For seniors, pilgrimages bring a world of difference

John Findlater sits atop a camel in Israel during a pilgrimage.

John Findlater sits atop a camel in Israel during a pilgrimage.

Metro Detroit — A surefire way to change your perspective on the world around you? Traveling abroad.

When John Findlater encourages people to take a trip or pilgrimage overseas, he tells them one thing: “Don’t wait.”

“It’s such a broadening experience for the people, and for me as well,” said Findlater, who has arranged more than 50 trips and pilgrimages abroad. “A lot of people get hooked and want to go more. For many of the people I travel with, they haven’t had time to do this before.”

Findlater has been both a teacher and a principal for several Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit for many years, as well as a music director for a number of Detroit-area parishes. Throughout the first half of his life, he “went almost nowhere” save Michigan — his native state — and Florida, to visit family.

John Findlater stands in the Salzburg City Garden in Germany with tour guide Jeannette Berends on a Passion Play trip in 2010.

John Findlater stands in the Salzburg City Garden in Germany with tour guide Jeannette Berends on a Passion Play trip in 2010.

But, after teaching adult education for many years at St. Timothy Parish in Trenton, some of his participants asked about going to places steeped in Church history.

“I had taken lots of schoolchildren on field trips, but I had never gone overseas,” said Findlater, who ended up gathering 43 people and two priest friends for what became “a great time” in Italy.

“It was sort of like opening up Pandora’s box,” he said. “I thought I’d only do one trip, but when we got back, people said, ‘Well, John, where are we going next?’”

Leading groups with fellow travel guide and photographer Patrick Wagner, Findlater has visited places he never dreamed he would see in real life.

Travel guide and photographer Patrick Wagner poses before some religious signs in Ireland.

Travel guide and photographer Patrick Wagner poses before some religious signs in Ireland.

Traveling to places as diverse as Russia, Israel, Rome and England, Findlater found the majority of his travel companions are 55 and older. In this age group himself, he believes it’s largely because many haven’t had the chance to travel earlier in life.

People gain “all sorts of historic energy” when visiting places of historical significance for their own lives, such as World War II sites, he said.

“On all of my trips to France, I make sure we stop in Normandy at Omaha Beach — it’s at once historic and beautiful, but also religious,” Findlater said. “I’ve actually had people come on my trip who were there on D-Day’s invasion. An older man didn’t even tell us he had been there until we were at the cemetery. Then we were all in tears.”

Unexpected insights

Likewise, Fritzi Bohlmann, who has traveled abroad “about 15 times,” within the last 20 years, discovered that on her trip to Poland, “Auschwitz was really the holy site for me.”

Though she also visited famous holy places such as the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Jasna Gora, and Krakow, the hometown of Blessed John Paul II, she was most affected spiritually by the site of the concentration camp.

“Auschwitz was extremely holy; everybody walked around, but they were quiet and reflective,” said Bohlmann, pastoral associate at St. John Vianney Parish, Shelby Township. “There wasn’t a soul that walked away from visiting that who didn’t feel a sense of God’s presence. What got people through that was their faith.”

She said her perception of travel was greatly influenced just by going to other countries: “When we travel here, we buy travel books, since it’s all about being entertained. When you travel abroad you can buy those kinds of books, but it’s much more an experience of being educated, and changing the way you see.”

Even in the rain, pilgrims visit the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Even in the rain, pilgrims visit the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Lon and Delphine Kolakowski, a couple that travels frequently, didn’t see so much of a cultural difference as they saw similarities. Living in Bloomfield Hills, they’ve taken at least six trips in the last seven or eight years.

“All of these countries are just like our country,” said Lon Kolakowski, who’s visited Ireland, Italy and Turkey, among other places.

“I would say that travel is something everyone should do,” he said. “No matter what you read, it doesn’t come close to being with people of that culture and seeing how they live. Everyone wants the same things. We considered living in a different country to be living in a different way, but it’s really the same.”

