As a 14-year-old, Dick Perl hitchhiked from home in the St. Louis suburbs to classes at St. Louis University High School and back. He couldn't know that seven years later, as a post-novice who struggled with committing to Jesuit life, he'd thumb his way through a historic pilgrimage that changed his life and cast his future.
When Perl finished novitiate in August 1968, he couldn't decide whether to take first vows, that initial commitment to the Jesuits that traditionally follows two years as a novice. So, his novice director, the late Fr. Vincent J. O'Flaherty, wondered if reviving the lost practice of novice pilgrimage would help Perl decide.
Perl, now 68 and a Jesuit for 50 years, is believed to have pioneered the revival of Jesuit pilgrimage, a practice that 16th-century Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola found transformative and required of his followers. Yet, the practice had gotten lost over the years. Before Perl's journey of a lifetime in 1969, novices did not venture far from the walls of the novitiate.
"When I finished the novitiate in August 1968, I went into the juniorate without taking vows," Perl recalls in a reconstituted journal of his experience. (He lost his original journal years after his pilgrimage, somewhere in Central America.) "Toward the end of that school year, I was still undecided about taking vows, and around April or May, Vince came up with the idea of sending me on an Ignatian pilgrimage to help me make up my mind. The idea is that I would make my way to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and come back to St. Louis on my own, during a period of 10 weeks.
"Ignatius' idea is that a man would do this with absolutely no financial resources in order to teach him to rely on God."
O'Flaherty explained it himself in a letter to Perl's parents on May 6, 1969. "I'll bet you're wondering what this is all about," he wrote, "so I'll get to the point right away.
" . . . It began to occur to me several months ago that given Dick's particular situation, it might be a very good thing for him to get away from the seminary setting and from his group, to be on his own, for a while. One of the novitiate "experiments" which St. Ignatius calls for in our Constitutions, and which has been used hardly at all in our times, is that of pilgrimage.
" . . . This whole idea may sound very unusual to you, coming as it does from a man who was not at all in favor last summer of Dick's floating down a few miles along the Mississippi on a raft. But, as is the case with a number of these young fellows nowadays, I think Dick needs a taste of adventure, a chance to make it on his own for a while, a rather radical break — for a time — from the rather secure and sheltered life that he has lived so far. I feel that, if it is God's Will that Dick be a Jesuit, he will be much happier and more settled in our life if he has had this taste of adventure. And, from what I know of St. Ignatius, I feel that he would approve of this sort of "experiment" for a young man like Dick. I have, of course, talked the idea over with our provincial, Father Sheahan, and he approves of it."
Perl left on Friday the 13th of June in 1969, the summer of Woodstock and a year after a bloody turning point in the Vietnam War called the Tet Offensive. Perl carried a small pack, $150 cash and a letter from O'Flaherty. He had two years of high school Spanish, and the begrudging approval of his mother. The novice master dropped him off at a highway outside St. Louis, gave him a hug and told him to return in 10 weeks. Then he drove off.
"I stuck out my thumb, and thus began the pilgrimage that was going to ultimately change my life, giving a direction to it that I had never anticipated," Perl recalled.
Perl's account of that summer reads like a Mark Twain telling of the exploits of Huckleberry Finn, in the tradition of classic road stories like Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" or Fellini's "La Strada." He spends his first night on the covered porch of a hardware store in Paducah, Ky.; gets a job delivering newspapers while staying with a fundamentalist Christian family in Memphis, Tenn.; and encounters a mean Rod Steiger-looking cop with a pronounced paunch in Jackson, Miss., who calls him "boy," and threatens to throw him in jail. In New Orleans, he pays six bucks for a "skid-row place" near Canal and Bourbon streets, tastes his first beignet, listens to music at Preservation Hall, and fends off an offer of sex from a man who promised to show him the town. "At 21, I was beginning to learn the ways of the world," Perl wrote.
He heads to Grand Isle, La., where he finds work as a deck hand on a boat headed to an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. It's dark. He's tired, and 5-foot waves leave him puking and miserable. The captain tells him to stay awake and keep talking as he steers their way back by the stars. He misses Hurricane Camille, which took more than 250 lives, by only a few weeks. He later lands in Morgan City, La., where he connects with a shrimping job in the bayous, earning $20 for two days of work.
