US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Should Catholics go away? A survey on travel

By Meghan Murphy-Gill | Print this pagePrint |
Whether it’s for some R&R, service, or education, U.S. Catholic readers say pack your bags and get going.

Call them globetrotters, road-trippers, jetsetters, or world travelers. Just don’t call them homebodies. U.S. Catholic readers are anything but. On the contrary, they are going places. And whether their travels take them an hour away for an overnight trip or across the world for a cross-cultural encounter, they agree that travel can be a rewarding, important, even spiritual experience.

So just where have they been? A whopping 90 percent of respondents say they’ve traveled outside the United States. Comparatively, the U.S. State Department reports that as of January of this year, only 37 percent of Americans have a passport, meaning that the majority of U.S. citizens can’t even visit Canada or Mexico, our immediate neighbors to the north and south.

The United Kingdom, Ireland, and other parts of Europe are the most popular destinations with readers; nearly three quarters of international travelers say they’ve been to that part of the world. A small but significant portion (25 percent) have ventured to the Far East and South America, while around 10 percent have been to Africa or the Middle East.

Going the distance has meaning for readers, beyond just getting away and offering a change of scenery. Corinna Laughlin of Seattle thinks world travel is important for U.S. citizens because “Americans are often accused of thinking and acting as though America is the world,” she says. “By traveling, we can see the peoples and gifts of other nations. We can also hopefully be good ambassadors for our country.”

Joan Kochetta of Ocala, Florida adds that by “meeting people from other countries, we can understand more fully the concept of the body of Christ.”

Foreign travel, especially to the developing world, can also foster a deeper appreciation for your own life, says Maria Schwab of Brooklyn, New York. “Experiencing other cultures strengthens my appreciation for where I live, how I live, and all (both material and non-material) that I have.”

U.S. Catholic contributor Kevin Considine adds that going beyond our borders is beneficial for children, too. “It can expose them to new places and enhance their imagination of what the world is,” he says.

But international adventures can be expensive, and many readers note that the kind of traveling that they’d like to do more of is often cost-prohibitive. Even readers who opt for the more economical family road trip over the European vacation find that high gas prices can be a deterrent.

Some acknowledge the environmental costs of air and auto travel and lament the lack of affordable train travel in the United States. Even for those who do decide to fork over the cash (or credit) for pricey plane tickets, they’re increasingly frustrated by long security lines, overbooked flights, and frequent flight cancellations.

Even so, what bothers U.S. Catholic readers most about travel is the industry that surrounds it. “There is too much effort toward making the experience comfortable and ‘just like home’ instead of really allowing travelers to experience a different culture,” says Susan Gill of Crystal River, Florida.

U.S. Catholic columnist Alice Camille agrees: “It caters to greed, in a nutshell. Eat a lot! Drink a lot! Get even fatter than you already are!” she says. “And whatever you do, avoid the shabby neighborhoods where the folks who make your stay at the hotel possible live. It indulges the worst side of human nature.”

Chicagoan Tom McGrath says that he “dislikes when the travel experience is so ‘all inclusive’ that it removes all possibility of surprise, wonder, or unmediated encounter with how others live or with nature. It’s sad to see undeveloped areas get overdeveloped.”

If time and money were no object when it came to travel, respondents overwhelmingly named one of two opportunities they’d be hard-pressed to pass up: a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or an extended stay in the Eternal City. (One reader even said she’d most like to divide her time between the two places.)

And most of those readers who’d go elsewhere would rather explore the lands of ancient Christians, return to the land of their ancestors, or visit family than stake out a spot on a sunny beach in the Caribbean for a few weeks.

Carol Jankunas of Fort Collins, Colorado says she’d go to the homeland of her grandparents, Lithuania. Catherine Johnston of Olympia, Washington says she’d “take my family to Paraguay, where our son was born. I think that the greatest gift I can give him is to see where his roots are and give him a stronger sense of identity.”

Rosalie Benson says “without hesitation” she’d go to “Kenya, South Africa, Mozambique, the Seychelles. Why? The wildlife, the Africa of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu.”

