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Roamin' Catholic

By Dan Andriacco

Not all of us are able to travel to Assisi or the Holy Land. But we can turn an ordinary vacation into a religious experience.


Pray Your Vacation
Experience the Church's Catholicity
Learn Abour Other Religions
Encounter Other Cultures
Create Your Own Retreat Experience
Keep a Travel Journal
Books for the Spiritual Traveler

woman at the well

Photo by
Richard Gross

As the summer travel season gets under way, this may be a good time to look at how your vacation can be part of the journey of faith. I’m not talking about the typical family vacation. Now that my own children are grown, I’m focusing my comments on adults traveling without kids.

Going on pilgrimage, a trip to a holy place, has always been seen as a way to draw closer to God. Even a more mundane vacation, when entered into with the proper spirit, can serve the same purpose.

A pilgrim is a wayfarer with a destination: usually a shrine or city associated with a great saint whose presence still echoes there. On pilgrimage, the adventure itself is as important as the destination. One goes away to touch the infinite and comes back changed by the experience.

T.S. Eliot, near the end of his poem “Little Gidding,” hints at this transformation by travel: “We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.” In a sense, all journeys are journeys home.

Calendars of the Church year are often round, graphically making the point that the Church’s cycle of readings takes us on a yearly journey of faith that always brings us back where we started, but never the same as when we left.

In this same spirit the great Catholic activist and writer Dorothy Day called her column “On Pilgrimage,” not because it described a physical pilgrimage—it seldom did—but because it was concerned with the pilgrimage of faith.

The Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers picks up this connection when it calls pilgrimage “a paradigm of the whole life of faith” as we move ever deeper into the mystery of God.

This kind of travel—perhaps to Assisi, Lourdes, Rome or the Holy Land—may be a once-in-a-lifetime event. It’s not a day at the beach. The primary purpose of a full-blown religious pilgrimage is the pursuit of holiness, touching the sacred.

In contrast, we go on vacation for entertainment and relaxation. But an ordinary holiday trip can still take on a spiritual dimension.

When traveling alone or with your spouse or another adult, you might turn a vacation into a spiritual journey by following any or all of these suggestions:

Pray Your Vacation

Begin and end and fill your days in between with prayers of praise and thanksgiving for the wonders of this world that you experience. Whether you are standing on a huge rock looking out at the turbulent ocean or a mile below the surface of the earth in a silver mine, as I once was, you will encounter God’s handiwork. Let that be a starting point for prayer.

As Pope John Paul II—the most traveled pontiff in history—wrote for the World Day of Tourism 2001, “Travelers in touch with the wonders of creation perceive the Creator’s presence in their hearts, and they are led to exclaim with sentiments of deep gratitude, ‘How delightful are all His works, how dazzling to the eye!’ (Sirach 42:23).”

Without using those precise words, my heart surely poured out that prayer the July morning I attended Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Barbados. We could see, hear and smell the Caribbean through the open windows behind the altar as we worshiped the One who made the land and the sea.

Also, you can pray for those you meet on your journey who are in need, for they are journeying, too. When I visited Cuba in 1998 with a Church group, many of the people we met asked for prayers. In particular I remember a young priest who signed my forehead with the sign of the cross and said, “Pray for us. We have a lot of work to do.” I have made the people of Cuba part of my daily prayer ever since.

Experience the Church's Catholicity

Many Catholics seem to think of vacation as a guilt-free time to sleep in or hit the beach on Sunday morning. But participating in the eucharistic liturgy and other liturgies away from home can be a wonderful experience both familiar and strange. When you take part in the services at local churches, you will experience the diversity of the Catholic Church.

Former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan once lamented that the Mass began to be celebrated in the vernacular just at the time world travel became affordable for middle-class Americans. Her point was that Catholics visiting foreign lands no longer find the Mass in the same language as at home, as they did when it was always celebrated in Latin.

And yet, the Mass is the same. I have participated in Masses in Japanese, Flemish, Spanish—and even British English in London! Even when I didn’t understand the language, I always knew where we were in the familiar Order of the Mass. For example, the realization that those around me were praying the Lord’s Prayer in their own language always brought me a sense of comfort and familiarity.

And yet the Mass—and the Church—is also different in each country and within each country, as it reflects the local culture. That struck me strongly one Sunday morning at the Catholic cathedral of Kyoto, Japan, the ancient capital of a country that has few Catholics. Unexpectedly, but not really surprisingly, the Japanese bowed to each other instead of shaking hands at the sign of peace.

Kyoto also reminded me that Latin isn’t lost in the universal Church. Although it was obvious that we weren’t Japanese, the priest had no way to tell our native language so he said “the Body of Christ” in Latin (“Corpus Christi”) when he gave us Communion.

