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Mexico City pilgrimage planning, getting to know our fellow pilgrims

Last week, I mentioned Kathryn and I are still planning to travel for a week later this month. The trip is a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and to some other holy sites in the area.

Having a religious motivation to our travels is not an entirely new concept to us. For example, our trip to Rome in 2011 was rooted in a desire to see Pope Benedict XVI and hear him teach. We’ve also been on two pilgrimages to California, the longer of which was to visit each of the 21 original Franciscan missions, which we accomplished over the course of a rather hectic week. Two years ago, our trip to Europe was mostly about taking two weeks of French language classes, but even then our route to see friends in Luxembourg was planned with a special detour to see the birthplace of St. Joan of Arc.

What’s new to us is traveling with a group. Kathryn and I are typically quite independent when we travel, making our own arrangements, and planning our own itineraries. We rarely do any sort of bundles or package deals. Sometimes we don’t really even have itineraries — just a general idea of where we want to go and how we want to get there.

Making a pilgrimage to Mexico City had crossed our minds before. In fact, our California missions trip happened because we started planning a trip to Mexico City over the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12, and then changed our minds at the last minute. Not wanting to give up the previously approved leave from work, we jumped in the car with a AAA book and found hotels one night at a time.

From Wikimedia Commons

From Wikimedia Commons

This year, fate intervened.

One or two Sundays a month, and on certain holy days, Kathryn and I attend Mass at Mater Misericordiae Mission near the State Capitol in Phoenix, one of only a few churches in Arizona where the rites are celebrated according to the Roman Missal as it read in 1962. This is sometimes called the Tridentine Rite, or the Traditional Latin Mass, or the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. We discovered this form of the Mass quite by accident several years ago in, of all places, Las Vegas. We had arrived ready for Mass according to the new rites, unaware the parish schedule had changed since our last visit to the same parish.

For those of us who are Catholics under the age of 50, this older form of the Mass was largely hidden away from us for most of our lives. To some, it may seem like a step back in time. The prayers of the Mass are entirely in Latin. The priest celebrates facing the altar, except when he is directly addressing the people. There are no women in the sanctuary, and while not strictly required, most women veil themselves in the church. There’s more reverent kneeling and more sacred silence throughout. There is no disruptive “sign of peace” after the Our Father. Communion is received on the tongue while kneeling at the rail. At the conclusion of Mass, instead of a run for the doors, most stay for a short time to offer a prayer of thanks.

In our experience, however, far from being the refuge of a few aging fossils longing for the way things used to be, the traditionalist Catholic communities we’ve encountered have been relatively young and vibrant. For example, at Mater Misericordiae, Kathryn and I, each of us 46 years old, are senior citizens. The Masses are full of young families with children, with lots of young men to serve on the altar. I don’t know the exact ages of the two priests assigned there, but if either of them is over 35, I want to know what supplements they’re taking.

Anyway, back to the pilgrimage.

Several months ago, while at a Sunday Mass at Mater Misericordiae, we saw an announcement in the weekly parish bulletin for a pilgrimage to Mexico City. For a few moments, we reflected upon our own pilgrimage plans from 2012 — and then promptly forgot about them. Several weeks later, we visited the church again, and it turned out the announcement was still in the bulletin. To us, seeing the second announcement was something of a sign.

A few days later, Kathryn called the coordinator of the pilgrimage to get some information. Our concern, knowing our own travel preferences, was the itinerary would be too rigid, not leaving us enough time to do our own thing. Also, and perhaps more crucially, we wanted to know whether they’d even be willing to have two non-parishioners tag along on their “parish” pilgrimage.

Any concerns we’d had were quickly assuaged. Our lack of status as registered parishioners was of no concern whatsoever. And the itinerary, far from being rigid, was almost as nebulous as if we’d planned it ourselves. The pilgrimage activities would cover the mornings and afternoons of three days, during which there’d be two 15-passenger vans with drivers to cart us from place to place. The rest of the time, including the evenings of those three days, we’d be left entirely on our own. We’d also have to arrange our own transportation to and from Mexico City, and we’d have a gentlemen’s agreement that we all stay at the same hotel, which we’d also arrange ourselves.

Kathryn passed the information on to me. We both chewed on it for a few hours, and then agreed. “Let’s do it.”

Sebastian Wallroth [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Sebastian Wallroth [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Since the three full days of activities are a Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, there’d be no way around arriving later than Tuesday evening or leaving earlier than Saturday morning. Since we’d have to take, at a minimum, Tuesday through Friday off from work no matter how we played it, we decided to take the entire week off and make a proper vacation out of it. So we’ll be flying to Mexico City on a Saturday and returning to Phoenix the following Saturday.

Making hotel reservations in Mexico City was a bit of a challenge. Eventually I gave up trying to book online and called the hotel directly, which itself was a challenge because I don’t have an international calling plan on my prepaid mobile phone. I finally figured out a way to reach the hotel, and since my Spanish is quite terrible, I was eventually connected to someone who spoke English. Somehow I managed to get a better rate than anything I’d seen online.

Luckily I got a confirmation number from the hotel before I hung up, because even though the agent could speak English, she apparently didn’t know the alphabet. After an hour had passed and I still hadn’t received my e-mail confirmation, I wrote to the hotel with the confirmation number and the correct spelling of my name and e-mail address. A few minutes later, I received the confirmation at the now-correctly spelled e-mail address, but my last name was still badly mangled. A few minutes after that, I received another confirmation with the correct spelling of my name. Lesson learned. Next time, I’ll spell my name and e-mail address in Spanish, which is about all the Spanish I know.

At this point, we knew how and when we’d be getting to Mexico City and back and where we’d be sleeping while we were there. What we didn’t know was who’d be traveling with us. Kathryn and I are generally quite relaxed when we travel and tend to deal with things as they come — or at least I do. Would our 26 fellow pilgrims be as laid back as we are?

Fast-forward to two days ago.

Kathryn and I arrived at the church Saturday morning about 15 minutes before the 10 am Mexico City pilgrimage meeting, and although we were clearly the outsiders among a group of people who largely knew each other, we were greeted warmly. The coordinator of the trip is driving to Tijuana with his large family to take advantage of lower airfares available there. I elicited a laugh when I suggested that avoiding the TSA is by itself a reason to make the drive. When the priest arrived, he didn’t recognize us, so he introduced himself right away. As the meeting went on, it became clear the itinerary still wasn’t rigid, and we were all going to have plenty of time to do what we wanted. The priest’s only genuine concern was, since we’d be sharing transportation, we try not stray too far from the group when we’re out together. Kathryn suggested since most of us have smartphones, one of us should create a WhatsApp group we could use to keep in touch with each other. She then took it upon herself to put the group together.

Long story short, Kathryn and I are excited for this trip. To me, it seems like we’ll be traveling with a fun, welcoming group of people. We stuck around for a short while after the planning meeting to shake some hands and exchange some names. I’m confident we’re going to have a great time.