Perl marvels at the generosity of strangers he meets along the way. His request for day-old, half-price donuts at a bakery in Louisiana is rewarded with a dozen fresh glazed donuts given for free by the woman behind the counter.
On the beach at Galveston, Texas, two teen-agers find Perl trying to sleep on the sand, and invite him to a family beach house where they prepare a bed for him, but not before one of the boys' mother grills him about what he is up to.
"I tear up now thinking about it," Perl said. "People were very good to me, generous throughout the pilgrimage. God was watching over me, taking care of me."
He enters Mexico at Reynosa without as much as a passport, a bottle of water or a sleeping bag, and takes a bus to Monterrey, falling to sleep his very first night outside of the States on bare ground, on the side of a mountain overlooking the city. His high school Spanish, "the most practical course that I had at St. Louis U. High," he later writes, is a trusty companion, helping him find toilets, get directions, and ask for rides and places to stay including the bench of a courtyard jail in Tamuín where authorities let him sleep for free one night.
In Rio Verde, he got a meal and a bed at the home of an American couple that informed him about the national scandal at Chappaquiddick in which a young colleague of Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy drowned after a party. In Arroyo Seco, he was a guest in the home of a family who invited him and others from the neighborhood to watch the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.
One of Perl's most memorable rides was with a Mexican trucker who from his cab signaled him to jump in as he slowly navigated a steep grade along a narrow and winding highway to Mexico City.
Running alongside the truck's cab, he hoists himself onto the running board, grasping at a door handle to steady himself and finally climbs in and closes the door.
"I said a very heartfelt 'Gracias,' which was meant not only for the driver but also for God for helping me to make this rather dangerous transfer safely," he wrote.
In Mexico City, which Perl describes as a "humunga urban area of 8 million people in 1969," he locates a Jesuit school of theology where his mail is being held for him. The Jesuits offer him a place to stay but Perl declines. Instead, he walks downtown and settles into a doorway where he reads letters from home. "I only read one or two, and suddenly broke down in tears as I thought of all the people back home who loved me and were praying for me," he wrote. "I was thankful it was raining so hard and that there was so much traffic, because no one could hear my sobbing. It was then that I decided to bend my self-imposed rules and return . . . to stay with the Jesuits."
The next day, Perl took a bus north of the city to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a shrine to the spot where Mary is said to have appeared to a Mexican peasant in 1531. He remembers thinking that the pilgrims' practice of approaching the shrine on their knees was superstitious.
Over the next four days, Perl spent hours in the basilica praying, watching, attending Mass and observing the parade of pilgrims processing to view a precious cloth, or tilma with the image of Our Lady. What he earlier thought was a superstitious practice he found himself doing. He ambled on his knees more than 200 yards to the tilma.
"And there I prayed to Our Lady of Guadalupe, thanking her for these four special days," he wrote. "And I asked her to guide me, not only safely back to St. Stanislaus in Florissant, but also to guide me as to what to do with my life.
"And she did not let me down."
Perl's return trip included travels in Puerto Vallarta with an American backpacker, a bus break-down somewhere in rural Mexico, an overnight stay in a jail in Tepic, a train ride over the scenic Copper Canyon, and re-entry into the U.S. via El Paso. He has a chance encounter with a Catholic sister from Florissant in Chama, N.M., hops freight trains in Wyoming and South Dakota and gets arrested in Iowa.
Perl made his way back to Florissant just before nightfall on Friday, Aug. 22, 1969, a full 10 weeks after he was sent on his way 45 years ago. He would not take his first vows for another year, when he chose the vow name Richard Guadalupe Perl, and went on to spend 32 years of ministry in Central America. Today, he does pastoral ministry with Hispanics in Kansas City, Mo.
"Something happened to me down there," he said. "My world opened up. I was trusting in God everyday. God did take care of me. It just happened to be a jail (sometimes).
"When I entered the Jesuits, I had no dream of becoming a missionary. The pilgrimage opened my eyes to the rest of the world."
The Pilgrimage Experiment, as it is now called at the province's novitiate in Grand Coteau, La., has become a regular part of the routine of novice life. First-year novices make the pilgrimage in mid-winter, right after they finish working together in social agencies in Kansas City, Kan. The novice master gives each novice $5 and a one-way bus ticket to a destination that fits each individual. During the two-week pilgrimage, a novice begs for food, shelter and transportation.