Pilgrimages to holy sites seeing a post-COVID surge

By Bill Brewer

As president of the Sacred Heart Apostolate and a sacristan at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Lisa Morris has plenty to keep her busy.

But for the past two years, she hasn’t been as busy as she is used to being—or would like to be—because of the international COVID shutdown. But so far in 2022, all that has changed.

Mrs. Morris, who also serves as the pilgrimage coordinator for Select International Tours in the Diocese of Knoxville, is back to being busy.

“After a two-year hiatus, we’re back,” Mrs. Morris said, referring to the unofficial end of the COVID shutdown. “I’m just so grateful to God that things are opening back up, and pilgrimages are again booked, and the faithful are able to visit these holy sites again.”

In recent weeks, Mrs. Morris has been organizing several pilgrimages, including tours to Rome, Ireland and Scotland, and to Greece.

She remembered the last pilgrimage she organized before the coronavirus closed off the world in early 2020 was to Cuba and was led by the pastor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Cleveland.

“Father Mike Nolan had a pilgrimage to Cuba in February 2020, and when we came back from that trip, within a week things started to shut down,” Mrs. Morris recalled.

As it turns out, Father Nolan was a COVID last and a COVID first.

“In August 2021, Father Nolan was the first pilgrimage that Select International started back. On that first pilgrimage back, we had Rome to ourselves. It’s still really a good time to go on a pilgrimage. A lot of these sites still are not very crowded like pre-COVID,” she added.

She noted that she now is seeing pilgrimages “across the spectrum” being organized, pointing out that during the pandemic Select International’s phones nearly fell silent, but now they are again ringing.

On that spectrum is a long-awaited pilgrimage to Oberammergau, Germany, where once every decade the townspeople put on the Passion Play. Oberammergau residents have been staging the Passion Play since 1634, when they promised to perform the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus every 10th year as they prayed to God for relief from the black plague.

The 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play is being performed daily from May 14 through Oct. 2, when it will go dormant for another 10 years. The play was to have been held in 2020 and was postponed for two years.

Emily Booker, a Sacred Heart Cathedral parishioner, is one of several Diocese of Knoxville pilgrims going to Oberammergau this summer with Mrs. Morris. And like other pilgrims looking forward to their bucket-list trip to Germany, Emily and her mother have endured the two-year postponement due to COVID.

“The village of Oberammergau began performing its Passion Play in response to an outbreak of plague in the 1630s, so it was really ironic that the play had to be postponed due to a pandemic. But it also made me reflect more on what the village must have been going through back then that led to the tradition of the play,” Ms. Booker said. “Even though we had to wait two years, I’m so glad that the play is resuming and we’re still able to go on this pilgrimage. I’m excited to pray and explore the faith in the countries of some of my ancestors, Germany and Switzerland. I think it will be a rewarding experience and worth the wait.”

Flemington, N.J.-based Select International specializes in pilgrimage tours and cruises as do other tour operators that work with Diocese of Knoxville groups.

Mrs. Morris looks forward to leading the Oberammergau pilgrimage because it’s such a unique, faith-based destination and also because she doesn’t want to see pilgrims miss the chance to see the Christian spectacle due to the pandemic. “Only two times has it been suspended: World War I and World War II. It has been going on since the 1600s. And it only happens once every 10 years.”

“We have been able to wait until this year. It will be an amazing experience because of what the world has gone through,” Mrs. Morris continued. “Isn’t it interesting that the plague is what led to this play and another type of plague has suspended it?”

Mrs. Morris believes that only through God’s graces is religious travel resuming. And she is thankful to the Holy Spirit for this blessing.

“What we’ve all been through we can’t take for granted God’s graces. Being able to travel again made me aware of the blessing it is to be able to visit these holy and sacred sites,” she said.

And it was through faith and prayer that the tour operator she represents was able to continue in business during the international COVID shutdown, Mrs. Morris said.

“The company was able to keep up with its clients, and Edita [Krunic, Select International president] persevered in spite of all odds, praying it would get better and trusting in God.”

Mrs. Morris said “my heart broke” hearing shutdown stories about the places Select International visits and the many on-site tour guides who assist the pilgrimages.

Father Mike Nolan, pastor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Church in Cleveland, kneeling second from left, and Lisa Morris, who organizes pilgrimages in the Diocese of Knoxville, kneeling to the right of Father Nolan, lead a pilgrimage to Rome and St. Peter’s Square.

“This was their livelihood, so many guides, bus drivers, hotels, and hotel staff. This is what they’ve done for a lifetime,” she said, lamenting that some were not able to commercially survive the shutdown. But for the ones who have been able to continue, “dedication and perseverance of people like this show it’s so much more than a job. It’s a passion to bring God so close to the faithful. It’s who they are.”

Mrs. Morris is seeing that in Europe and the Holy Land, travel restrictions are easing. “I’m very confident and hopeful that we’re only moving foward and things, by the grace of God, are getting back to a sense of normalcy. Restrictions in Europe and worldwide are easing. These countries want pilgrims back, especially the Holy Land and Italy.”

Danielle Guttila, a travel consultant with Catholic tour operator 206 Tours Inc. in Brentwood, Tenn., said 206 Tours is able to keep up with the pent-up demand now and is seeing more people sign up for pilgrimages.

“Pilgrims have been eagerly awaiting these last two years, transferring to future dates for the same tour, to make the pilgrimage they have been waiting their entire life to go on,” Ms. Guttila said. “As countries reopen, we see more and more pilgrimages being operated.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *