Recently, I was fortunate to meet Elia Rivera, the Executive Director of the St Josemaria Institute in Chicago. The Institute promotes the life and teachings of this fantastic saint, and strives to help everyone benefit from his teachings on the spiritual meaning of ordinary life. As Elia and I shared our love of St Josemaria and his many awesome quotes, Elia mentioned that she’d like to interview me about The Faithful Traveler, during the month of May, in honor of the Blessed Virgin. Below is the interview, which can also be found on their website.
Interview: The Faithful Traveler
By St. Josemaria Institute
Personal blogs and photo/video sharing sites dedicated to travel are transforming how people travel and see the world. They are also contributing to reviving and increasing the interest in pilgrimages. Among them is The Faithful Traveler.
The Faithful Traveler, hosted and produced by Diana and David von Glahn, is a travel series that takes viewers on tours of shrines, cathedrals, and pilgrimage sites to “discover the treasures of the Church and gain a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith.” The series is airing this month (May 2013) on EWTN and is also available on DVD.
With the Marian month of May upon us, and summer around the corner, we are very grateful to Diana for taking the time to speak with us about her faith-filled travel experiences and about the meaning and impact of pilgrimages today.
Q: What inspired you to produce “The Faithful Traveler” and what is the mission of the series?
A: Ten years ago, my husband, David, and I were planning our honeymoon to Paris and the Loire Valley. Around that time, we had been watching a lot of the Travel Channel, and we noticed that, while the shows sometimes visited Catholic sites, they usually spoke of them with a lack of understanding. We thought it’d be great if there was a travel show that looked good enough for the Travel Channel, but that covered Catholic locations with respect and faith, and we joked about creating it ourselves. We even pretended to be doing so while on our honeymoon, as we visited places like the Miraculous Medal on the Rue de Bac and the amazing church of Sacre Coeur. When we came home, we thought, “Let’s try it!” So, we bought all the equipment we could afford and taught ourselves the craft of television production.
Our goal with The Faithful Traveler was to inspire, entertain, and teach, but to do so in a way that rivaled many of the secular television programs currently on TV. While secular TV was rife with many slick productions, most of them presented atrocious untruths about our faith, and while Catholic networks presented truthful programs, they lacked high production values, usually presenting a panel of people sitting in a room talking. Neither of those programs appealed to us, so we set out to create something that entertained and inspired while presenting the amazing majesty of the history and tradition of the Catholic Church.
Q: When and how did you discover the pilgrimage tradition?
A: While David converted to Catholicism shortly before our wedding, I’ve been Catholic all my life, and I’ve always loved visiting Catholic churches and pilgrimage sites, and admiring the art, architecture, and history behind them. I grew up in San Diego, California, where we were blessed with the legacy left behind by Father Junipero Serra and the Franciscans, who left California dotted with amazing Missions. As I grew up and travelled the country and world for school and work, I always gravitated toward Catholic places, because, while I might have been in a foreign state or country, a Catholic church is always home.
Q: How do you explain the differences between a trip/tour/vacation and a pilgrimage? How do those differences impact and enrich the travel experience?
A: I like to mix the three as much as I can, and I think anyone can do so with a little planning and forethought. Blessed Pope John Paul II said that vacation is a great time to grow in our faith, and I tried to imbue The Faithful Traveler with that concept. When we travel for business, we’re usually focused on our business purpose, and when we travel for vacation, our goal is often relaxation or sightseeing. Pilgrimage can be those things and so much more. We can learn while on pilgrimage, about a saint, for instance, like when you visit a shrine dedicated to him or her, or about a Catholic devotion, like that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We can relax while on pilgrimage, like when we sit in a beautiful cathedral and let the light from the stained glass bathe our souls in peace, or when we reflect on the statues and think about the lives of the saints, or on the crucifix and think about God’s great sacrifice for us.
