According to the Rev. Paul Prabell of Christ the King Cathedral in Lexington, Kentucky, Catholic travel meets several needs. “Travel to sacred places allows us to open ourselves to spiritual experiences,” explains Prabell. “Some may travel to a location where Jesus once walked to be touched by God’s grace, and others may be hoping for a cure or a miracle.”
Although the Catholic Church does not require participation in pilgrimages or shrine visits, faith travel has a great impact on those who do take religious journeys. “Even those who take a trip as a tourist often return as a pilgrim. The act of being in a foreign land, perhaps not understanding the language, often leaves travelers more open to a spiritual experience,” says Prabell.
The earliest pilgrimages
The concept of the pilgrimage began after the death of Christ, when many Christians wanted to follow the footsteps of Jesus. Pilgrimages became a tradition in the fourth century, with the earliest ones developing around the Holy Land.
Of course, this destination continues to be popular today for many Christians of all denominations. Israel Experts offers Catholic pilgrimages that include tours to many places of significance in the life of Jesus. Says Director of Sales Dan Benjosef, “Our tours include visits to Nazareth, the boyhood home of Jesus; the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus lived and preached; and Jerusalem, the site of the Last Supper.” The company offers a variety of itineraries, and it can also customize tours to meet your group’s needs.
The pilgrimage process
For Catholics, participating in a religious pilgrimage is not just about the destination, but the actual process of walking along a route and the prayerful meditation that allows you to honor God. Participants are encouraged to view a pilgrimage not as a vacation, but as an opportunity to contemplate one’s faith, the life of Jesus and the historic figures involved with the site they are visiting.
A popular walking pilgrimage route is El Camino de Santiago in Spain. This religious journey began in the 9th century when Christians began traveling to the Galician city of Santiago to visit the chapel containing the remains of Santiago, or Saint James, one of the 12 apostles. The chapel is now part of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.
Today, more than 330,000 people from all over the world walk a network of trails across Spain, France and Portugal that comprise El Camino—some for religious purposes and others simply for the challenge. Says Ignacio Grijalvo of Across Spain, “We offer six different El Camino tour packages, each including a journey of a different length and with a different starting point.”
One tour of special interest includes stays each night in a different parador—a government-run luxury hotel located in a historic building, such as a castle or a monastery. “The parador makes a pilgrimage in Spain truly unique,” says Grijalvo. “You’ll experience the culture and history of Spain while enjoying the spiritual experience of the pilgrimage.” After the long journey to Santiago de Compostela, it is surely a lovely reward to sit quietly in the cathedral to meditate and pray.
Italy offers its own option, according to Aldo Caronia of Michelangelo International Travel, “As for a walking pilgrimage, we have the longest one in the world—the Via Francigena (the road from France). It’s the ancient pilgrim route that people have walked from medieval times to today in order to visit the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul at Vatican City.” The route actually starts at the cathedral in Canterbury, England, and passes through England, France, Switzerland and Italy before travelers embark by boat to the Holy Land.
Another type of Catholic travel involves visiting shrines, defined as holy places associated with saints, martyrs or Jesus. Shrines can be located inside the parish, next to it or separated from it, and the shrine may identify where the holy person is buried, lived or died. Shrines also identify Marian apparition sites.
Catholic travel to shrines is popular for those seeking a spiritual experience or because they believe that the visit can result in miraculous healings, answered prayers or blessings. At some locations, those who have been healed leave behind crutches, notes or rosaries as evidence of their healing. In addition, visitors to shrines often leave flowers, photos, candles, notes and money as a way to give thanks and decorate the shrine.
One shrine famed for its healing powers is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in Lourdes, France. Built near the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, this church offers pilgrims the opportunity to experience the healing power of the local water. Says Father Prabell, “Every year thousands of believers travel to the shrine at Lourdes to bathe in the special healing waters there. Many go hoping for one answer but are surprised to receive a different miracle than what they expected.”
Likewise, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima commemorates the appearance of the Virgin Mary to three young shepherds near Fátima, Portugal, in 1917. Now the fourth-most visited pilgrimage site in the world, Fátima attracts thousands of Catholic pilgrims each year, many of whom are seeking a place of faith and inner peace.
Says Alexandre Marto, vice president of ACISO–Associação Empresarial Ourém-Fátima, “Our region offers so much for the Catholic faith traveler, including mass at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima and visiting the homes and graves of the three shepherds. The highlight for many is participating in the nighttime candlelight procession.”
Across the Atlantic is the popular shrine of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, located just outside Mexico City. The church was built near the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to an Aztec man, Juan Diego, in 1531 and asked that a church be built at that location. Every year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit this shrine, considered the most important religious site in Mexico.
Says Raynald Paquet of Grupo Meca Mexico,“We offer a great variety of faith tours that include visits to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and we can customize a tour with an itinerary of any length.” With more than 35 years of experience, Paquet promises to provide an unforgettable faith experience.
‘Every town has a story to tell’
Some Catholic travelers prefer to plan a trip to a particular location and, while there, take advantage of nearby sites of religious importance. For example, Peter Craddick of Globetrotters Travel & Tours offers a 10-day tour of France that includes visits to several important Catholic sites.
Says Craddick, “I describe this program as an immersion for Catholics into the main places of interest in France coupled with important faith locations in Lisieux, Nevers and Lourdes—a trip that allows travelers to strengthen one’s faith while seeing the popular sights.”
Groups go to the Palace of Versailles as well as famous landmarks in Paris, such as the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. Although customers will visit many destinations found on a typical sightseeing trip, they will also enjoy others that allow connections to the Catholic faith.
An enduringly popular travel destination for Catholic travel is Italy, and for good reason: The leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, lives in Vatican City.
“The Vatican is one of the most popular destinations for our Catholic groups,” says Caronia. “Visitors can attend special masses with the Pope, attend the Papal Audience with the Pope on Wednesdays take part in major Catholic celebrations.” Caronia can arrange visits to Vatican City, the Vatican Museums and the Vatican grottoes where several popes are buried.
According to Ruggero Scoma of Rome-based RS Travel Development, Italy is an inspiring destination for Catholics because “every city and town has a story to tell in relation to the Catholic faith. Walk the same cobblestone streets that the saints once traveled, and experience churches and cathedrals that have stood for centuries. Enjoy one of our Shrines of Italy tours to visit a variety of cities and their Catholic shrines, attend mass, and enjoy the art, architecture and outstanding food along the way.”
With so many options around the world, Catholic faith travelers can find inspiration wherever they go.
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Faith Travel Association members mentioned in this article include:
Top photo: Calvário Húngaro in Fátima, Portugal
Photo by Wikimedia Commons/János Korom: bit.ly/2CijidZ
Support for Courier articles provided by:
ACISO-Associacao Empresarial Ourem-Fatima
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
National Churches Trust Heritage Services
North Dakota Tourism Division
Solvang Visitors Bureau, Inc.