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food / travel

Polish Faithful Set Off In Search Of Ever More Exotic Pilgrimages

In Poland, Catholics have already seen it all on the religious front at home. To expand their spiritual horizons, many now look for new religiously significant destinations farther afield.

Pilgrims on their way to the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa
Pilgrims on their way to the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa
Michal Stangret

WARSAW — During last summer’s peak travel period, between Aug. 16 and 26, only 35,000 Poles set off on walking pilgrimages. That was a drop of 8,000 from a decade earlier. Moreover, the country’s most popular pilgrimage destination — the Jasna Góra Monastery in Czestochowa, in southwestern Poland — has also seen a decline in visitors, from 4.5 million seven years ago to 3.3 million in 2012.

But these numbers don’t necessarily mean that pilgrims are staying home. Instead, it appears that more of them now prefer to “go exotic” in search of spiritual destinations.

Marian Fathers, a Polish religious congregation founded in the 17th century, is actively searching for potential pilgrims for a December trip to Rwanda with a religious purpose. One of its advertisements characterizes the trip as “a unique possibility to get to know Africa and see the missioners at work.” The total cost of the 11-day trip is around 1,990 euros. Apart from seeing the missionaries, pilgrims will also get to meet Nathalia, the local clairvoyant. Other stops on the itinerary include visits to the locals in their huts and a safari in the Akagera National Park.

The Pallottines, another community within the Catholic Church, is organizing a pilgrimage to China in September and October, calling it “an encounter of the two great traditions of East and West.” The 15-day journey to the Far East will cost travelers the equivalent of about $1,600 (or 1,200 euros).

Another offering is a nine-day trip to Egypt, “The ancient homeland of Copts.” If that’s not far enough, pilgrimages to New Zealand and Fiji are scheduled for the end of the year.

There has been an increase of approximately 15% to 20% in clients who choose these exotic adventures over domestic ones, says Marta Wrobel from the Catholic Pilgrimage Office in Warsaw, which specializes in trips to the Holy Land (representing 80% of all tours).

The office organizes four or five pilgrimages of this kind every year, with the latest one heading to Mexico. “Foreign destinations are more and more popular because many people have already visited all the sanctuaries nearby and are looking for something new,” Wrobel says.

The declining interest in visiting Jasna Góra comes as no surprise to Father Andrzej Luter. “A walking pilgrimage is not for everybody,” he says. “But the Church offers other possibilities: the very popular World Youth Day or the pilgrimage journeys where you can combine tourism and praying.”

According to the Catholic Church Statistic’s Institute, 200,000 Poles go abroad on pilgrimages every year. Most of those willing to pay for the exotic journeys are married couples in their 50s, although grandparents traveling with their grandchildren are also well-represented. They come from various professional backgrounds, doctors and teachers being the most common.

With their four-star hotels and long list of worldly attractions, do these voyages have anything in common with traditional pilgrimages? Those at the Pallottines office have no doubt, also noting that the travelers attend mass every day. “The group is accompanied all the time by a priest who plays the role of a spiritual guide,” they say.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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