In 1988 I was working for American Express and I was a top performer on our sales and account management team. In those days the travel benefits were amazing and the company was able to offer some incredible travel rewards to its employees. We had all of our expenses paid, and every detail of the itinerary was managed by an impeccable team. We flew into Athens for two days, then boarded a Sun Line cruise to Crete, Rhodes, Santorini, Kusadasi and Myknos. I knew nothing of the places I would visit but couldn’t wait to see Greece!
At the time I was nominally practicing my Catholic faith, having been confirmed in 1979 during college. Missing Mass wasn’t even on my mind, much less learning more about the Biblical aspect of this once in a lifetime trip. I enjoyed the camaraderie, the food, and the entertainment, as well as being on the ocean and the information being provided by our tour guides.
We had a late and fun evening the night before sailing into Kusadasi. We didn’t have any details of the excursion we would embark on the next morning and many people were tired by this time and decided to sleep in. When we boarded the bus early the next morning at the port in Turkey, they provided us with little booklets called “Ephesus”. I think we were only told that it was a recent archaeological dig that we would see ancient history. However, on the drive up to Ephesus the guide pointed out a small house on a cliff and said that it was believed that the Virgin Mary lived there with St. John after Jesus’ death. Boy did my ears perk up then!
As we stepped off the bus and onto ancient limestone roads where Christian symbols of fish were carved, we knew this was something special. The fullness of the reality that I would be walking the streets where St. Paul preached to the Ephesians overwhelmed me. But I was very sad for a Christian couple who stayed behind because I knew they would be devastated when they learned where we had been.
Since that trip I have traveled to many other holy places, yet have only ever been on one pilgrimage and it was to The Holy Land. When you go on a pilgrimage you are not a tourist. You are there to pray. You are there to soak in all of the pain and the glory that comes with following Christ. You put yourself in the events that took place in that exact setting and contemplate what those who have gone before us experienced. You are there to learn.
The difference between a vacation and a pilgrimage is significant. Vacations are there to make you feel good and to escape. Pilgrimages are there to remind you that you are dust and to dust you will return. There is wonder and awe, but there is also humility. I’ve been to Italy four times but never on a pilgrimage, yet I long to return and put myself in the footsteps of St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua so I can truly experience the history of our faith. And I am so looking forward to following the Footsteps of St. Paul in May of 2023. I hope I will see you there.