As the Marketing Manager for Select International Tours and Cruises, I can often be found behind a desk, in the digital world. I get to watch more than one-hundred pilgrimage trips a year, and occasionally, I get to travel. Our company President encourages all of our staff to experience pilgrimage, and this past October, I traveled for 15 days, to meet three of our pilgrimage groups in France, Austria, and Italy. Along the way, I learned that while every pilgrimage is unique, there is something familiar in all of them that binds all pilgrims of all times together.
I arrived in Paris early. I dropped my bags at the hotel and walked out into a brisk October morning. My first destination stood in the distance atop butte Montmartre, the tallest point in Paris’ city limits. With a baguette and espresso in hand, I wound my way through 7 kilometers of streets and alleyways toward the butte.
Sacré-Cœur, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, is an astounding building. It’s a relatively new minor Basilica, having been consecrated in 1919. However, there has been perpetual Adoration of the Holy Eucharist above the Altar there since 1885. Sacré-Cœur is the second most visited location in Paris, which was apparent as I climbed the seemingly endless stairs to the Basilica with hundreds of other tourists. A funicular—a tram of sorts—takes many others to the top, and that was where I was meeting Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio and his group of pilgrims. Sacré-Cœur is a beautiful site, and a popular stop on many pilgrimages to France, but our destination lay behind the immense Basilica.
The Saint-Pierre church began in 1133 and was consecrated in 1147, although rumors of Marian devotion at its location go as far back as 200s with the first chapel being erected in 475 to commemorate the location of the martyrdom of Saint-Denis from which the place now takes its name: Montmartre, the Mount of the Martyr. Our group celebrated Mass there before exploring Sacré-Cœur.
The juxtaposition of my ascent up the 270 steps, from the street to the Basilica—with hundreds of travelers snapping selfies—to the quiet and reverent group of pilgrims preparing to celebrate Mass at Saint-Pierre was dramatic. It immediately reminded me of how different a pilgrimage is from a vacation.
I spent the next few days with the group, first exploring Paris and then taking the bullet train to Toulouse where we celebrated Mass at the Jacobin Convent, where the relics of Saint Thomas Aquinas are housed.
The Jacobin Convent in Toulouse has a history that is far too long to recount in this post. But it is important to note that the local government now owns the church and it functions as a museum. However, they still allow groups to celebrate Mass there. If that sounds confusing, you should have seen the visitors’ faces when Father John, Father Casey, and Deacon John began the Mass.
The acoustics of the room made every word, every prayer, and every response swirl around you. It was difficult to tell where the sound originated, and it struck awe in everyone in the room. People who had come to a museum were observing a Mass that spoke vividly to the mysteries of the Faith, and many stood there, mouths agape, at the beauty of it all.
We arrived in Lourdes late and went to bed ahead of an early morning at the Grotto. There, priests from several countries concelebrated the Mass in the place where Our Lady appeared to Saint Bernadette in 1858. The Mass was celebrated in several languages, and as the Sanctuary loomed over us, it was easy to feel small. But, in the company of faithful from around the world, joined together at the Mass, you also felt that you were a part of a much larger whole.
After the Mass, we toured the home of Saint Bernadette and visited many of the places where her story occurred. That afternoon, pilgrims took time to visit the healing baths, pray the Rosary at the Grotto, and explore the magnificent grounds of the Lourdes Sanctuary. As I walked around, I ran into Father Casey, who was looking up at the Sanctuary with a child-like grin.
“This place is like Catholic Disneyland!” He chuckled. I had to agree, except that Lourdes was so peaceful! I was sad to leave, but like all pilgrims before me know, there are no destinations on pilgrimage, only stops on the journey home.
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I flew from Toulouse to Linz, where I met the Amadeus Star River Cruise Ship that was carrying one of our groups. Select International pioneered the Catholic Pilgrimage River Cruise on the Danube river in 2016, and I was excited to see it in person.
The ship was impressive! I arrived at the dock shortly after the ship arrived. As I walked on board, I was amazed at the décor and the attention to detail. The Cruise Director greeted me warmly and showed me to my room. It was outstanding and as large as most European hotel rooms, only the view changed every few hours.
I explored the ship’s multiple lounges and observation deck before meeting our company President for coffee. Some of the group were returning from an optional tour of Salzburg while the others were resting after an on-ship Retreat Day with Father James Blount, SOLT.
That night I sat with a table of Pilgrims who had stayed on-board for the retreat, and they recounted all that had happened and all that was revealed to them that day. We talked for hours over an exquisite menu, and fine regional wine as the ship departed the dock and sailed under the moonlit Austrian sky.
We woke up docked near Melk and, after a lavish breakfast, boarded buses for the short ride to Melk Abbey. It was founded in 1089, and it is built on an outcrop of a hillside that looks over the town and the Danube River. A cold fog was rolling through the valley and made us feel like we were walking in the clouds above the town.
We celebrated Mass in the Baroque sanctuary of the Abbey. It is larger than life, and the artwork seems to jump off the walls to tell you the Good News. Relics of martyrs line the sanctuary and remind pilgrims that they are in good company here.
