The Catholic Pilgrim’s Progress

Each year, close to a quarter of a million Catholics travel overseas. Many consider themselves pilgrims. Others undertake faith-based trips out of a desire to learn more about salvation history or the Church.

One thing nearly all have in common these days: the witness of Pope John Paul II, the most widely traveled successor of St. Peter in history. The late Holy Father made more than 200 trips to 129 destinations, traveling approximately 800,000 miles.

By combining pilgrimages with apostolic excursions, John Paul spotlighted the availability of holy sites — and reminded us that there are spiritual rewards to be gained by visiting them. He also had much to say about religious travel in his annual World Day of Tourism messages. Here are the top 10 points I think he stressed most strongly to Catholic travelers:

Invite God Along

Pope John Paul II often encouraged us to go on vacation, but not to take a vacation from God. He urged us to integrate our faith into every element of our trips and, if possible, to spend time at local shrines or churches.

“Tourism enables us to take a break from daily life, work and the obligations that necessarily bind us,” he said on the 2001 World Day of Tourism. “Thus man can ‘consider his own existence and others’ through different eyes: Free from his impelling daily concerns, he has an occasion to rediscover his own contemplative dimension and recognize the traces of God in nature and especially in other human beings.”

Meet God’s People

John Paul is believed to have been seen by — and met — more people than anyone in history. He encouraged us to meet people as we travel, not just see the sights.

“Tourism puts us in touch with other ways of living, other religions and other perceptions of the world and its history,” he said. “This helps people to discover themselves and others, both as individuals and as communities, immersed in the vast history of humanity, heirs to and responsible for a universe that is both familiar and strange. This generates a new vision of others that frees us from the risk of remaining closed in on ourselves.”

Experience Culture

We all have memories of the Pope wearing Mexican sombreros and African headgear, as well as enjoying performances of traditional dances from every corner of the globe. John Paul did not refrain from sampling local food specialties or participating in local customs.

“Instead of shutting themselves away in their own culture, people today are invited more than ever to open themselves to other cultures and to see themselves in the light of other ways of thinking and living,” he said. “Tourism is a privileged occasion for this dialogue between civilizations because it sets before the traveler the specific riches that distinguish one civilization from another; because it summons the traveler to remember history and the social, religious and spiritual traditions that history has shaped; and because it favors an ever deepening exchange of riches between people.”

Enjoy God’s Creation

We’ve all seen the photos of Pope John Paul II gazing at mountains, walking down forest paths, or admiring the beauty of a lake or ocean.

“[T]he beauty of creation is a sign that reveals God’s greatness and goodness,” he reminded us. “In his parables, Jesus invites people to contemplate the nature that surrounds them to learn that confidence in the heavenly Father must be total (see Luke 12: 22-28) and faith must be constant” (Luke 17:6).

Relax and Rest

There is one thing that Pope John Paul II always wore when he traveled: a smile. Never did he look so tranquil, so at ease, as when he was taking in sights he hadn’t seen in a long time — if ever.

“On their travels, tourists discover other places, other landscapes and different ways of perceiving and experiencing nature,” he said. “Accustomed to their own home and city, the usual landscapes and familiar voices, tourists see other images, hear new sounds and admire the diversity of a world that no one can grasp entirely. As they do so, they surely grow in appreciation of all that surrounds them and the sense that it must be protected.”

Look, Listen and Learn

The pursuit of knowledge and truth were always at the forefront of Pope John Paul’s life. Ever the intellectual, Pope John Paul II wanted to soak up as much learning as he could in his travels — not only through reading, which he did so much of back home in Rome, but also through experiencing people and places.

“Instead of shutting themselves away in their own culture,” he said, “people today are invited more than ever to open themselves to other cultures and to see themselves in the light of other ways of thinking and living.”

Foster Solidarity

Throughout his travels, the Holy Father always made sure to set aside time to meet individuals and immerse himself in communities.

“Tourism is a privileged occasion for dialogue between civilizations,” he said, “because it sets before the traveler the specific riches that distinguish one civilization from another; because it summons the traveler to remember history and the social, religious and spiritual traditions which history has shaped; and because it favors an ever-deepening exchange of riches between people.”

Get Some Exercise

Pope John Paul II knew that our bodies are a gift from God. During his younger years, he was an avid athlete. Remember his ski trips and his vigorous hikes through the mountains?

“Athletic activity, in fact, highlights not only man’s valuable physical abilities, but also his intellectual and spiritual capacities,” he said in his 2000 message on sports. “It is not just physical strength and muscular efficiency, but it also has a soul and must show its complete face. This is why a true athlete must not let himself be carried away by an obsession with physical perfection, or be enslaved by the rigid laws of production and consumption, or by purely utilitarian and hedonistic considerations.”

Remember the Poor

It was common to see John Paul stopping to visit the poor, the sick, the infirm and the elderly during his travels.

“With its call for inner conversion and reconciliation with our brethren, the Jubilee invites believers and people of good will to establish a social order based on mercy, justice and peace,” he said in his 2000 World Day of Tourism message. “It spurs us to be aware of the responsibilities we all have toward … the situations of poverty and exploitation that affect so many people and numerous countries of the world.”


Forge Family Bonds

Among the major themes of his 27-year pontificate, few occupied his attention more than strengthening the family. What better time could there be for making memories than on the road and in holy sites together with the people we love most?

“As the family goes,” he said in one of his most famous quotes, “so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”

If I had to synopsize Pope John Paul II’s thoughts on travel in one sentence, I would quote one of his favorite saints, Augustine: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

Kevin J. Wright is

religious-travel manager for Globus Tours (