Even within the United States, your Sunday worship experience may be a lot different than what you are used to at home. You may find yourself praying at a tiny church in Michigan with a priest who uses a remote-control device to activate a recorded organ. Or you might be participating in a mariachi Mass at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, where a crypt holds the remains of the legendary defenders of the Alamo.

If you are vacationing within the United States, it is easy to find the times and location of a local Mass by calling 1-800-MASS-TIMES or visiting www.

The Mass is not the only way the Church reflects the local culture, of course. The art and architecture of churches, chapels and cathedrals always contain something of the people who built them, while at the same time expressing a universal faith. The statues and paintings may look more like the people who created them than they look like you. That’s always an invitation to reflect on how we, too, tend to see God the Father, and even the saints, in our own image.

So visiting these worship centers has great spiritual value apart from liturgy. Stop by, reflect, pray. If the churchyard has a cemetery, stroll through and reflect on the people buried there who once lived in this community. They, too, were on a journey of faith. They have completed the journey and gone home. Yet they remain united with us in the communion of saints.

Learn About Other Religions

Pope John Paul II cited learning about other religions as one of the blessings of tourism. Perhaps he meant that exposure to other religions helps us reflect more deeply on our own.

I once stood in a Buddhist cemetery on a hill near Tokyo. Some of the grave markers above the cremated remains were 1,000 years old. Many of the newer markers were informally decorated by objects associated with the deceased person in life, such as a coffee mug or a beer can.

I couldn’t help but reflect on how long Buddhism has been in Japan and how the Buddhists’ belief in reincarnation makes the meaning of death different for them than for Christians.

But you don’t have to cross an ocean to learn about a faith that is foreign to your Catholic perspective. The United States has a rich heritage of religious diversity. A day trip one summer took me to Kentucky’s Shaker Village, once home to a celibate religious community with ideals of simplicity, purity and perfection in their work and themselves to create a heaven on earth.

A close encounter with another religion may cause you to reflect on similarities with our Catholic faith rather than differences, even across national boundaries. In a Presbyterian church in Havana, I heard a woman praying in what seemed to be a familiar rhythm even though I don’t know Spanish. An American friend leaned over and whispered to me, “That’s the Magnificat!” (Luke 1:46-55).

Encounter Other Cultures

In the customs, crafts and art of human beings we see a reflection of God’s creative activity. We may notice this most readily when the culture is not our own but from a different community or a different time.

The difference brings out appreciation. The contrast can also cause us to reflect on and appreciate our own culture. That doesn’t necessarily require crossing a national border. You may find another culture in a two-hour car drive within your own state. On the other hand, you can go to Japan or China without really encountering the culture at all if you stay at a tourist enclave.

What’s important is your mind-set. Don’t go as a tourist, but as a seeker and an ambassador. Make it a point to eat local foods instead of something from McDonald’s or another chain; buy local crafts as gifts for the folks back home instead of made-in-China souvenirs (presuming you aren’t in China).

Tourists can become “agents of dialogue between cultures in order to build up a civilization of love and peace,” Pope John Paul II wrote. “Tourism enables people to live for a time among others and learn about their living conditions, their problems and their religion; it allows travelers peacefully to recognize other peoples’ legitimate aspirations and to share them.”

The best way to do this is to live with a family for a time, as my wife and I did for two weeks with friends in Barbados. When we explained this to a man we met at a Methodist church on the island, he observed, “You aren’t tourists!”

Create Your Own Retreat Experience

You can’t immerse yourself in another culture without becoming part of the hustle and bustle. And you have to at least check out the mass media to see how much of it is familiar—made in America—and how much is different from what you know. That’s part of experiencing the culture.

But you can also carve out part of your vacation as a little self-directed retreat. Once again, the pope says it well: “In practice, tourism enables us to take a break from daily life, work and the obligations which necessarily bind us.” This is a perfect time to have a media-free period of quiet and renewal that allows you to sort out the important from the urgent.

Keep a Travel Journal

Even if you don’t normally keep a journal, travel is a great time to do so. At the end of each day, write and reflect about your experiences.

Ask yourself: How is God speaking to me in this journey? How have people experienced God in the history, the culture and the geography of this place? What is God doing here now? How is God moving in my own culture and in my own life?

You may answer these questions and others that occur to you in the form of prayers, meditations, letters to and from God and poems. All of these are good journal material.

One night in Havana, I wrote: “What is God doing in Cuba? God is being present through the Son, Emmanuel (‘God is with us’), as manifested in the Body of Christ. I have seen that everywhere I turn on this trip, this sojourn.”

