Pilgrims Prosper

The economy is down, but that doesn’t seem to be putting a dent in religious travel.

UPSALA, Minn. — Rob Schumer has been on two previous religious pilgrimages — leading youth groups to World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, and Sydney, Australia. But in 2010 he’s hoping to take a religious journey all his own to the Holy Land. His previous trips have taught him something about the Church.

“I have a better realization that the Catholic faith isn’t dead and that it will continue for future generations,” said Schumer, a youth minister from Upsala, Minn. “When I saw all those kids from all these different countries, I knew that the Catholic Church was alive and thriving.”

In a recent Gallup Poll, 42% of respondents said that they had delayed a vacation over the past 60 days in order to help make ends meet. Yet, despite the economic downturn, experts expect 2010 and 2011 to be banner years for religious travel.

Kevin Wright, president and founder of the World Religious Travel Association, said that the next two years look to be “fascinating” for Catholic and religious travel. “Tour operators expect 500,000 visitors for the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany, which only happens every decade,” he said.

In addition, noted Wright, Spain has declared 2010 a holy year because the feast of St. James, July 25, falls on a Sunday, which means that many will be traveling to Santiago de Compostela, whose cathedral has a relic of St. James the Apostle.

Other big events in the next two years include:

• the Year for Priests, in which many seminarians and priests are traveling to Ars, France, where St. John Vianney served his entire priestly life;

• a rare exposition of the Shroud of Turin in 2010;

• World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid, Spain.

Demand overall for such trips is high. According to a study done by the U.S. Travel Association a couple of years ago, one out of every four Americans is interested in a faith-based trip. And the industry as a whole has grown tremendously over the past two decades.

According to Wright, religious tourism is, in fact, one of the oldest forms of tourism. “The first tour operator was Thomas Cook, a Baptist minister from England,” said Wright. “He took the first group to the Holy Land in 1861.”

Cook’s business has grown into what is now one of the world’s largest travel agencies.

Those who conduct tours say they’ve seen many changes since 1861.

“Just as there has been growth in the faith-based publishing, music and film industries, there has been a trend of people putting their vacation dollars towards a faith-based vacation or pilgrimage,” said Wright.

The definition of religious travel also has changed. “Today, religious travel can include travel to a holy site with a religious intention, missionary travel or a vacation with missionary intent, travel to a religious gathering, or travel for leisure with a fellowship intent, such as a Catholic cruise,” said Wright. “Today, modern pilgrimages tend to include both the religious aspect as well as the nonreligious aspect, such as leisure sightseeing.”

Nick Mancino, president of New York-based Regina Tours, which leads between 150 to 200 tours per year, has also seen many changes over the past two decades.

“Up until about 10 years ago, the Holy Land was one of the last places Catholics thought about going,” said Mancino. “But since the popes [Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI] have gone there, it has become a more popular destination.”

Other changes Mancino has seen include an increase in younger pilgrims and a desire for a more comfortable experience.

“In the old days, travelers went for two or three weeks. Because of cost and time, most travelers were retired,” said Mancino. “Now, younger people are traveling, and most travelers are going for only eight to 10 days at a time.”

Tour operators such as Youth in Europe, Regina Tours and Globus have made World Youth Day a regular part of their religious travel offerings. Regina Tours has been involved in the last six World Youth Day gatherings.

Both Mancino and Wright noted that safety and comfort are foremost on pilgrimage travelers’ minds.

“Thirty-five years ago, people didn’t care how they flew or where they stayed,” said Mancino. “Now, they’re more prone to ask how they’ll get there and whether the hotel is a one-star or four-star hotel.”

Mancino added that whereas travel used to be thought of as a luxury, today people see it “as more of a necessity to re-energize ourselves and see and experience something that will make you feel different than you did before.”

Schumer said that the highlight of his World Youth Day trip to Germany in 2005 was the Stations of the Cross.

“They were performed along trails in the woods,” said Schumer. “Because all of the distractions were taken away, I could focus on the stations. They were so enriching that I gained a much greater love and respect for the Stations of the Cross. I’ll always remember that.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.

Top 5 Religious Destinations (Annual Visitors)

• Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine,

Mexico City — 15-20 million

• Vatican/Rome — 10 million

n Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine,

Lourdes, France — 6 million

• Padre Pio Shrine, San Giovanni

Rotondo, Italy — 5-6 million

• Holy Land — 3 million

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.