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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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.