A Pilgrimage or a Religious Tour?

Assisi, Italy. Photo by Deacon Gene Townsend

San Antonio International Airport was bustling as 34 pilgrims prepared to head for the Holy Land.

Expectations were high. Along with the rest of the pilgrims, we were immersed in prayer before departure, as we had been for two months prior to the trip. Deacon Tom and Mary Jane Fox, co-directors of the Pilgrim Center of Hope, sponsored and led the pilgrimage. The center is an apostolate approved by and serving the Archdiocese of San Antonio. To prepare travelers for each pilgrimage, Deacon Tom and Mary Jane have gatherings to not only inform, but also to build a spiritual community, before embarking on the spiritual journey.

More than 25 years ago, Deacon Tom and Mary Jane left jobs in hotel management and the travel industry and teamed up to answer a call to serve the Lord in the ministry of pilgrimages.

“We are going on a pilgrimage, not a tour of the Holy Land,” Mary Jane emphasized over and over.

What’s the difference? I asked myself.

Mary Jane explained that a pilgrimage takes a person deeper into his or her faith. They visit holy sites and places, but there is also time for daily Mass, prayer, the Rosary, and journaling. A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey with fun and friendships made along the way.

“There are several good Catholic agencies offering pilgrimages. It is important to go on a true pilgrimage, not just a religious tour,” she said. She stressed the importance of checking the fine print regarding the true costs and carefully reading the itinerary to ensure that daily Mass is offered as well as scheduled time at the holy sites for prayer and reflection.

The Pilgrim Center offers international pilgrimages to destinations that include the Holy Land, Rome, Fatima, Lourdes, Greece, Turkey, Mexico, and shrines in Spain, France, and Italy. Whether traveling with the Pilgrim Center or planning your own pilgrimage, these destinations are awe-inspiring places to develop your faith and learn about the Catholic Church.

Holy Land

As my wife, Jeannie, and I reflected on what we experienced during the 12 days of our Holy Land pilgrimage, it was mind-boggling.

We visited Bethlehem in the West Bank and the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of our Savior. Inside the church, which is a basilica, we found the stairs leading down to the cave and the spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The silence was deafening when, along with our fellow pilgrims, we pondered and prayed as we were taken back more than 2,000 years to the momentous occasion of our Lord’s birth.

As profound as visiting our Lord’s birthplace was, it was topped when our group visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and celebrated Mass in the inner tomb of Christ. Yes, we celebrated in the actual place — the tomb — where Christ lay for three days before his resurrection. The space where we celebrated Mass was quite small, with only room for four pilgrims behind the Catholic priest. We were shuttled in four at a time so everyone could experience Mass in the tomb.

In Capernaum we visited the Church of St. Peter, which was built over the ancient home of St. Peter. There we also visited the synagogue ruins where Christ gave his powerful sermon on the Eucharist, found in chapter six of St. John’s Gospel.

With my Bible open, I looked out over the Sea of Galilee and then down to verse 51: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

We attended Mass on the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee. This is where Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount. Looking down into the Sea of Galilee, with my Bible in hand and reading the sermon Christ gave long ago, is an experience that will continue to resonate throughout the rest of my life.

The Pilgrim Center of Hope sponsors pilgrimages to several other holy sites. The approach and philosophy is the same: Offer a time for Mass every day and allow time for private prayer — the Rosary, Chaplet of Divine Mercy, or other prayers important to the Catholic faith. People also have the opportunity to sit or walk around these holy places to reflect on and ponder their significance.

The overseas pilgrimages last about 10 to 12 days and cost from $4,000 to $5,000 for double occupancy. Prices vary depending on airfares, hotel rates, and time of year. However, pilgrimages normally are in the same price range as religious tours. It is not the price; it is the deep faith experience that makes a pilgrimage the better value for the money.

Holy Land first, then Italy

Whenever people ask my opinion of where to go on their first pilgrimage, I always recommend the Holy Land, followed by Italy. The Holy Land gives us the spiritual and experiential context to better understand Jesus Christ and his mission on earth. In Italy, Vatican City — completely surrounded by Rome — is the world headquarters of the Church where the pope (the successor to the St. Peter, who was the first pope) resides and works.

St. Peter’s Basilica is both a beautiful and imposing building to behold. When possible, a pilgrimage to Rome should include Mass in the basilica, sometimes at the tomb of St. Peter. I know nothing about art, but when I entered the Sistine Chapel and gazed upward, time stood still.

The art is breathtaking — and so powerful that its images traverse through the eyes to the brain and into the heart. I had goose bumps thinking that the relics of our first pope lie nearby in the lower level of the basilica. The pilgrimage to Italy usually includes a visit to Assisi to see the places where one of our great reformers, St. Francis, listened to God’s call to serve him totally. He left a ministry that is still profoundly affecting the Catholic faithful.

Greece and Turkey, footsteps of St. Paul

St. Paul evangelized much of the Roman Empire, traveling extensively throughout Greece and Turkey. A pilgrimage to this area must include a stop in Ephesus to visit the House of the Virgin Mary. Tradition says our Holy Mother spent her last days here.

We also visited the island of Patmos and the Cave of the Apocalypse, where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. Lindos, Rhodes, Crete, Santorini, the Areopagus (Mars Hill), Corinth, Athens, Thessalonica, and Philippi are also normally included on this pilgrimage.

Fatima, Portugal

In 1917 Our Lady appeared to three children — Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta — and during six apparitions brought a message focusing on prayer, repentance, reparation, and sacrifice. In one of the apparitions, our Holy Mother gave the three children a vision of hell. She asked that this prayer be added to the Rosary: “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.”

An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 people witnessed the miracle of “the Dancing Sun” at the last apparition in October 1917. Modern-day cosmologists are skeptical that this miracle happened. However, these skeptics have not been able to convince the many thousands who saw this miracle firsthand and the faithful who weren’t there but still believe.

Lourdes, France

God often calls the most lowly and “insignificant” people to accomplish his most important work. Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes was one of those people. When she was only 14, the Virgin Mary first appeared to her, followed by 17 additional apparitions. During one of Mary’s appearances, she told Bernadette to drink from a spring and wash herself there. The spring was actually only a little amount of muddy water, but gradually it became clear. That spring still flows today, and it continues to be the source of numerous healings.

Although St. Bernadette was extremely sick throughout her life, God chose not to heal her. However, she took great joy that God healed hundreds of others. The grotto where the apparitions occurred is a beautiful and serene place to visit. Jeannie and I spent several hours in quiet prayer and contemplation as we watched people touch the walls, hoping to be healed from their physical ailments.


The Pilgrim Center of Hope has a new offering: a pilgrimage to Mexico City and Puebla, Mexico. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is one of the most important Catholic shrines in North America.

In December 1531 Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego, a simple and humble man of faith, at Tepeyac Hill (north of present-day Mexico City). She told Juan Diego to approach the bishop and ask him in her name to build a chapel at Tepeyac. Later Our Holy Mother told Juan Diego to gather some roses and take them in his cloak to the bishop. When Juan Diego opened his cloak, the bishop fell to his knees. For on the cloak — or tilma — was the image of the Blessed Virgin. The tilma is now located in the basilica.

In Puebla, approximately 80 miles southeast of Mexico City, pilgrims can visit the second largest cathedral in Mexico, the Puebla Cathedral. The Baroque-style cathedral’s main portal was finished in 1664; the structure’s twin bell towers at 226 feet are the tallest in Mexico.

Before embarking on a pilgrimage, remember these words by Pope Benedict XVI from an address he gave on Nov. 6, 2010 while visiting the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

To go on pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art, or history. To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.

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