One of the things that I enjoy more than anything else is travel. Visiting new places and experiencing things for the first time seems to never get old. Whether I’m getting in my car and driving a few hours to just get out of town for a day or getting on a plane and flying half way around the world, the new sights, sounds, smells, and flavors are a sure way to break up the monotony of daily life.
I have been blessed to travel to most of the states in the U.S. as well as through Europe on 5 different trips. Most of those travels were just vacations, but a few of those trips are what I would call pilgrimages.
From driving to visit a Shrine or a monastery a few hours away to traveling to Rome and Assisi, I find that these trips are a special opportunity not only to enjoy getting away and seeing a new place, but also to focus on myself and on my relationship with God. I think of my first trip to Italy; it was advertised as a pilgrimage but I had signed up for it more as a vacation. I had been trying to discern God’s will for my life and was about ready to give up on the possibility of going to the seminary. I asked God to do something special on that trip if he wanted me to continue discerning priesthood, otherwise I would be satisfied in pursuing my career and the vocation to married life (Tip: Don’t ask God to do something if you aren’t serious).
The trip started off great, not only was I having a great time with great Catholic people, but I was getting to see beautiful historic sights and visit and pray in beautiful churches. On our first night in Rome, we were offered tickets to a concert at the Vatican. This was to be our one free night in the city and while I wouldn’t have sought out tickets to the symphony as a way to spend the evening, I thought, “why not?” Only about 4 or 5 of the group took the tickets and as we were leaving for the concert, the guide told us that there was a possibility the Pope might attend and told us to grab seats on the main aisle just in case. Well, here we are in this hall in Vatican City, the concert is getting ready to start, and here comes Pope Benedict XVI down the aisle. We crowded up against the barricade hoping to get a close up look as he walked by. Not only did he walk by, but he came right up to our side of the aisle and I got to touch his hand as he came past! I spent the rest of that night, and the rest of the trip, on a high and came back from the trip and spoke with Fr. Martin about the process of applying to the seminary. Other pilgrimage experiences since then haven’t been quite that dramatic, but still have produced quite memorable and impactful moments of prayer and reflection that stay with me and provide a point of meditation that I can return to again and again.
Now this year may be your first trip to Steubenville or it may be your fifth, and I’m not promising the Pope will show up or that you will have some other life altering experience or moment of vocational discernment clarity during the weekend. However, I am suggesting that this IS a special opportunity. Even when going someplace I’ve been before, I’ve found travel to be a cherished opportunity to step out of the realm of the familiar sights and sounds of my everyday life and to refresh and recharge my spiritual and emotional batteries. My best recommendation is this: come without preconceived notions of what will happen that weekend, be open to being surprised and outside your comfort zone, and (if you’re brave) ask God to move in your life through something that happens. Know that just being attuned to the fact that you are in a different place and doing different things can make all the difference.