COVID Continues to Complicate Catholic Pilgrimage Planning

Vatican visits are particularly problematic for unvaccinated Catholics at the moment, but tour organizers report that demand remains strong despite the ongoing international travel restrictions.

Pope Francis blesses a child while meeting with pilgrims taking part in an ecumenical pilgrimage October 25, 2021 in Vatican City.
Pope Francis blesses a child while meeting with pilgrims taking part in an ecumenical pilgrimage October 25, 2021 in Vatican City. (photo: Divisione Produzione Fotografica / Vatican Media)

TOLEDO, Ohio — As the president of Serra International, Michael Bragg had been looking forward this month to accompanying other Serrans on a trip to Rome that was to include a meeting with Pope Francis. 

But his decision not to get a COVID-19 vaccine will keep him home.

Although Bragg, an attorney from Toledo, Ohio, was willing to submit to Italy’s quarantine and testing requirements for unvaccinated visitors, he was unable to surmount the Vatican City State’s vaccine mandate. He has been told by a Vatican official that there is no formal process for requesting a religious or conscientious exemption, only medical. 

Bragg has declined to take the vaccine because those that are available have ties to aborted fetal cell lines. Furthermore, he said, he has recovered from COVID-19 and does not think he has a medical reason to get vaccinated. 

COVID-19 travel restrictions are causing Catholics like Bragg to cancel or postpone their travel plans to pilgrimage sites in countries like Italy, France, Spain and Israel. In some cases, even those who have been vaccinated are finding the requirements to be daunting because of the testing they must undergo and documentation they have to provide. 

For example, all visitors to Italy from the U.S. to Italy are required to present a negative test taken within 72 hours or 24 hours of departure. Unvaccinated visitors, however, must quarantine for five days once arriving in Italy despite having submitted the negative test. Additionally, a Digital Green Certificate/Green Pass is required to use most public transportation and enter museums, cultural sites and restaurants for indoor seated dining. To obtain a green pass, visitors must show proof of vaccination, recovery from COVID, or a negative test result. 

Maggie McDaniel of Catholic Faith Journeys in Perrysburg, Ohio, told the Register that rather than deal with the restrictions, some are simply putting off their travel plans. 

McDaniel said her company currently has trips scheduled for Poland in June and July, Spain and Italy in October and the Holy Land and Jordan in February, 2023. “We just pray that they can go,” she said. Two other trips, one to the Holy Land that was to have departed in June and another to Italy and Medjugorje in July, have been postponed. 

Father David Kidd, a priest of the Diocese of Toledo was to have led the July pilgrimage. He said after looking at the restrictions, it became clear that some participants would be prohibited from going into hotels, restaurants and museums. Although, like Bragg, the unvaccinated travelers were willing to submit to testing and other requirements, Father Kidd said, “My thought was this would take away from the joy of the trip. We’d be worried more about that instead of the sights and the faith aspect.” The trip has been rescheduled for 2023. 


Strong Demand

Still, even as some Catholics are delaying their travel plans, their reservations often are being quickly filled by others.

Bragg said, for instance, that although he and some of his fellow Serrans dropped out of the February trip, others took their places. The trip includes attendance at the “Symposium toward a Fundamental Theology of the Priesthood” at the Vatican, a general audience with Pope Francis and a visit to the Pontifical North American College. Had Bragg gone on the trip, he also was to have had a private meeting with the Holy Father so that the Pope could bless a monstrance that had been given to Serra. Bragg now hopes this meeting can be rescheduled for later in the year should restrictions be lifted.

John Hale, president and co-owner of Corporate Travel Services in Northville, Michigan, said he, too, has noticed spaces on tours being swiftly filled when some travelers drop out. “People are very eager to travel,” he said.  

Although he has been encouraged that Ireland and some other countries with popular pilgrimage destinations are removing vaccine restrictions, he expects requirements in other places to remain an obstacle for some travelers in the short term. As an alternative, his company has attempted to organize retreats and spiritual conferences in the U.S. 

“We’re trying to give people other options for the interim period to deepen their faith and to grow in holiness,” Said Hale.

Hale said that in addition to vaccine requirements presenting an impediment, there also may be a general reluctance to travel as happened after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001. “When there’s some fear in the world, nature tells us to stay home and circle the wagons. I understand that, but at the same time, we are a people who are not called to be fearful.” 

Catholic author and radio host Teresa Tomeo, who leads tours to Italy through Corporate Travel and maintains a website dedicated to Italy travel, said even as vaccine mandates have prohibited some people from taking trips abroad, she has seen an increase in interest due to pent-up demand. For example, she said a “Saints and Shrines of Italy” pilgrimage she is leading with her husband, Deacon Dominick Pastore, and apologist Steve Ray and his wife, Janet, is going forward in March with more than three dozen pilgrims confirmed.

On the other hand, she said, the annual “WINE (Women in the New Evangelization) and Shrine” women’s pilgrimage to Italy has been postponed, but not due to a lack of interest. Rather, she said, it was because of frequent fluctuations in government regulations. Even so, Tomeo said, a recent retreat she led with WINE’s Kelly Wahlquist in Florida sold out. 

“People are really looking for a pilgrimage or retreat experience and are willing to think outside the box when it comes to having that experience,” Tomeo said, adding, “We are a pilgrimage people and need to relate, especially now.” 

Tomeo herself traveled to Italy three times last year and said she found it extremely easy to navigate. 

“It’s also a great time to travel,” she said. “Tourism is indeed picking up, and there is a nice vibe with folks excited to get out again. That said, it is not yet at rates we saw pre-COVID. One can literally linger in the Sistine Chapel, for example, and other areas of the Vatican, which makes for a much more satisfying experience.” 


Other Destinations

In addition to Ireland, Tomeo said countries with Catholic significance that currently don’t require a vaccine include Portugal and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Medjugorje is located. 

New Orleans-based Catholic Journeys was able to send a tour group to the Holy Land this week, and since May of 2021 regularly has been sending groups to Medjugorje. Owner Jimmy Hyland said the company also is planning its first trip to Poland in two years for the Feast of Divine Mercy in April. Other groups are scheduled to travel to Poland in June and July.

Recently, he said, a group of about 32 that was hoping to go to Portugal, Spain and France has been considering postponing because most of the participants have no intention of getting vaccinated, as is required by Spain and France. 

Hyland said although the group has been planning its trip for a year, the participants recognize that they may have to offer up going now as a sacrifice and wait for another time when they can go without having to compromise their beliefs. 

Serra International’s Bragg said although he is frustrated about not being able to travel to Rome at this time, he is at peace about not getting a vaccine. “It’s one thing if you’ve done your research and formed your conscience, and decided to take the vaccine,” he said. But he believes it would be wrong if he had formed his conscience against taking the vaccine and then violated it for the trip.

McDaniel of Catholic Faith Journeys said for those who do not want to get a COVID vaccine, the limitations on travel can be very disheartening. “I try to look at it that Our Lord suffered greatly and that this may be one of the sacrifices I have to make as far as not traveling. It’s hard. It’s very hard.”


Spiritual Nourishment

Regardless of whether Catholics are willing to comply with COVID vaccination requirements, Corporate Travel’s Hale said he would encourage them to find ways to nourish their faith, whether on a local retreat or at a destination that will work for them. 

“The thing we should fear most is separation from God and we don’t want that to occur through these difficult two years,” he said. “I would implore everyone to prayerfully think about how they’re nourishing their faith life. A pilgrimage or retreat is one way, and there are others, but we should make sure we don’t lose our advancement in the faith during this time. In fact, it could be a time of great spiritual advancement because we’ve had so many trials.”