We can also make sacrifices and acts of reparation during pilgrimage, and doing so definitely gives our visit so much more spiritual heft. Of course, we can do that whenever we travel for any reason—driving in the car to work, dealing with long lines at the airport or grumpy travelers we might encounter. There are so many opportunities to offer things up. But pilgrimage is a perfect opportunity for that. Many pilgrims will walk long distances to a shrine, sometimes even barefoot or on their knees! There are many traditions associated with pilgrimage that include sacrifices, and many times, pilgrims make a pilgrimage to ask for a favor of God or a healing of some sort.
Q: What do you think people today are seeking when they go on a pilgrimage or simply when they travel to sacred destinations? Can you share any anecdotes with us from your encounters with pilgrims?
A: I think St Augustine said it best when he said, “our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” We have a God-sized hole in our hearts, and pilgrimage helps us fill that hole in a concrete way. We leave our homes, we travel a distance, and we arrive at a spot that, for one reason or another, makes us feel closer to God. As Catholics, we know that God is as close as our nearest Catholic church, where He waits for us in the tabernacle, body and blood. But there’s something special about visiting a magnificent place that does nothing but glorify God in its art and architecture, or that represents an important historical event or person in our faith and tradition.
As we produced The Faithful Traveler, we were blessed to visit many amazing places, all of which helped us grow in closeness to God and His saints. I think of the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey, which has the most amazing stained glass windows in any church outside of Chartres Cathedral in France. Or the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, or the small yet amazing Miraculous Medal Shrine here in Philadelphia. These are houses of God, built to honor Him, His Blessed Mother, and the saints, to thank them for everything they do for us. Just stepping inside of them raises my heart and mind to God, and I never want to leave when I’m there.
I’m blessed to live so close to the Miraculous Medal Shrine, where I often go for some of the best confessions I’ve ever had. Every Monday, the Shrine is full of pilgrims from entire states away, of a wide variety of nationalities. They’re all there to praise and honor Jesus and His Blessed Mother under the title of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Every Monday, they pray a novena that has been going on for decades, and they often tell of prayers answered and favors granted by Jesus, through the intercession of Mary. It’s just so wonderful to be among these pilgrims, who have such faith and who don’t give up on prayer, even if it takes years, decades. They trust that God hears them, and that our Blessed Mother will help them by bringing their prayers to her Son.
Q: In your series you do a wonderful job at showing some of the beautiful places of pilgrimage in the United States; however, during this Year of Faith, we are encouraged to go on pilgrimages to the See of Peter, to the Holy Land, and to the major shrines of Our Lady. Have you had the opportunity to visit these? How has your pilgrimage to these places impacted your faith?
A: I haven’t been able to visit any of the major Marian shrines, like Lourdes, Fatima, or the Basilica dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, but I hope to do so sometime in my life. We have been blessed to visit Rome, where I went mad trying to visit every single Catholic church in the city (I was unsuccessful). We’ve also been blessed to visit St Teresa’s Avila and the Benedictine Abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat in Spain. And, of course, our honeymoon in France gave us the opportunity to visit the Miraculous Medal Shrine on the Rue de Bac, where Mary appeared to St Catherine Labouré, and where the Miraculous Medal was created.
Recently, and very unexpectedly, David and I were blessed to travel to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia organized by Select International Tours. Our second series of The Faithful Traveler will feature this trip and what it was like to be there. (Check our website for news of its broadcast!) Travelling to the Holy Land is an experience unlike any other. We did see some beautiful churches and cathedrals, like the spectacular Church of the Agony at Gethsemane or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. But in Israel and Palestine, there is nothing like walking the land that Jesus, his Blessed Mother, and disciples walked. The Sea of Galilee and the Garden of Gethsemane touched me the most, because those are God-made cathedrals that honor His Son. Seeing them brought the Gospels to life for me. I will never pray the rosary or hear the Gospels as I did before visiting this magical land, and for that, I am eternally grateful to God and to those who made our trip possible. I think everyone who joined us on this pilgrimage would agree.
