Apart from my father pouring holy water on his balding head, I don’t remember much of the occasion. But what did leave a lasting impression were the many people shuffling along on their knees while praying the rosary. Hopeful that their effort in this pilgrimage done for the love of our Lord would bare its fruit. This voluntary suffering during their pilgrimage is an image that has stayed with me all these years.


One of the saints who knows about suffering on a pilgrimage, and whose feast day we celebrate in the month of May is that of 12th Century martyr St William of Perth (died c. 1201). Not a great deal is known about his early life. The Nova legenda Anglie notes that he was born in Perth, he was a baker by trade and in adulthood, he converted to Christianity. In his great charity was accustomed to leaving out a tenth of his loaves for the poor. He went to mass daily and on one occasion he found an abandoned child outside of the church, whom he adopted, teaching it his trade. He names the child Cockermay Doucri (David the Foundling).


The pair undertook a pilgrimage, most likely to Jerusalem. Near Rochester David betrayed his adoptive father by luring him to a remote spot, now near St Williams hospital, and slit his throat, making him a martyr. St William’s body was initially found by a mad woman who roamed about the country half-naked. She garlanded his body with honeysuckle, after which she was reportedly cured of her mental illness. Hearing about this miraclous healing, his body is transferred to Rochester Cathedral by the monks where he is buried. His story made it to Rome and in 1256 Pope Alexander IV canonist him.


Most of the evidence of his shrine is now gone as it was destroyed in 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII. This does however not mean that his witness is destroyed. He is still a saint in heaven and as such much of his saintly life is worthy of imitation. He truly embraced the three theological virtues. The virtue of faith when he converted after a dissolute and profligate youth. In his charity and feeding the hungry and taking care of those on the margins, such as his adopted son. And in his hope, after all, what is a pilgrimage if it isn’t hope.


Our lives are an ongoing pilgrimage of hope. We travel through our lives, and if we keep our ears and eyes open in discernment we are guided in this journey by God. It is not until heaven is reached that this pilgrimage of hope is completed. The moment in which the full beauty of Christ is revealed. As we read in Holy Scripture: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).


A pilgrimage can be both spiritual or physical, but it does always involve movement of some sort and an engagement with God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes a pilgrimage is; “a sign of our personal love for God” (ccc 2101). Jesus tells us to “Go”.


  •  Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, Go and proclaim the kingdom of God.    (Luke 9:60)

  •  Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. (Luke 10:3)

  • Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. (Matthew 28:19)

  • But Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will  see him, just as he told you. (Mark 16:7)


Go is a command to action, not to stand still, but to move out of the love of God. However, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3) implies the journey will not be easy. Jesus, however, never promised us an easy ride, He is asking us to “Go” and He is promising to be with us always (cf Matthew 28:20), during our lives pilgrimages.


So how could we be pilgrims in our busy lives? Physical pilgrimages are becoming more popular year by year. For instance one of the busiest pilgrimages is the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James in Spain, recorded a new high of 446,035 pilgrims in 2023. Without going abroad more local Scottish pilgrimage sites to visit such as Iona, Saint Andrews or the Northern Pilgrims Way are always a good choice. But this is not for everyone, some of us might not be able to take this amount of time out of our busy lives providing for family, or be physically or financially able to undertake such a journey. Lucky for us this does, however, not mean we can not be pilgrims. Aside from pilgrimage of our own life, being actively engaging in bringing people to Christ can take many forms which are all ways of journeying with Christ. As such pilgrimage doesn’t have to mean walking miles for days on end, it implies “going” as He instructed us to.


Furthermore, spiritual pilgrimages can be done without leaving the comfort of our homes. This does not imply we should not put effort into what we might plan to do, but it does give options to those that might not be physically or financially able to leave their homes. Online events have also made it easier to keep “going”. Particularly for those of us that might live rurally and access is difficult. However, online programs run by organisations that do not cost anything more than our time and effort, such as bible studies, ongoing formation courses, Lectio Divina, and prayer groups, all of which will aid our personal pilgrimages of hope. As George Basil Cardinal Hume O.S.B. (1923-1999) wrote “When on a pilgrimage, we are encouraged to keep going because we have the end of the journey to look forward to.”


Pope Francis has declared that 2025 will be a Jubilee, a Holy Year, and the theme he has chosen is ‘Pilgrims of Hope’. Holy Year Scotland 2025, is organising events and pilgrimages, in preparation, throughout 2024. What a wonderful way to start actively engaging with pilgrimages. Do have a look at their website and Facebook page “Holy Year Scotland 2025”. Or perhaps this is your call to organise something within your community. “Pilgrimages evoke our earthly journey towards heaven” (CCC 2691), taking that seriously, becoming creative in our efforts can be the way forward for many of us.


Therefore whether your next pilgrimage is of the spiritual kind or the physical kind, let us take the example of St William of Perth with us. He lived out the three theological virtues in his life, even if it was difficult. He went out on pilgrimage in hope, knowing that he was not alone. He was travelling in this world, on his way to the Lord our God, with every step he took. And while his ending was tragic, his journey was fruitful and done a sign of our personal love for God. His feast day is on May 23rd. St William pray for us.





Scriptural passages quoted according to the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition


            Catholic Church, (2016), Catechism of the Catholic Church, London, Catholic Truth Society


            Horstmann, J., (1901), Nova legenda Anglie, II Acta SS., XVII, 268; Oxford, Clarendon Press


            Hume, B., (1984), To Be a Pilgrim, PP. 121, Slough, St Paul Publication


            John Paul II, (1998), The Pilgrimage in the Great Jubilee,


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