By Bob Sullivan
Travel has been one of my hobbies for the past 25 years. At first, I was interested in seeing mountains, beaches, oceans, and famous cities. I saw amazing things and experienced a lot of different cultures, but each time, I always felt like something was missing. About seven years ago, something happened that changed the way I look at travel today.
In July 2011, we set out for a family trip. Our children were all pretty young, and we had never driven further than Kansas City with the entire family (seven of us in all) in one vehicle. Therefore, I did not set any concrete plans about where we would go and how far we would try to drive each day. Maybe we would make it to Glacier National Park and maybe we would turn around at North Platte and return home. We had planned to be gone for two weeks, which meant that we had to find a Catholic Church on at least two occasions during our trip.
It was the second Mass where I realized that my family had an amazing ability to evangelize people. We walked into a Catholic church in Eureka, Calif. (yes, we made it to Glacier National Park, then kept going). The people in the church were excited to see a family at Mass and after Mass, several people, including the priest, came up to talk to us. We were sharing the joy of Christ by simply going to Mass.
We did not really stop at any other religious sites on the 2011 family trip. We drove for more than 3,500 miles and saw grizzly bears, forest fires, the Space Needle, the Pacific Ocean, redwood forests, Lake Tahoe, the barren deserts of Utah and many other things, but we didn’t think to make it a faith experience, other than making sure we went to Sunday Mass.
After that trip, I started to build religious stops into our family trips. Since 2011, our five daughters have been through all 48 contiguous states. More importantly, we have visited some of the most beautiful churches and shrines in the United States. Some of the highlights have been St. Louis Basilica in St. Louis, the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Alabama, the Mission Churches in southern California, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C., St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City (both the new one and the old one), St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y., the Cross In The Woods in Indian River, Mich., and Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisc.
Everywhere we go, we interact with people who are intrigued by our family. While some people are clearly confused as to why we would have more than one or two children, most are very gracious and treat us with kindness and joy.
Carmen and I have also gone on some pilgrimages without the kids. We’ve gone on pilgrimage to places like Italy, Poland, England, Greece, and Turkey. But as we went on these international pilgrimages, I came to believe that these experiences would be transformative for our children. While we gained a deeper appreciation for our Catholic faith while traveling as a family in the United States, taking our children to foreign pilgrimage sites could be even more powerful.
We just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with our two oldest daughters who are now 18 and 16 years old. To save money, we did this pilgrimage on our own, not with a tour group. We invited a friend of ours who is a priest, which made us a group of five pilgrims. I can honestly say that this was not only an excellent idea; it was a powerful faith experience for all of us.
Unlike a pilgrimage to a church, a shrine, or a location relevant to a specific saint, the Holy Land gave us the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Christ Himself. We would sit at the holy sites and read and discuss the Scriptures specific to that holy site and pray the decade of the rosary specific to that holy site as well. We were on our own schedule, so we were never rushed.
As Catholics, we have a unique opportunity to share our faith with others simply by living our faith as a family. We also have the unique opportunity to visit beautiful churches and shrines, even the Holy Land, to experience our faith in an intimate way. We can see, touch, and taste our faith in ways not accessible to many non-Catholics.
I think it is essential that we do this when our children are still living in our homes. Once they graduate from high school, they will be less likely to take advantage of something as powerful as a pilgrimage and if they do, it will be when they are much older. Until then, they might travel to exotic locations, but they will come back without the transformation available through a good pilgrimage. I know; I’ve tried both ways.
We plan to take each of our children to the Holy Land as they are about to graduate from high school. In the meantime, we’ll continue visiting the beautiful places closer to us, even places as close as St. Thomas Aquinas in Lincoln, the Holy Family Shrine near Gretna, St. Anthony Church in Steinauer, St. Mary Church in Benedict, Kan., and St. Francis Catholic Church in Humphrey.
You don’t have to go far to go on a pilgrimage, but if you can, go to the Holy Land and take your teenagers with you.