Sirmione on Lake Garda in northern Italy is one destination of an OCP pilgrimage set for April 2022. (Ivan 63/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)
Sirmione on Lake Garda in northern Italy is one destination of an OCP pilgrimage set for April 2022. (Ivan 63/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)
With the exception of the Holy Land, the mother of all holy destinations, overseas pilgrimages are back.

For the most part, trips are going to Europe in 2022. Israel’s strong coronavirus entry requirements — including a quarantine period — have led tour operators to wait on planning trips to the land where Jesus lived.

There is pent-up enthusiasm for the sacred trips.

Oregon Catholic Press, publisher of this newspaper, has organized a pilgrimage to Italy for April 18-30, 2022. Msgr. Tim Murphy, president emeritus of Central Catholic High School in Portland, will lead the trip. The group will visit Venice, Padua, Sirmione on Lake Garda, Verona, Florence, Siena, Assisi and Rome. Plans call for a papal audience, the pope’s schedule permitting.

“We are excited by the itinerary,” said Carol Percin, longtime organizer of OCP Pilgrimages.

Workers like Percin now must keep an eye on not only on weather, Vatican schedules and airline plans, but also the entry regulations of nations and COVID-19 infection rates. “It’s a dynamic situation,” she said.

Percin’s chief concern is the safety and health of pilgrims, so OCP is taking no chances. She makes sure airlines have tough cleaning and health protocols. In Italy, visitors must qualify for a pass proving they have been vaccinated fully or have received a negative test for COVID-19 within the previous 48 hours. Vatican social distancing regulations mean smaller crowds, including at papal audiences. Chances are that a pilgrimage now will offer a more intimate experience.

Percin is getting a good amount of interest, especially from OCP’s repeat pilgrims.

“Some people are reluctant to travel, and we understand that,” said Percin. “But we know people who are traveling. There is a safe way to do it.”

OCP also is planning a pilgrimage to the Passion plays in Oberammergau, Germany, for September 2022.

Sandra Craven, general manager of Massachusetts-based Pro Catholic Tours, has already run trips this year to Italy, Poland, Ireland and Scotland. She reminds pilgrims from the United States that they will need to pass a COVID-19 test to get back into their own country.

“There are people who can’t wait to go and others are apprehensive,” Craven said. “Some chose not to get vaccinated so cannot go overseas. In lieu of that we offer domestic travel.”

Craven admits there are a lot more logistics and that she has had to deal with more disappointed and angry people as of late.

To those who are nervous about travel, Craven explains that pilgrims can take the same safety measures they follow in the United States — masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing as much as possible, staying with a small group. Pilgrims should expect a price bump for travel because of the extra procedures needed at all stages. But that has not dampened happiness.

“People are coming back from trips and saying they had a wonderful time and felt they were safe,” Craven said.

Father Jeff Meeuwsen, pastor of St Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Aloha, is leading an April trip to Assisi, Florence and Rome. Minnesota-based Magi Travel is making arrangements. About 10 people have signed up and Father Meeuwsen would like more.

Organizers will check vaccination status, follow airport and airplane regulations and abide closely by Italian COVID-19 rules, the priest said.

“I’d like to share my prayer experience with people,” said Father Meeuwsen, who studied canon law in Rome for three years.

“I grew deeper in my faith by visiting the cites of the saints,” he explained.

In June, Ken Paulson, a volunteer pilgrimage organizer from Holy Redeemer Parish in Vancouver, Washington, took a group of 46 to Medjugorje, the Marian apparition site in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The journey was fruitful and joyful, but virus regulations made it complex for him.

“People are nervous about travel,” Paulson said. “It used to be you jump on a plane and go.” In part because of safety requirements and the drop in passenger numbers, airlines are not as regular as they once were. Paulson now does more research on airline backup plans.

Because of possible cancelations and potential virus spikes, Paulson and other pilgrimage leaders urge participants to purchase travel insurance.

The bottom line, in Paulson’s mind, is that pilgrims open themselves to sacred moments.

“Although COVID has made traveling more difficult, and perhaps even scary for some — once we made it to Medjugorje, all that anxiety disappeared,” he said. “We had the most peaceful two weeks in the past two years, living as God meant: getting to know and love him more, and loving our neighbors. It was a wonderful break from the fast-paced and stressful culture that seems to surround us.”

Paulson is planning more Medjugorje pilgrimages for June and August 2022.