Pilgrimages receive boost from Jubilee, says travel planner

--The Tidings / January 6, 2006

Story & Photos by Bill Stephens   


While Catholic pilgrims poured into Rome to celebrate the "Jubilee Year 2000," the world watched on television. The event proved to be a turning point.

"With the jubilee, Catholic religious group travel began to accelerate," says Scott Scherer of Catholic Travel Centre in Burbank. "In 2000, pilgrimage got a much higher profile. Before then, there weren't many large religious group operators. Now the travel industry has woken up to the potential."

Scherer has noticed a business upswing since the jubilee at CTC, one of the largest Catholic travel group outfits, which he launched in 1991.

Scherer got started in religious travel in the mid-1980s when he began organizing pilgrimages for a North Carolina diocese. "My interest in foreign cultures, faith, and business came together. I was impressed how groups bond on pilgrimage."

Journeying to a sacred site for spiritual purposes has long been a Catholic tradition, especially since the fourth century when pilgrims began traveling to the Holy Land. European locales also became popular pilgrimage sites associated with saints and miracles.

The new interest in religious travel is part of the growing American interest in spirituality, Scherer says. "Also, Pope John Paul II encouraged pilgrimages as a Catholic tradition, and often visited sacred sites. American Catholics, traditionally immigrants who couldn't afford travel, now can. And many European Catholics in American want to visit Europe."

Scherer adds that Catholic retirees are growing in number. Many now want to address spiritual matters, and have the time and money for pilgrimage.

The entire travel business was hurt by 9/11 in 2001 and 2002. "However, people say since 9/11 they are re-prioritizing their lives, including more time for their relationship to God." Scherer thinks the American traveling public has become more accustomed to global political realities.

"We had a lot of business to Spain the year of the explosions on the Madrid trains, and we experienced no group cancellations related to those events," he said. "Generally, there are so many stories travelers have heard about people going abroad and coming back that they feel safe."

Today, Scherer and his CTC team design 70-80 pilgrimages per year for parishes and Catholic organizations, custom designing tours to fit group needs.

"Some groups focus more on the spiritual, visiting churches and attending Mass daily," Scherer explained. "Others include more secular sites and social events."

Most pilgrimages range between 10 and 14 days, and feature visits to churches, sacred places and historical sites. Most CTC pilgrims are lay people, often retirees between 65-70. More than two-thirds are women.

"Some pilgrims are interested in spiritual rejuvenation, or even a few in physical healing. Others are curious about the history of the faith or simply feel secure traveling with a faith group."

Rome continues to be CTC's most popular pilgrimage destination, Scherer says, closely followed by the Holy Land (Israel and the West Bank), which is making a comeback the last few years after dropping off starting in late 2000 when political unrest increased. While the U.S. State Department continues to issue Travel Warnings for Israel and the West Bank, Scherer says pilgrimages to Christian sites typically avoid areas of unrest.

It can be difficult on some popular dates to find group space in Jerusalem due to the increasing number of pilgrims, Scherer says. "More Catholics are studying the Bible now, and many want to visit Biblical sites in the Holy Land."

Rounding out the top third in popularity is Spain and Portugal, which can combine visits to Santiago de Compostela and Fatima.

Other popular destinations include Greece and Turkey ("Footsteps of St. Paul"); the Czech Republic and Poland ("Footsteps of John Paul II"); and, increasingly, Germany. Regensburg, associated with the new pope, has been added, and a "Footsteps of Benedict XVI" pilgrimage has been proposed.

As for pilgrimage activities, "there's interest in connecting more with local Catholic parishes," said Scherer. "More groups want to worship with the local community, share dinner, and volunteer to help." Pilgrimage groups have chopped vegetables at a soup kitchen and helped paint a school.

Many parishes want anniversary tours that track the life of the parish patron. For a parish named after St. Francis, a Franciscan-themed itinerary might include linking with a Franciscan parish in Rome and listening to a speaker about St. Francis. "We're getting more requests from religious orders wanting to connect with their roots and story," added Scherer.

School study tours and alumni tours combine spiritual activities with local lectures. "Catholic universities are waking up to the fact that their alumni travel programs should reflect their catholicity."

Scherer recently helped design a trip for a retreat center to see how Jesus is portrayed in religious art in Italy through history. "This gave the trip a story to tell," he said.



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