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Pilgrimages to holy sites help bring faith alive

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

By David Eck

ARCHDIOCESE — When Father Barry Windholtz reads of a holy site in the Gospel or speaks of a shrine in Europe, he’s probably been there.

For more than a decade, Father Windholtz has been leading pilgrimages to religious sites in various parts of the world. The pilgrimages have taken him to Israel, Spain and Rome, among other places.

“These are all religious-based trips,” said Father Windholtz, pastor of St. Rose Parish in Cincinnati. “My primary job is to get the people to go on the trip, to say Mass every day for the group and be a fellow traveler with them along the way.”

Father Barry Windholtz
Father Barry Windholtz, right, and pilgrim Delores Fazzio meet with the late Pope John Paul II during a 2004 trip to Rome. (Courtesy photo)

He maintains a network of potential travelers to contact when a pilgrimage is being planned and announces the trips in the parish bulletin. Professional travel companies arrange the pilgrimages. Each trip includes at least one local tour guide who serves as the point person and handles the details of the trip.
 
Travelers tend to be older persons, often retirees. Despite the sluggish economy, there hasn’t been a much of a decrease in the number of pilgrims on trips, which can cost several thousand dollars, Father Windholtz said.

A trip to Germany and Austria is scheduled for later this year with more than 40 people. It includes a visit to Oberammergau in Bavaria for the famous Passion Play that has been held every 10 years since the 17th century. The trip is also expected to feature visits to Oktoberfest in Munich and parts of Austria.

The trips enable travelers to bond and become friends, said the priests who serve as spiritual directors, as well as providing educational opportunities.
 
“It’s a major learning experience,” Father Windholtz said. “You learn the history of the location and the area. You learn the history of local shrines. You learn about the cultures and how people live in different countries and their local government.”

Helen Weartz, a St. Rose parishioner for more than 25 years, has been traveling with Father Windholtz since 2003. Ireland, Jerusalem, Greece, Italy, Austria and Germany, Sweden and Norway are among the places she has visited. She enjoys making new friends on the trips and seeing other parts of the world.

“It’s easygoing. Things are planned and, if you feel you can’t make it that day, you just stay back,” Weartz said. “There’s really no pressure for anyone to do everything.”

Area pastors said traveling to the places where Jesus preached or the saints lived makes them better priests. They return home with a renewed enthusiasm for their faith.

Father Rey Taylor, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Cincinnati, has led trips to the Holy Land and to sites in Europe. A trip to the Holy Land while still a seminarian ignited a desire to travel with pilgrims to holy sites.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to visit all these holy sites, holy shrines that have shaped the faith of our church,” said Father Taylor. “These are holy men and women we study. We’re able to walk in their footsteps.”

That enhances his own ability to share the message of Jesus’ mission and the Gospel. When discussing the holy men and women of the church Father Taylor can relate his experiences and make the faith more tangible for parishioners. That enthusiasm also carries over to his homilies and classroom discussions.
    
Father Taylor co-leads trips with his friend, Father Chris Coleman, pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Dayton.

“We saw there was a wonderful opportunity for the Scripture to come alive for us,” Father Taylor said. “We saw in our priestly ministry how this not only helped us in our faith formation, but how it will also help us in our ministry.”

Father David Sunberg, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Cincinnati, typically leads pilgrims bi-annually to such places as France, Italy and the Holy Land. Most of the pilgrims are his parishioners and friends. As spiritual director, Father Sunberg celebrates Mass, blesses items, gives talks about the region and hears confessions.

“They have been very renewing for me,” Father Sunberg said of the trips. “We always have a good time, that’s for sure.”

On a trip to France, he recalled, the group stood on the beaches of Normandy facing the United States and sang “God Bless America.”

“It seems like I get to know my people a lot better,” Father Sunberg said. “I think it helps build bridges and develops good friendships and good relationships within the parish.”

Father Windholtz remembers when he and a group of travelers were in a bar in Spain one evening playing cards at the end of a long day. A lady in the group kept trying to lose because all she wanted was to go to bed.

“Those are the fun stories that you remember. She was a delightful lady,” he said. “I’ve met some wonderful people on the tours. Last year I was in the Holy Land, and I became friends with three couples from Columbus. I’ve already been to visit them. Meeting new people is sometimes a very positive and enjoyable thing.”

While the trips are faith-based, the priests balance the spiritual elements with elements of a vacation.
 
“I don’t want it to be overly religious on these trips, and I want to enjoy it as much as they do,” Father Windholtz said. “I think they are happy with the Mass every day. I would not deem these tours to be retreats, which are times away for prayer and study.”

With a fondness for Europe, Father Windholtz said the continent has become much more modern over the years. English-speakers are more easily found, the currency is standardized and the water is potable in most places.
 
“I love to travel. I fell in love with Europe and I think Europe is beautiful. I love the European culture,” said Father Windholtz. “It’s a big world out there with many things to see and places to go, and I encourage people to go when they are young enough and fit enough and able to do it.”

The experiences strengthen their vocation, the priests concur.

“I’ve celebrated Mass at some absolutely beautiful, inspiring shrines. I’ve seen the faith of people,” Father Windholtz said. “I’ve seen the beauty of what God’s creation is in sunsets and the majesty of mountains. All those have helped me improve my own relationship with the Lord and dealing with my people.”

For Weartz, a trip to Jerusalem was particularly meaningful.

“It was just so great to be there to know we were walking in the same places Jesus walked,” Weartz said. “When I hear the Gospel readings in certain spots I can say, ‘I was there.’”

David Eck can be reached at [email protected].

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