Having backpacked his way across 18 countries and led guided tours to Europe and the Holy Land, Kevin Wright is now a frequent contributor to Catholic radio, television and periodicals (including the Register).
He's also written three pilgrim guidebooks — Catholic Shrines of Western Europe, Catholic Shrines of Central and Eastern Europe and Europe's Monastery & Convent Guesthouses. This summer film crews will record a young-adult pilgrimage he is leading to France and Italy. Wright, who has recorded visits to more than 150 pilgrimage sites, spoke about his travel-related endeavors with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.
Drake: Did you travel much growing up?
Aside from family trips on the West Coast and to visit family in the Midwest, we didn't travel a great deal. I never planned to one day go out and ‘conquer the world.’;
How did you get your start traveling?
Midway through college at Washington State University, I met a couple of guys at the Newman Center who introduced me to some excellent Catholic material on Church-approved Marian sites, eucharistic-miracle sites, and the saints. After reading through the material, I was dying to see these places, so I planned to take a trip after graduation to see the great shrines of Europe.
I graduated in 1995, and took my first trip to Europe that summer. There were no Catholic guidebooks available at the time. In many cases, all I had was a church name and a city name. I mapped the entire trip out and spent two months visiting nine different countries
How did the idea for your first guidebook come about?
Halfway through that trip, while in Rome, I met two women who had just graduated from Thomas Aquinas College in California. One of them suggested the idea of writing a Catholic travel guidebook. That one statement affected my entire life. As soon as she said it, I knew that there was a market for the book and that it needed to be done.
It was the right concept at the right time. There was a vacuum in the Catholic book industry regarding Catholic travel guidebooks. Now, for the first time, you are starting to see a travel section in many Catholic bookstores.
In addition to your pilgrimage travels and writings, you also work full-time in the secular tour industry. Tell me about your job.
I work as a product manager for one the world's largest tour operators, Globus & Cosmos, based in Littleton, Colo. I am in charge of developing and designing the company's North American tours.
You must meet a lot of interesting people on your trips.
During my first European trip, while in Rome, I had signed up for a tour of the Vatican Gardens. Unfortunately, the tour ended up being full, which was a big setback as I was scheduled to leave Rome the next day. I begrudgingly signed up for the tour the next day and delayed my plans to leave Rome. While on that tour, I met my best friend, who is now a Catholic high school moral theology teacher in Valley Forge, Pa. What appeared to be a roadblock ended up being one of the greatest blessings of my life.
Do you have a favorite travel destination?
One place that has touched me tremendously is the shrine-convent in Nevers, France. The first time I went there, I remember walking into the chapel and turning to my right. There, in a beautiful, clear glass reliquary lies the incorrupt body of St. Bernadette Soubirous. I walked up to the altar rail and was able to get within six to eight feet of the reliquary. It's unbelievable.
Her hands are folded in prayer with a rosary and her face has a perfect expression of peace and contentment. The purity that emanates from her face is incredibly inspiring — it's like you're looking at the purity of God itself. She is my adopted patron saint and the shrine has become my personal favorite in Western Europe.
My favorite site in Eastern Europe is the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania. This is a place that faced incredible persecution by the Russian and Communist authorities over the past two centuries. The faithful would risk their lives to place crosses and other religious symbols on the hill. Each time, the authorities would tear them down. The last time it was bulldozed was 1975. Today there are more than 50,000 crucifixes and religious symbols knitted closely together on the compact hill. It is a very, very emotional place of pilgrimage. Pope John Paul II visited the hill and celebrated Mass there in 1993. Following a common tradition, I left eight small crosses of my own to symbolize my family members.
Through your travels, you share a commonality with the Holy Father, history's most traveled pope. Do you have any insight into what might inspire Pope John Paul II to travel so much?
When Pope John Paul II visits his flock around the world, he considers it a pilgrimage. Wherever he goes, one of the first things he always says upon arriving is that he comes as a pilgrim. He travels to evangelize and re-evangelize.
When I travel, my purpose is to allow God to evangelize me. When I go to Lourdes, for example, he evangelizes me in regards to who Mary truly is as the Mother of God. When I travel to a eucharistic-miracle site like Santarem, Portugal, it is an opportunity for God to evangelize me about a truth of the faith and about Jesus Christ's presence in the Blessed Sacrament.
What are the benefits of pilgrimage travel?
A pilgrimage has several benefits. First and foremost are the spiritual. A pilgrimage offers the opportunity to journey closer to God and allow him to work intimately on your soul. Second, there are social benefits. Whether you are traveling independently or with a group, you are able to meet new people and make new friends. Third, physically, a pilgrimage allows you to get outside and exercise. Finally, psychologically, it gets you out of your daily routine so that when you go home you can have a fresh start.
Features correspondent Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.