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placeholder February 17, 2014   •   VOL. 52, NO. 4   •   Oakland, CA

A Christian tourist kneels and prays in front of the star, where tradition holds Jesus was born, in the grotto in the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in 2011.
Debbie Hill/cns

Pilgrimages let travelers walk in the footsteps of saints

There's a big difference between going on a tour and going on a pilgrimage.

A tourist sees the sites and the historical places.

A pilgrim, says Father Jeffrey Keyes, CPPS, "walks in the footsteps of saints," picking up, along the way, "a little bit of spirituality and inspiration from them."

"You're going to meet a person," he said.

Father Keyes, the pastor of St. Edward Church in Newark, will be the chaplain this fall on "The Glory of Catholic Italy," a tour that will be led by Catholic author and broadcaster Patrick Madrid.

Father Keyes led a pilgrimage to Italy in 2012, visiting sites associated with St. Gaspar del Bufalo, founder of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, of which Father Keyes is a member.

For that tour, for which he served as organizer, chaplain and tour guide, he prepared an itinerary of the saint's life. Pilgrims could read this in advance and he could refer to it as he gave them more detailed information when they visited the sites.

A pilgrimage to Italy provides an opportunity to meet many of these holy people, especially for Californians.

"In California, you can make a pilgrimage to Carmel," where Blessed Junipero Serra is buried. That's it, he said.

In Rome, it's more of a question of how many saints are buried in one church.

"You turn around and there's another saint," he said, "ones you know, ones you don't know."

The wealth of spirituality in Rome is echoed by Gary Foster of Pentecost Tours, which provides services for churches, dioceses and other travelers. The Catholic Voice advertises tours by this company.

"Italy, the heart of the Church, is blessed with saints and martyrs," Foster said.

In preparing for a pilgrimage, Foster said, "the main thing is to go there with an expectation of increasing your faith."

"It happens when you get there, especially the Holy Land."

Foster, who has traveled to the Holy Land at least 10 times, said, "It never gets old.

"If you're in the Holy Land, every place you go to is a whole new awakening of the faith."

He has heard people say, as they move from site to site along their journey, "I didn't think it could get any better, but it does.

"Every Catholic should go to the Holy Land once in their life," he said.

He stressed the importance of working with a knowledgeable pilgrimage provider. Among the benefits of such an arrangement can be seen in his company's ability, for example, to arrange quickly pilgrimages to Rome for the canonization of Blessed John Paul XXIII and Blessed John Paul II in April.

"It's going to be incredibly crowded," he said.

"Pope Francis is extremely popular," he said, "especially in Italy." Traditionally the papal audiences on Wednesdays are held indoors, usually 5,000 people, but they are now held outside. "The hall won't hold enough people," he said.

And they're not just pilgrims from far-off lands, he said. "Everybody in town seems to come," he said.

Felipe Vázquez, 28, learned the value of his pilgrimage to Italy in ways he never expected, he said.

Vázquez, who traveled with Father Keyes' group in 2012, said the pilgrimage "made everything so tangible. You read about this saint, and now you go to the places he went, and see his relics. It brought me to a closer connection."

Being there was so important, he said. "I feel like in the age of the internet, it's so easy to see pictures or virtual tours," Vázquez said. "Nothing is like being there."

His father passed away last year during Holy Week. Just months before, "I was praying for him every place I went to that had an altar or relics."

After his father's death, which came unexpectedly at home, Vásquez said, "Here I was, looking over my dad with the priest praying the litany of saints — saints I'd been to see."

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