The rough Atlantic coast in the north of Barbados caused me to reflect: “The power of the ocean with the mighty waves that have been eroding away those rocks for eons fills me with wonder at the God who made it all and keeps it all going.”

Buy a separate journal book for each trip. (That can be a fun part of pre-trip planning.) Reread these books through the years, as I did when writing this article. You may find that you agree or disagree with what you thought when you wrote them, and that is an important discovery.

If formal journal-writing is just too alien to you, try this: Each day on your trip buy a postcard bearing an image that has particular meaning for you that day. Write a brief reflection on the back about the experiences and spiritual insights that you associate with the card. Then mail it to yourself.

Whether you go on a pilgrimage to one of the great holy places of the Catholic tradition in Europe or a vacation to the beach, any trip can advance your journey of faith. Don’t take a holiday from God this summer.

Dan Andriacco, director of the Office of Communications for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, holds a doctor of ministry degree from Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of Screen Saved: Peril and Promise of Media in Ministry (St. Anthony Messenger Press) and a forthcoming book on managing media in the family. He teaches courses on religion and media at the Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and the College of Mount St. Joseph, both in Cincinnati. He is also the father of three grown children.


Books for the Spiritual Traveler

True to my bookish nature, whenever I start a new endeavor, I first try to read a book on the subject.

Luckily, as regards travel, there are quite a few new guidebooks for those who want their travel to be more than seeing tourist sites and buying souvenirs.

The publisher HiddenSpring, an imprint of Paulist Press, has as its motto, “Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life.” Last fall HiddenSpring produced two books in its new series, “The Spiritual Traveler.” The first is The Spiritual Traveler: England, Scotland, Wales: The Guide to Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes in Britain, by Martin Palmer and Nigel Palmer. It is intended for “seekers of every faith and none to discover and connect with these ancient traditions and to find—either for the first time or anew—unique ways of pilgrimage in today’s world.”

To give a sample of the book’s excellent writing and scope, let me quote from the Introduction: “Sacred Britain is a reality. There are places in this land where Heaven and Earth have touched, changed and transformed landscapes. Some places are famous—great cathedrals, mighty stone circles; others are so personal that they may be known only to a few. Sacred Britain may mean sites of antiquity—yew trees over 5,000 years old—or places such as the Swaminarayan Hindu Temple in north London, which are so modern that the construction dust is still upon them. They can be places hallowed by centuries of prayer—churches, remains of medieval synagogues or shrines where pre-Christian and Christian veneration join hands; or they can be places scarred by suffering—Jews persecuted, villages destroyed by economic changes, sites associated with massacres, sacred to the lives lost and causes betrayed.”

The book’s strength is putting these places into historical, theological and literary perspective. There are directions for driving to these places, and an appendix contains some suggested accommodations along the way. But a reader may have to consult other guidebooks for times churches might be open, for instance. And drivers will need more detailed maps.

The second book in the series explores closer to home: The Spiritual Traveler: New York City: The Guide to Sacred Spaces and Peaceful Places, by Edward F. Bergman. This book came out last September, arriving in my office the week before the September 11 terrorist attacks. The New York volume begins with a history of spiritual life in New York City (beginning with the Iroquois longhouse and the Dutch Reformed Church), a brief history of a few faith groups (three and a half pages for Roman Catholic, six for Judaism, one for Quaker, and so on) and the city’s changing census of the faiths.

Then various religious sites are listed from the tip of Manhattan at Battery Park, like the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Bayley Seton (our first native-born American saint), through to Harlem and the four other boroughs. What a resource for native New Yorkers as well as visitors!

(Future books in the series will focus on Boston and New England, and on Chicago and the Great Lakes.)

Another book on New York is Sacred Havens: A Guide to Manhattan’s Spiritual Places, by Terri Cook, a marketing consultant and native New Yorker, and published by The Crossroad Publishing Company. Sacred Havens is like The Spiritual Traveler in that it is religiously inclusive of many different faith groups. But it lists far more places of religious interest, and delves more into the immigrant communities who built these churches and used them as centers of their social and cultural lives.

And to put travel in further perspective, consider Pilgrim: A Spirituality of Travel, by Leonard J. Biallas, published by Franciscan Press Quincy University. Biallas shows how to gain insights from Hindus about cities, from Muslims about gardens, from Native Americans about art, from the Chinese about nature and families, from Buddhists about sacred monuments and ecology, and from Jews about cemeteries. He received his doctorate from the Institut Catholique in Paris, has taught at the University of Notre Dame and now teaches at Quincy University in Illinois. This is the most scholarly work, but well worth the time and energy—even if it has to be sandwiched between booking your air flights and packing for your next trip.

Barbara Beckwith is the managing editor and book review editor of this magazine. She has traveled extensively throughout the world.

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