Traveling like a Catholic

Summer is on the way, and no doubt some TCT readers are planning trips abroad. Such a trip is not an automatic path to adventure, wisdom, or an otherwise enriched life. But with some effort – and caution – it can be rewarding.

As G.K. Chesterton warns:

I have never managed to lose my old conviction that travel narrows the mind. At least a man must make a double effort of moral humility and imaginative energy to prevent it from narrowing his mind. Indeed there is something touching and even tragic about the thought of the thoughtless tourist, who might have stayed at home loving Laplanders, embracing Chinamen, and clasping Patagonians to his heart. . . .but for his blind and suicidal impulse to go and see what they looked like.

For those determined to visit the Old World – and to avoid such a narrowing of mind – good preparation in art, history, and logistics can help. Some of my own best travel experiences have come from the tips of friends. Here are a few such tips I’ve collected over the years.

Rome: Many Catholic visitors will see Rome with a parish group or guided itinerary. However you go, the Pontifical North American College hosts a one-stop website with information on essential reservations for the Vatican Museum, the Scavi (excavations under St Peter’s Basilica with the tomb of St Peter), and the Vatican gardens. That site also has information on papal events and audiences (including the regular one for newlyweds), Mass times for the major basilicas, and a list of religious guesthouses for those wishing to avoid big chain hotels. 

Rome has thousands of beautiful churches. If you happen to miss the one you’re looking for, just walk a couple of hundred feet and find another. My favorites, besides the great basilicas like St. Peter’s and Sta. Maria Maggiore, are Sta. Anna near the Vatican, the Gesu, St. Agostino, and the American parish at Sta. Susannah. But any Catholic visitor should compile a personal list to keep from being overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices.

         The Tomb of St. Peter

And also make sure to take time for a coffee, a gelato, or a slice of pizza – and for watching the seminarians and students coming and going at the pontifical universities. The Gregorian and Santa Croce are both centrally located. Rome is great for dolce far niente moments that refresh in several ways. 

London: Some Catholic sites in London evoke tragic memories, but the perseverance of English Catholics is a heartening story with relevance for us today, and perhaps greater relevance in the future. 

St Thomas More spent the last part of his life at the Tower of London before his execution. To see his cell and crypt, you must arrange a tour by writing (the old-fashioned way, on paper) to The Governor, HM Tower of London, London EC3N 4AB, UK, with the date and number of guests. Requests spike around More’s feast day on June 22.

But on the old calendar, the feast day was July 9, and on that date a few years back I happened into the beautiful Brompton Oratory for the 8:00 am weekday Tridentine Mass. The priest announced matter-of-factly that the Mass would be offered “for the conversion of England and Wales.” I was glad that I did not know anyone else in the chapel. The impulse to high-fives and chest bumps might have been irresistible. I’m still waiting for a priest in Washington to announce a Mass “for the conversion of the United States of America.”

          Spot of Tyburn Tree

Many of the English martyrs were executed at the gallows of Tyburn Tree, marked by a small plaque in a traffic island near Hyde Park. Tyburn Abbey is close by. Other terrific churches include the Jesuit Church at Farm Street, St James Spanish Place, and the recently renovated St Patrick in Soho whose pastor, Fr Alexander Sherbrooke, leads frequent Adoration and processions in a city quarter in serious need of the New Evangelization.

Paris: With so much to see in this beautiful city, try to make time for evening prayer and Mass with the Community of Jerusalem at St. Gervais and St. Protais, known for the music and the reverence of the religious. It’s not far from Notre Dame. 

Vienna: With its own abundance of beautiful churches, Vienna is the home of “Habsburg Catholicism.” A detour from the Hofburg Treasury with its collection of sacred objects to visit the Habsburg tombs beneath the Capuchin Church is worthwhile. Habsburg funerals long took place here in a ceremony marked by humility, and celebrated, most recently in 2011, with the death of Otto von Habsburg.

The Capuchin monks reject the repeated entreaties to admit his casket based on his many worldly titles. But he is finally admitted when described only as “Otto, a poor sinner.” Other favorite churches include St Peter’s, the Jesuit Church, the Augustinian Church (also with close Habsburg connections), and the famous cathedral: Stephansdom.

           Inside the Habsburg Tombs

Bratislava: The Slovak capital, is a short trip by train or boat from Vienna. Its compact old town was well restored after the communist era. It includes St. Martin’s Cathedral (the coronation church of the Habsburgs), several other great churches, and the square where a 1988 candlelight protest for religious freedom gave momentum to the movement that would bring down the Iron Curtain.

All of these places reward, above all, walking around, looking up at the architecture that sought to draw the eyes towards sky and heaven, as well as taking the time to absorb the cities, their people, and their various ways.

If you ignore Chesterton’s advice to stay home, do take his advice on how to travel abroad: “[I]n international relations there is far too little laughing, and far too much sneering. But I believe that there is a better way which largely consists of laughter; a form of friendship between nations which is actually founded on differences.”  

Enjoy these splendid cities, and be sure to laugh along the way.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.