The Pope on tourism and on man as traveler

The Vatican actually has a council that deals with the pastoral care of tourists. It met in Cancun, Mexico, not an unknown tourist resort, April 23-27. Benedict directed a short but significant letter to the members attending.

“Tourism,” Benedict remarks, “is certainly a phenomenon characteristic of our times.” Almost all modern popes, of course, have spoken of tourism. John Paul II himself may have been the all-time top traveller of our time. It is estimated that he was seen in person by more human beings than any other man in history.

Moreover, the Vatican itself is probably the number one tourist destination in the world. In my Roman years (1965-77), I was ever struck by the numbers and varieties of tourists who came to Rome. But I also observed the fact that those popes who built churches, basilicas, chapels, and who sponsored art and gardens, were centuries ahead of their time. They were major contributors to Italian prosperity and Vatican uniqueness because they built and sponsored things of beauty.

So tourism is not just a phenomenon of our time. It goes back to Herodotus, to medieval pilgrims, to early modern explorers, to the Grand Tour, to the charm and perhaps illusion of different places. What Benedict wants to add to the fact of tourism is that “like other human realities, it is called to be enlightened and transformed by the Word of God.” The Church is not at all opposed to this opportunity of people to travel and meet others, but it is also aware of the darker side of tourism.

One of the names given to man, besides animal rationale, homo ludens, animal sociale, is homo viator, man the traveler, a phrase Benedict himself uses. The great travel stories and adventures are essential to human history and human reality. We have a sense that we must see more than ourselves and our local scenes, however much they are home to us.

Travel is not immigration; the traveler intends to return home having seen something of the world. The traveler can only catch glimpses of what is new and distant from his own local world. Often he does not know the language or customs of what he sees. He is both bewildered and fascinated. He knows he is not at home, yet he sees that other people are at home in places he does not know.

“Tourism, together with vacation and free time, is a privileged occasion for physical and spiritual renewal; it facilitates the coming together of people from different cultural backgrounds, and offers the opportunity of drawing close to nature and hence opening the way to listening and contemplation, tolerance and peace, dialogue and harmony in the midst of diversity.” Travel can thus be a thing of the soul. When Scripture calls us “strangers and wayfarers,” it touches on a travel image. We have here no lasting city. We ourselves are on a journey, even if we remain at home.

Chesterton remarked once that “travel narrows a man.” He meant that, when we travel, we only see what we saw at home. Our ultimate journey, however, leads us to “an encounter with God.” Benedict cites Wisdom 13, which points to the “greatness and beauty of created things” that themselves point to their Creator.

The evils connected to tourism are familiar to Benedict. “Sexual tourism is one of the most abject of deviations that devastate morally, psychologically and physically the life of so many persons and families.” In this sense, tourism is a way to escape local rules. Providers of such activities are especially corrupt. Governments that fail to restrict such activities themselves usually betray their own people and the tourists themselves.

Tourists are often taken advantage of by local merchants, government employees, or service agents. This is something that almost all tourists eventually encounter. Countries wherein tourists are known to be treated unfairly soon lose visitors. We need an “ethical and responsible tourism, in such a way that it will respect the dignity of persons and of peoples, be open to all, be just, sustainable and ecological.”

Benedict even affirms that “the enjoyment of free time and regular vacations is an opportunity as well as a right. The Church, within its own sphere of competence, is committed to continue offering its cooperation, so that this right will become a reality for all people, especially for less fortunate communities.” I do not recall ever having a vacation exactly called a “right” in a papal document. It is in fact a practice of most countries when economically possible to have a system of vacations or holidays in addition to the normal Sundays or other feasts. It too can be abused. Economists of the middle ages often said that so many feast days existed during the year that nothing got done. Striking a balance is always a matter of prudence and custom.

In speaking of tourism, Benedict tells us that we should not lose sight of the via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty. One of the things that should happen to us in our travel is that we encounter things of loveliness and beauty—churches, buildings, mountains, country-sides, paintings, seashores, sculptures, and music that we cannot see elsewhere. A thing of beauty draws us to itself and thereby draws us outside of ourselves to what is.

And yet, Benedict reminds us, these things of beauty were often not originally meant to be causes of tourism. We should respect “the sacred places and the liturgical action, for which many of these works came into being and which continue to be their main purpose.”

There is no reason why we cannot increase our spiritual and moral growth by the very fact of tourism. While the body relaxes we can have more time to form “prayer and meditation, in order to grow in personal relationship with Christ and become ever more conformed to his teachings.”

Benedict recognizes different kinds of tourism. The pilgrimage tradition—to Canterbury, to Santiago de Campostella–is surely one that can be enjoyed by modern men. A trip can lead to understanding and still be something of enjoyment and rest. Anyone who has been to Rome knows that it is an occasion for all these aspects–beauty, history, prayer, liturgy, and a sense of enjoying what is there, to see something else that is also a seeing of what is important.

Christ is ‘the supreme response to modern man’s fundamental questions.” The Church itself needs to be aware of the spiritual needs of those visiting the holy places. Homo viator, man the traveler, is a being who needs to “rest” in is travels. His “restlessness” is itself a sign that, as Chesterton said, even at home, he is somehow not in his real home. 

About James V. Schall, S.J. 160 Articles

James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, “Another Sort of Learning”, for more about his writings and work.