‘We’re not tourists. We are pilgrims,’ says Aux. Bishop Emeritus Cisneros
MELVILLE, L.I. — There is a great deal of excitement in the Diocese of Brooklyn over the impending return of pilgrimages to important religious sites.
Catholics longing to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ will finally get that chance now that COVID-19 restrictions are easing and opportunities for international travel to the Holy Land and other sacred sites are opening up again.
The diocese canceled all pilgrimages as of March 2020 due to the pandemic — putting on hold Catholics’ hopes of seeing the Holy Land, the Vatican, and other meaningful places. Now that they are returning, organizers are thrilled.
“It will be a joy to bring people to some of these events that they have been looking forward to attending,” said Father Gerard Sauer, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, Bay Ridge, who has served as the diocesan director of pilgrimages since 2006.
The first of the diocese’s post-pandemic pilgrimages will be led by Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Octavio Cisneros and will involve a trip to Germany and Austria on May 17-26 of 2022.
The journey promises to have deep meaning for the travelers because they will have the unique opportunity to see the famous Oberammergau Passion Play — performed only once every 10 years — in the small Bavarian village in Germany.
It is perhaps fitting that the first trip is to Oberammergau, according to Bishop Cisneros. He pointed out that the village began presenting a depiction of the Passion of Christ in 1634 as an attempt to ward off the Bubonic Plague.
“Today, you call it COVID-19. For all practical purposes, it’s the same,” he said.
The diocese works with Peter’s Way Tours, a travel company based in Melville, to plan the Oberammergau pilgrimage. The company, which has been in business for 38 years, has organized thousands of religious pilgrimages to the Holy Land, the Vatican, Greece, Turkey, and other places.
The year 2021 provides a fresh start for everyone, said Peter Bahou, president of Peter’s Way Tours. When the pandemic hit last year, his company was forced to cancel pilgrimages that had been booked for 200 U.S.-based groups.
With COVID-19 travel restrictions starting to lift, “we have to celebrate!” Bahou said. The phones at Peter’s Way Tours are already busy, and the company is organizing 20 tours scheduled to take place between July and December of this year.
Bahou mentioned, however, that safety is first and foremost when planning pilgrimages.
“We want to make sure people are comfortable and traveling with confidence,” he said, predicting that travel will increase as time goes on.
“Once the vaccines open up in Europe, we will be getting phone calls,” he said.
Bahou and his staff have been monitoring travel regulations in all countries they plan to send pilgrimage groups to, watching for up-to-date information on any existing restrictions, such as proof of vaccinations or COVID-19 test results.
Travel to Europe is showing signs of opening up. On May 19, the European Union announced it was easing restrictions on travelers coming in from non-EU countries.
The new policy means that people who have been vaccinated and who enter an EU country will no longer have to quarantine or be tested for COVID-19. No date has been set for when the new rule will go into effect.
Pilgrimages are special types of journeys that give Catholics a chance to get closer to their faith and are not just about taking selfies at famous sites or filling suitcases with souvenirs, religious leaders cautioned.
“We’re not tourists. We are pilgrims. We go with a spiritual purpose,” said Bishop Cisneros, who still has fond memories of his first trip to the Holy Land decades ago.
Bahou understands the importance of pilgrimages, saying: “It is not only business, for us. It’s a ministry. It gives us the energy to see those pilgrims traveling, coming back so happy.”
The Diocese of Brooklyn has a long history of providing opportunities for church parishioners to participate in pilgrimages. For many years, the diocese offered bi-annual pilgrimages to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C.
“Thousands of parishioners from our parishes would converge on Washington D.C. to pay tribute to Our Lady,” Father Sauer said.
In 2006, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio expanded the pilgrimages to include spiritual journeys to international sites and tapped Father Sauer to direct the trips.
“He thought people would feel that going with the diocese might provide some comfort in deciding where to go and who to go with,” Father Sauer said of the bishop.
While there are pilgrimages to permanent places of interest — such as the Holy Land and Rome — the diocese also organizes groups to attend specific events announced by the Vatican, such as World Youth Day, the International Meeting of Families, and the Eucharistic Congress.
“We look forward to going to World Youth Day in Lisbon in 2023,” Father Sauer said.
An experienced traveler like Father Sauer said he always finds something new, even when visiting a place he has seen many times before.
“Every time I’m away, something different will strike me,” he said.
Another thrill for him is seeing how excited pilgrims become when they arrive at a sacred site.
“Seeing the sites through other people’s eyes, to see the meaning it has for them, is great,” Father Sauer said.