After Mass, we explored the Marble Hall, which left many speechless as we viewed the fresco painted by Paul Troger and learned how he created the optical illusion of height with his painting. Then we moved to the library and viewed the extensive and elaborate collection and then toured the museum, which houses many interesting historical artifacts.
Back on the ship, we had another amazing meal and this time, with another table of Pilgrims, we shared all of our faith journeys and prayed for each other in the most organic and moving way I have ever experienced. Pilgrimage, it seems, has a way of bringing out the best in pilgrims. In only a few short days, the group had coalesced into friendships that will last an eternity.
I had an afternoon flight out of Vienna for the next leg of my trip, but I was able to join the group for Mass in a Polish church that overlooked Vienna. Many of us were surprised to see relics of Pope Saint John Paul II in the sanctuary, and it was especially poignant as it was All Saints Day.
After Mass, we took a short city tour of Vienna. We had a few minutes of free time, and several of us made a point of finding sachertorte, a decadent dessert of chocolate cake, apricot jam, dark chocolate icing, and unsweetened whipped cream. YUM!
After dessert, we made our way to Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, which is an architectural delight. Mass was being celebrated, and I had a plane to catch, so I couldn’t fully explore the Cathedral, but the few moments I had were enough to convince me to return.
I bid farewell to the group and departed with well-wishes, blessings, and prayers. The pilgrims on that cruise were some of the most devout I have ever met, and it was an honor to be on pilgrimage with them.
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I arrived in Florence after midnight. The next morning, I walked through the city to meet the group at San Lorenzo Food Market. This bustling market was a feast in every aspect. The pilgrims walked through the market and chose their meal before regrouping for a short walk to the Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross).
A brilliant white façade welcomes pilgrims to Santa Croce, the largest Franciscan church in the world. According to legend, the church here was founded by Saint Francis himself; however, the current building was begun in 1294. The Basilica houses the Pazzi Chapel, which is considered a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture.
We then took a walking tour of the city and took in views of the Duomo, Signoria Square, and the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval stone arch bridge, believed to be originally built by the Romans in the late 900’s. After our tour, we celebrated Mass at the Church of Saint Fillpo Neri in Turin, before boarding the bus for Tuscany.
This trip was a special pilgrimage to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Father Navit’s ordination. The group enjoyed a fabulous meal at a gorgeous Tuscan Villa, where we also stayed for two nights.
Walking from your room to the dining area felt like walking through a novel. The grounds were well-manicured and complete with grapevines, lemon and lime trees, and walls of roses.
The next morning, we took the Bus to Sienna, where we venerated the relics of Saint Catherine and celebrated Mass at Church of Saint Dominic. The church is close to the Piazza del Campo, one of Europe’s most famous medieval squares. We learned about the city from a funny and knowledgeable local guide before heading to Cerna, a famous Tuscan winery for the most delicious meal of the trip. After eating, we toured the winery and learned about winemaking and then headed back to our villa for the night.
On the bus rides, Father led prayers, and our Tour Guide pointed out sights. Many of the pilgrims were already friends and had traveled with Father on multiple occasions. But, they were quick to welcome other newcomers and me. We joked and laughed a lot on the ride, but when it was time to pray the Rosary, the whole bus prayed as one.
Assisi sits atop a hill; it is built in a way that feels like it was placed there during the creation of the world. It fits the landscape so well; it is astounding. The city was the birthplace of Saint Francis, and it is easy to see, while visiting, why he was so enamored with nature. Everywhere you look, the scene is more beautiful than the last place you looked. Mountains and trees meet the sky in an expansive and ever-changing horizon, and as we visited the Church of Saint Clare, we came upon a statue of Saint Francis, sitting and looking over the city. If you blinked, you might believe it was him in the flesh.
The pilgrims were noticeably more relaxed and peaceful after visiting Assisi. Over dinner, it was easy to hear at least a dozen stories of how the place had touched people.
We arrived at the Basilica of Orvieto to astounding news. The church was reintroducing sculptures of the 12 Apostles after a 300-year hiatus, and we were among the first pilgrims to see them. While we explored the Basilica, artisans and craftspeople were busy putting them back in place.
The Basilica houses more than sculptures. We celebrated Mass in the chapel that houses the Miracle of the Eucharist of Bolsena. The Mass was especially moving with a homily that challenged all in attendance. Many of the pilgrims took time to themselves in prayer and reflection on the bus ride home.
My trip ended in Saint Peter’s Square, where our group attended the Wednesday Audience with the Pope. Our company is excellent at getting front-row seats, and it was such fun to hear the announcements of all the countries in attendance. It was also a wonderful way to end my trip, with a blessing from the Holy Father on all the pilgrims.
Our group went on to tour the city, visit the Vatican museum, Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Holy Stairs, the Basilica of Saint John the Lateran, and the Basilica of Saint Mary Major. I, on the other hand, headed for the airport.
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It is impossible to put everything I experienced on this trip into one post. However, I can say that in all of it, I found one overarching truth: pilgrimages begin, but they never end. When you step out of your comfort zone and travel to a sacred site, it begins a change in you. That doesn’t end when you return home. A pilgrimage works on you continuously. I imagine it will for eternity.
If you haven’t experienced pilgrimage, I encourage you to find the space for one in your life. I guarantee you will never be the same!