Travel dedicated specifically to service is most popular among younger readers (ages 19 to 30), with 67 percent saying they have been on such a trip. Respondents ages 46 to 65 were the least likely, with only 30 percent reporting that they had participated in charity-related travel.

“I was in the Peace Corps,” says Charles Wolf of Altoona, Pennsylvania. “It was no vacation, but it was certainly a trip.”

Bud Sents of Glenview, Illinois says, “My wife and I take volunteer vacations to developing countries about once every 18 months. It is a humbling experience that reinforces the blessings we often take for granted. It also promotes personal interaction with other humans that emphasizes how much we are all the same. I find it more rewarding than tourist trips.”

For a getaway intended to enhance her spiritual side, Cynthia Trainque of Leominster, Massachusetts says she doesn’t have to travel far. She goes to the Marie Joseph Spiritual Center in Biddeford, Maine. “It’s a two-hour drive and such an oasis, right on the ocean. I am entirely changed within minutes of arrival,” she says.

Anna Stoll says the Grand Canyon is the ideal spot for a spiritual experience. “Only God could create something so awe-inspiring. Even surrounded by tourists I felt at peace.”

The glory of nature certainly can call to mind the divine, and so can traveling with loved ones. Gerard Scanlan of New York recalls backpacking through Europe with his sons when they were in their 20s, while Therese McGrath of Pensacola, Florida says her most memorable travel experience was on her honeymoon in Montego Bay, Jamaica. “The excitement of beginning our lives together as a married couple, the food, the unforgettable sunsets, the joy of enjoying each day together” are the reasons she found it so unforgettable.

For Jesús Huerta of Portland, Oregon, a more sobering experience takes the superlative. He says he was on holy ground while “visiting Acteal, Chiapas during International Women´s Day, witnessing indigenous women giving flowers to soldiers at a military checkpoint, and learning about their plight and seeing their faith and community.”

Mexico was also a place of profound encounter for Margaret Rohde of Ronkonkoma, New York. She says it changed the way she viewed the world. After spending some time volunteering at an orphanage there, she was moved by how “the kids shared everything they had, which is less than our expectations, and were very happy.”

In all, U.S. Catholic readers say that the best kind of travel challenges them to understand differences between cultures, but reminds them of the common humanity spread across the globe.

“I often think of the man in China, squatting down as he mounded up his oranges on a plastic blue plaid mat,” says Mary Heinsz of St. Charles, Missouri. “He flashed a toothy smile at me, the American getting off the bus, and he waved his hand. I smiled and waved back, knowing he wanted the same things for his children that I do for mine. His life and mine were different, yet really much the same.”

"And the survey says..."

1. My vacations have been spiritually and otherwise enriching experiences that have broadened my horizons.

83% - Agree
9% - Disagree
8% - Other

2. I go to Sunday Mass when I'm on vacation:

52% - Always
41% - Sometimes
4% - Never
3% - Other

3. I usually visit churches or other sacred places when I travel.

74% - Agree
8% - Disagree
18% - Other

Representative of "other":
“It really depends whether there are churches or other sacred places in the places I’m visiting.”

4. Catholics shouldn’t spend their money on expensive travel or luxurious vacations.

9% - Agree
69% - Disagree
22% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“Sometimes we need to replenish our souls and be with our families in surroundings that may offer rest, especially when one feels weary. It is nice to be cared for in a vacation setting.”

5. I think other cultures do a better job than ours at giving workers time for vacations and non-work pursuits.

83% - Agree
8% - Disagree
9% - Other

6. I have taken part in a volunteer or charitable trip to another part of the United States or in another country.

44% - Agree
54% - Disagree
3% - Other

7.    The last time I took a vacation was:

73% - Within the last year.
13% - Within the last three years.
7% - More than five years ago.   
5% - More than 10 years ago.
2% - Within the last five years.

This article appeared in the June 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 6, pages 23-27).

Results of this survey are based on the responses of 109 visitors.

Image: Illustration by Clare Rosean