Beyond just a cultural experience

Lynn Markey and her husband, Bob, said that though they have traveled throughout their lives — both Lynn Markey and father used to work for airline companies — they find great value in taking trips and pilgrimages even now.

“Every trip we’ve taken has offered something both cultural and spiritual that has helped us grow,” said Markey, who lives with her husband in Farmington. “In 2000, we took the Year of Jubilee pilgrimage to Italy with the Michigan Catholic Radio station.”

They were able to experience numerous events during their time in Italy, such as the canonization of St. Katherine Drexel, going through the Holy Doors, and visiting San Giovanni Rotondo, the home of St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio).

Upcoming pilgrimages and trips

Terra Sancta Pilgrimages will be leading pilgrimages to the Holy Land on Oct. 7-21, 2013; April 28-May 12, 2013; and Oct. 6-20, 2014. For more information, visit terrasanctapilgrimages.org, or call (248) 423-3600.

John Findlater and Patrick Wagner will be leading three trips soon. These will be a pilgrimage to Poland and Eastern Europe on March 20-31, 2014; a trip to the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park on July 29-Aug. 4, 2014; and the “Heart of Russia” River Cruise on Sept. 3-15, 2014. Visit jptravels.net for more information, or call John at (313) 410-6478.

Proximo Travel, Catholic Tour Company will be leading numerous trips to Italy and Switzerland in September, October and November 2013, as well as April 2014 and throughout the year. They also will lead a number of trips to Poland in October and November 2013, as well as April 2014 and throughout the rest of the year. Visit proximotravel.com or call (855) 842-8001 to learn about available dates.

While in San Giovanni Rotondo, they had the opportunity to be blessed with a glove St. Pio had worn while bearing the stigmata.

“It was a second-class relic,” she said.

But their trips are more than an experience of seeing different cultures — these are truly spiritual journeys. In visiting different countries as an American, she realized how crucial it is to keep an open mind and heart.

“God is everywhere, but we’re blessed in America that we have the freedom to worship and travel the way that we want,” she said.

Fr. Alex Kratz, OFM, has led twice-yearly pilgrimages to the Holy Land since 2008, and frequently brings retirees and those who have saved up for “the trip of a lifetime.”

Visiting numerous holy places such as Bethlehem, the Mount of the Beatitudes and Emmaus, Fr. Kratz’s pilgrimage ministry, called Terra Sancta Pilgrimages, seeks to connect Catholic travelers with their Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.

He focuses on what he calls “the spirituality of place,” which acknowledges that each location has its own special spiritual characteristics or feel. “The different places appeal to different people for varying reasons,” he said.

Having led pilgrimages for a number of years, Fr. Kratz said it renews him each time: “You’re walking in the footsteps of Jesus, and that never gets old.”

Travel guide and photographer Patrick Wagner stops for a quick photo-op near the water in Burano, Italy.

Travel guide and photographer Patrick Wagner stops for a quick photo-op near the water in Burano, Italy.

Celeste Whitney, who has traveled abroad throughout her life, said she feels a great deal of spiritual growth when traveling to historic places, especially in terms of “your own mortality.”

Whitney, who lives in Ferndale, grew up visiting France, where her parents had inherited part of a small French village, and developed her love for history.

“(In traveling,) you see things that were so important to people for many years,” said Whitney, a member of the Michigan Archeological Society for more than 30 years and former longtime member of the Ontario Archeological Society. “It reminds you not to put emphasis on the wrong things; it makes you realize that you really have to adjust your ideas to what’s important in life.”

The small things that are actually hugely important could be as simple as hearing voices lifted in song, Whitney said.
She said that while on a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee “there was a group singing beautiful hymns as we were there. It was really an emotional experience,” and one of her favorite abroad experiences of all time.

“Many people say they’re happy where they’re at, but to see how others live and think brings things to a different perspective.”