Visitors are hardly strangers in the three-blocks-from-the-Pacific parish of Mission San Buenaventura, founded in 1782 by St. Junipero Serra in what is now the city of Ventura, 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
At each of the mission’s six weekend Masses (two in Spanish), first-time visitors and vacationers — whether hailing from neighboring cities, any of the 50 states or from all over the world — are welcomed at the door by ushers bearing smiles and worship aids.
During Mass, parish priests invite visitors to stand and tell where they are from, and lead the assembly in applauding the visitors’ presence, while ushers gift them with commemorative prayer cards detailing the mission’s history.
“These are provided in both English and Spanish,” adds Father Tom Elewaut, pastor, who began the practice upon his arrival at San Buenaventura in 2011. “Our parish is a welcoming parish; it’s part of who we are as people of God.”
Such hospitality is emulated in parishes located in or near vacation and destination locales throughout the U.S.
“Vacations provide an opportunity for people to grow in faith,” says Deacon John DeWolfe, pastoral associate at Holy Family Church in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, which adds another weekend Mass during vacation season (Memorial Day to Labor Day) to accommodate travelers seeking to worship in the 640-family parish.
“Probably 80 percent of our seats are filled by visitors during vacation season,” says Deacon DeWolfe. “They are well-grounded in their faith, and in fact many long-term visitors participate in other parish ministries. I get great participation in weekly Bible study that I lead. And visitors love to go to confession,” he adds with a chuckle.
The summer influx of vacationers is welcomed at small parishes in western South Dakota, as Catholics vacation in the Black Hills and visit Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial and Wind Cave National Park, among other attractions.
“We get a substantial increase in the summer,” says Father Grant Gerlach, administrator at St. John the Baptist Church in Custer and St. Anthony of Padua in Hot Springs, within 32 miles of each other and less than hour from the region’s well-known tourist sites and recreation areas.
St. John the Baptist (six miles from Crazy Horse) adds another 100 seats, boosting capacity by 50 percent for its two weekend Masses, and at the start of Mass, Father Gerlach welcomes all visitors who attend. Thanks to a hospitality-minded parishioner, the parish offers visitors “guide sheets” to the parish (including the all-important answer to “where’s the restroom”), and plans to add a kiosk filled with information on the area.
“We want them to feel connected not only to the area, but to their faith,” says Father Gerlach.
In the Grand Canyon of northern Arizona, the presence of tiny (50-seat) El Cristo Rey Chapel comes as a welcome surprise to many visitors, says Father Rafael Bercasio, administrator.
“Sometimes the church is full on Sundays, sometimes not,” says Father Bercasio. “But I always tell visitors near the end of Mass that I commend them for taking the time to fulfill their Sunday obligation. Because even on vacation, faith does not take a rest. And it is a good feeling to see tourists come to receive the sacraments.”
He and other pastors advise people to find out, prior to vacationing or ask upon arrival, where the nearest Catholic Church is, a task made easier by websites like masstimes.org.
Father Elewaut of Ventura further suggests researching the local religious heritage and visiting shrines or places of pilgrimage; checking out local Catholic colleges, which “frequently have great spaces for prayer, beauty and worship”; and posting on Facebook any interesting religious experiences while traveling.
Most of all, he advises, “recognize the God of creation in your travels. The seascape, the mountains, the farmers or workers and even the great architectures can become moments of awareness of God’s creativity through humanity. Praise God for these.”
Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.