Q: What are some of your tips for making a good pilgrimage: preparation, prayer, reading, logistics, etc.? Additional or special tips for family pilgrimages?
A: First and foremost, prayer is essential, both before and during every moment of your trip. Grab on to a rosary and don’t let go! You’d be amazed at how it centers you, calms you down, and helps you mentally prepare for whatever this crazy world throws at you.
Secondly, prepare as much as you can. Get some guide books. Look online. Watch The Faithful Traveler! That’s why we created it! We wanted to give people a way to learn before they go, so that when they visit a site, they know what they’re seeing. Travel is so much more beneficial, you get so much more out of it if you know what you’re looking at! Not too long ago, David and I were in Segovia in Spain, and we were touring around some historical site, and out a window, I spotted a convent; I had no idea what it was. Later I found out that that convent, which was a Carmelite convent, housed the tomb of St John of the Cross! I hadn’t done enough research, so I missed out on seeing the tomb of one of the greatest Carmelite saints alive! So, knowing before you go is very important.
Lastly, I’d say don’t forget where you are! When you are a pilgrim, you are a witness of Jesus Christ and His Church. Travel and tourism can bring out the worst in people, and there’s nothing worse than being a bad example of Christianity inside of a shrine. On our trip to the Holy Land, as we were ascending the tight stairs to the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, two men in front of me started pushing and shoving each other because somebody cut in line. I was amazed. I said to them, “Gentlemen! Remember where you are!” It’s amazing how the devil likes to sneak in wherever we let him. I am reading a book right now about Padre Pio, and it tells of how people would push and shove their way to the front of the church to get the best seats in the house when he celebrated Mass. Such uncharitable behavior should never be part of who we are, especially inside of a church or holy place. God sees us, and while we might get the best seat here on earth, I’m sure that the uncharitable method we take to get it will affect where (and whether) we sit at the Heavenly Banquet.
Q: The month of May is traditionally dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which is marked by the practice of many beautiful devotions and customs in her honor, including pilgrimages. St Josemaria Escriva explained that, “Seeing how so many Christians express their affection for the Virgin Mary, surely you also feel more a part of the Church, closer to those brothers and sisters of yours. It is like a family reunion (Christ is Passing By, 139).” How do you believe travel, in general, can expand our view of the Church and bring us closer to our family in the Faith?
A: Travel gives us so many opportunities to give thanks to God, to be good, and to make sacrifices. It gives us the opportunity to behave like the Christ-bearers we purport to be. It also gives us a wonderful opportunity to meet people who experience God and the Church in ways that are different from ours. There’s nothing like attending Mass in a foreign language, and yet still knowing what is being said (aside from the homily!). It always reminds me of the universality of the Catholic church. The Mass is the same, in Philadelphia, in Rome, in the Philippines, and in Africa. And I absolutely love that. I also find it fascinating to see how sacred art differs from country to country. For instance, in churches in Spain, Jesus is always a little bloodier than he is here in America. I love the dichotomy, and I think it says a lot about the difference in cultures.
Travel also gives us many wonderful opportunities to grow in holiness by practicing the virtues of charity, patience and humility. I love to learn as much about a foreign language as I can before I go somewhere—I see it as a sign of respect. Sadly, we Americans don’t have the best reputation abroad, and are often seen as selfish and entitled. I find that humility in all things brings great benefit. When you approach a stranger in humility, you’d be amazed at the wonderful things that can come of that meeting! In my travels, I’ve met with kind and generous people as well as mean and intolerant people. You never know what you’re going to get. But it always helps to remember that other people are always a great way to grow in holiness—they either inspire us or challenge us. How we respond is up to us. By behaving in a manner that is devoid of expectation and pride, we can allow others to see Christ in us, and we can see Him in them, and that, I think, expands our view of the Church to include everyone, while simultaneously making the world a smaller place by bringing us closer together in faith.