Tips for making your next pilgrimage fruitful

By Michael O'Neill | Contributor
Thursday, March 7, 2019

Pilgrims visit the grotto where Mary appeared in Lourdes, France, in this file photo. Lourdes is a popular destination for pilgrimages. (CNS photo/Jose Navarro, EPA)

The Chicago Catholic asked veteran pilgrimage leader Michael O'Neill him for tips on how to make the most of a pilgrimage journey.

Souvenirs and mementos

Think ahead about your souvenir/memento buying strategy. Family and close friends are always grateful to receive a little remembrance from your trip. There usually is time built-in to stop at local shops, but sometimes it comes at the cost of needing to cut short your experience at one or more of the locations.

Ask your pilgrimage leader when there will be free time over the course of the trip and think ahead about what places might be good for gifts for each person. Sometimes purchasing a handful of the same medals or other smaller gifts can be a way of lessening the burden of thinking of something for everyone.

Make sure to ask the priest assisting in leading the trip when he plans to do a blessing of the sacred objects — usually on the last day — so that when you return home your gifts are that much more special when you share that you were thinking of family and friends along the way.


It is always helpful to have some currency with you before the trip which you can get at a currency exchange in your local city or even at the airport as you are preparing to leave the country. Some countries have public restrooms that require coins in order for you to use them, something that many Americans aren’t prepared for.

Also make sure to call your credit card companies before the trip to let them know when you are going and for how long. There always seems to be someone whose credit and debit cards don’t work internationally and they haven’t made arrangements to have cash with them upon arrival.

Various countries handle tipping at meals and other venues slightly differently —be sure to ask your pilgrimage leader about the protocol. If you think your tour guides, bus driver or pilgrimage group leader have done a nice job in taking care of you, you might consider pooling money with other like-minded passengers and purchasing a small gift or giving a tip to them at the end of the journey.


Some pilgrimage leaders, before or after the trip, will organize a photo- sharing service so all the pilgrims can have access to everyone’s best shots and will cover those moments that were somehow missed. At the beginning of the trip, encourage your pilgrimage leader to set up something for the group using a free service like Google Drive or Dropbox to make it easy for people to upload their files afterwards.

Or, if you are tech savvy or know someone on the trip who is, ask the leader to be given the emails of the other members at the end so that you can be sure to connect everyone in sharing these precious moments.

Prayer partners

Throughout the days of travel, you will undoubtedly get to know some new people very well and make lifelong friendships through the shared experience of a spiritual journey. An even deeper way of connecting with fellow pilgrims and looking out for their wellbeing — spiritual and otherwise — is to take on a “prayer partner” for the trip.

You might speak to your pilgrimage leader before or at the beginning of the pilgrimage about the practice of each person getting randomly assigned to another person whom they pray for throughout the trip. On the last day at the farewell dinner is always a nice time to reveal that you had been praying for a fellow pilgrim’s success along the way.

Not a vacation

Pilgrimages are different than vacations. Even though the accommodations and food can be top-notch and the international experience can be amazing, remember that a pilgrimage is a spiritual journey that can be life-changing if approached in the proper way.

While churches can be marvels of art and architecture worth capturing on camera or chatting about with your companions along the way, remember to allow these moments of the spectacular to open up your heart to God in prayer.

Having a list of prayer intentions from family and friends before the trip can be a reminder to seek God in the events happening throughout each day.

In the great tradition of pilgrimages throughout Christian history, struggle and sacrifice is part of the essence of making that journey to a holy place and growing deeper in our spiritual life as a result. When the trip becomes difficult because of all the walking or the hectic schedule or the many hours on the bus or the early starts or the late arrivals or any of the challenges of foreign travel or spending time with new people in a large group, remember that pilgrimages are supposed to be difficult. In these challenging moments we can draw closer to God and offer our difficulties to him.


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