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.
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).
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.