Missionaries on Pilgrimage

Born in 1156, Saint Bona of Pisa, Italy, lived a difficult life. When she was three years old, she was told that her father had disappeared while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, leaving her to be raised by a single mother in a time when this was unthinkable. She would later find out that her father had in fact abandoned them, leaving them destitute. Rather than turn to bitterness, her mother turned to God, bringing her daughter along with her. Bona spent many hours in Pisa's Holy Sepulchre Church.

Bona was seven years old when she had a vision while praying: she saw Jesus reach down from the large crucifix, as if to hold her hand. Although this made her a bit nervous, Bona returned to church daily to pray, asking for God's guidance. Soon, she had another vision; this time it was of Jesus with His Blessed Mother and Saint James the Greater. This sent young Bona running from the church, vowing never to return!

Bona is said to have felt Saint James following her, calming her fears. She returned to pray and developed a lifelong devotion to the Apostle. Saint James led her back to Jesus.

At age fourteen, Bona had another vision -- this one telling her that her father was alive in the Holy Land. She decided, with her mother's blessing, to journey to find him. We don't know if the reunion was a happy one or not; we do know that on her return trip, Bona was kidnapped by pirates, imprisoned, and later rescued.

One might assume that this would set Bona against travel forever, but the opposite proved true. This mighty girl decided to lead groups on pilgrimages to the grave of her favorite saint in Compostela, Spain, a trip of over a thousand miles. She became an official guide of the Knights of Saint James and led nine such trips. Because Saint James led her back to Jesus, she reasoned he could do the same for others. Exhausted by her last trip -- much of it on foot -- she died in Pisa having followed God's path for her, literally! She was truly Pisa's missionary on pilgrimage.

Perhaps our own Cardinal Cushing heard Saint Bona whisper in his ear when, in 1958, he established the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle. Diocesan priests from around the world, on their own missionary pilgrimages, have led people to Jesus across South America.

Their work continues, sixty-five years later, following the motto, "What is good is never finished." Watch for their speakers in a parish near you as they do Mission Appeals in Boston and beyond.

- Maureen Crowley Heil is Director of Programs and Development for the Pontifical Mission Societies, Boston.