Virginia theological seminar professor Jennifer Rinaldi has a simple message for those who want to be Catholics: Be little pilgrims.
Rinaldi is the author of the new book, Little Pilgrims: Catholic Education and the Search for the Little Spirit in Early Catholic Education.
In the book, Rinalsi argues that the small and independent nature of the Catholic faith has made it especially well suited to teaching small groups, like little pilgrims, who have little or no formal education.
She says this helps students gain confidence in the faith, which is essential for their spiritual growth.
“A lot of small groups that come to a Catholic seminary don’t know much about the faith or what the faith means,” Rinali said.
“It’s just a natural thing.”
Little pilgrims often need support to navigate the difficult path ahead.
In the 1980s, Rialdi and a group of her students decided to take a trip to Cuba, where they were granted a free trip to the island.
“We were so excited, we just wanted to go there,” Rialsi said.
Rialdi’s students soon realized the travel to Cuba was not the best option.
“Our travel guide told us that Cuba is very dangerous, so we had to be careful about where we went,” she said.
“We ended up going to an area of the island where the roads are narrow and we had a lot of problems getting out of the car and into the taxi.”
Rialsi says the trip was not a pleasant experience.
She says many of the little pilgrims who made the trip were left traumatized.
“I’m so grateful for all the people who were kind and supportive and took care of us, and were kind enough to help us,” Rios said.
Some of the students say their experiences were not the worst, but they did not see the same kind of support they saw at home.
“The thing that hurt me the most was the isolation and the isolation of the people,” Rinshi said.
“[The Catholic school] wasn’t able to help me find my way to a better place.
It didn’t help me to make a good impression on the teacher, it didn’t provide me with any help with my studies, it wasn’t very helpful in helping me with my exams, it just didn’t.”
Some of these students have returned home, and are working to rebuild their lives.
In one instance, a young woman from the diocese’s North Carolina diocese was a little pilgrim, returning home to visit her parents, and also reconnect with her faith.
Rinshi says she has found support from other parents.
“They’re so supportive,” she told CBC News.
“Because they know the faith is a journey.
They know that sometimes the path can be rocky, and sometimes the journey can be easy, but if we can find a way, and if we are open to it, then I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
The small group philosophy also comes into play when it comes to the Catholic school, Rios says.
“Our students are very open and they’re very accepting, and that’s something that we try to cultivate in our Catholic school,” she explained.
“And when we can really, really make our students feel that, I think that’s really good for them, and I think for our community.”
The diocese, in an effort to foster this sense of openness, recently announced that it will be investing in a new Catholic school in northern Virginia, located on a peninsula in North Carolina, where it will have its first new Catholic parish since the 1950s.
The school will be called The Pilgrim Mission in honor of the small group ethos.
The idea for the new school comes from Rinalis father, who, she says, “believes that if you don’t share your faith with your family, you don to share it with the world.”
“We think that it’s important for our young people to have a place where they can learn about the Catholic tradition and where they don’t have to feel that they have to hide their faith, or that they’re going to be shunned by their families,” Rina said.
While the school may be small, it’s part of a broader effort by the diocesan office to be more welcoming to a wider range of people.
“There are so many people who are struggling with faith, struggling with a lot,” Rinas said.