“Are we there yet?” The famous refrain doesn’t have to be the backseat chorus as the family drives along this summer’s vacation route. Neither do children have to be distracted by electronic entertainments every mile of the way.

With proper care and planning, the annual long summer drive can become an occasion to turn the whole family into a holy family.

“For a Catholic parent, it’s a great time to show how faith and life can be deeply integrated,” says James Pauley, assistant professor of theology and catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. Remembering God while on vacation sends a powerful message to children about the need to live out the Catholic faith always and everywhere, he adds.

And that means outside the car as well as in it. 

“Setting aside some time to pray at one of the missions founded by Junipero Serra before going to a California beach, or spending some time at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.-C. while on the way to tour the monuments and museums” — these are examples of great “detours” for kids to take, says Pauley.

Such stops, he adds, “wonderfully integrate Catholic American history into children’s understanding of the history of our country and provide a great chance to pray as a family and stay connected to the liturgy.” 

Steve and Jane Smalley have experienced these benefits every vacation since the Jubilee year 2000, when they set out by minivan from Edmond, Okla., on a cross-country pilgrimage. The Smalleys have four boys and three girls, ages 21 years to 20 months.

“We learned that you can take a simple family vacation and stop at churches and shrines along the way — it really brings the faith alive for the children now,” says Steve.

Take the Shrine of the North American Martyrs, in Auriesville, N.Y., where, he says, the Holy Spirit seemed to be working overtime on the children’s hearts.

“Our daughter Krysten ended up having a really strong devotion to Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha,” says Jane. And the shrine changed oldest son Tyler’s life. “He understood his faith more; it became real to him,” says Jane. “He was proud to be a part of these people who died for this faith. His devotion and prayer life became more mature.”

Now every vacation drive includes stops at shrines and historic or old churches where the faith and saints come to life for the children.

“They learn the faith hands-on that way,” says Steve. “I haven’t done anything more powerful in teaching the faith than integrating that into our trips.”

The Smalleys have also found a new twist on the old license-plate game. Instead of looking for cars from various states, they look for Catholic churches. “The first one that spots a Catholic church along the way makes the Sign of the Cross and leads a little prayer for that community,” explains Jane.

And then, of course, there’s the Rosary. The older children take turns leading decades. Meanwhile, says Steve, “You work in the little ones any way you can.”

God’s Nature

Marc and Lynn Connelly of Spartanburg, S.C., have seven children, ages 19 to 5. They often combine a vacation drive with a visit to their oldest son Thomas, who’s in seminary in New Hampshire and Canada. Each time, they say, they use the Register’s Rosary Guide.

When the children are looking out the windows, Lynn says some bumper stickers or signs lead to spur-of-the-moment questions. One sign on Iraq led to a discussion on the Church’s teachings on war.

Picking up audio books from the library, especially classics, is a favorite practice of Lynn’s.

“We get a wide variety,” she says, “from something for the little ones to something more challenging. Even the youngest didn’t mind listening to Tom Sawyer.”

Some secular books and sites inspire faith formation, too.

Says James Pauley: “Finding places that tell a story of virtue — the courage of the members of the original Jamestown settlement or the strength of African-American people facing persecution and bigotry as displayed at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham — can inspire children and teenagers to grow in virtue.”

In Gettysburg, Pa., the Smalleys discovered that nuns from Emmitsburg, Md., played a major role tending to wounded Civil War soldiers on the battlefield and helping heal the community later.

“The kids asked a lot of questions about that,” Steve remembers. “It brought their faith alive asking about these courageous nuns — how they responded with their faith and how we’re supposed to do that as Catholics. They saw simple, concrete ways to live your faith, your life, in charity.”

Pauley says places noted for their natural beauty open up a kind of catechesis, too. He notes that, every summer, Pope Benedict XVI takes an extended break and “speaks eloquently about the tremendous benefits to our faith that can result from taking a vacation,” including up-close contact with nature.

“Beauty is a gateway to God. When we’re in the presence of natural beauty, we are at great ‘risk’ of running into God,” Pauley says. He points out that parents can make the most of such moments by exclaiming, “Thank you, God, for making such a beautiful place!”  

Real Rest

Attending a weekday Mass can turn a vacation into a pilgrimage, Pauley continues. (Find schedules anywhere via Masstimes.org or Parishesonline.com.)

Talking about the day’s Scriptures makes for informal and relaxed catechesis for everyone. Also find in advance parishes with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and take a 15-minute break from driving to pray as a family before Jesus really present.

If there’s a squabble, receiving the sacrament of penance as a family while on the road sends a high-priority message to the kids.

Pauley points out that, in his 1988 apostolic exhortation Christifidelis Laici (On the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World), John Paul said one of the greatest dangers facing the lay faithful today is the temptation to live as though faith exists outside “real life.”

Going on vacation, including the Lord and seeing the respite as a pilgrimage is a great way to bring the two together, says Pauley. Traveling together presents “one of the most powerful opportunities to show your kids that being close to Christ trumps any other way to seek out fun, relaxation or adventure as a family.”

See you on the long and winding road — to good fun, fond memories and the waiting heart of Christ.

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest …

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.