Our family recently returned from a 2 ½ week pilgrimage/adventure through southern Europe. We flew into Barcelona, Spain, rented a van, and with 4 of our 5 children (ages 3 to 16) in tow, we began the most unbelievable family bonding experience ever! From literally mountaintop experiences to seaside adventures, we were ALL stretched way beyond our comfort zones and each one of us grew in unexpected ways. There were moments filled with incredible graces and moments where our faith was truly tested. As we drove from town to town, country to country, staying in a new location every 1-2 nights, we learned to let go of creature comforts and work together in new and creative ways. We literally had one challenge after another, making it a true pilgrimage in nature. There were several small trials — like safety hazards EVERYWHERE, driving time and again with a large van in tight spaces, finding food and bathrooms — in time, altitude sickness, and just overall adapting to cultural differences and meeting the needs of one toddler, two children, and a teenager — as we traversed from one country to the next. Then there were the larger-scale trials – like my husband being trapped and robbed, our basement flooding back home, a flat tire in Spain, our van’s transmission going out in France — then my family having to ride in the van AS it was being towed by one single cable, our 3-year-old accidentally locking himself in a room, then climbing through a window to bring him to safety and the plethora of times we were lost late at night in the pitch dark when everything was CLOSED and we absolutely had to rely on the grace of God to get us to our next destination! Thankfully my husband is fluent in Spanish and French. Oh! … but ALL that we saw, experienced and encountered – we agreed we would do it again in a heartbeat! Time and again we walked on holy ground – from the great cathedrals of Spain to the hometown castle walls of St. Teresa of Avila. As we drove through the countryside of southern France, we saw one beautiful Catholic Church after another — sometimes quaint, other times rather large, but always historical, inspirational, and set against a storybook backdrop! At the beloved shrines in honor of Our Blessed Mother in Fatima, Portugal and Lourdes, France – both Church-approved Marian apparition sites, we spent time in prayer and lit numerous candles for the intentions of our friends and family.  We washed ourselves with and drank from the holy water spring in Lourdes and we toured the second largest basilica in the world in Seville, Spain. We were blessed to spend a few moments of quality prayer time in the church that St. Josemaria Escriva grew up in and then just three hours later and a few towns over, we kissed the pillar that Our Lady appeared on in her first recorded apparition at Our Lady of the Pillar Cathedral in central Spain. At the top of my list was the hometown of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The small, quaint village, nestled in the breathtaking mountains of northern Spain, was so peaceful. There is a lovely cathedral in honor of St. Ignatius, built next door to the large mansion that he grew up in. My family and I were inspired as we learned about the heroic life of this holy man and the “spiritual exercises” as we know them today, that emerged from his devout soul. We spent a night in the small, mountainous, and very Catholic country of Andorra, where we visited a Shrine called Our Lady of Meritxell and then we journeyed on to the papal palace in Avignon, France, where the papacy resided for 68 years during the 14th century. Our family pilgrimage included quality time swimming in the ocean, hiking in the mountains, and exploring little villages. We tried local food, engaged in new cultures, stretched our minds, and opened wide our hearts. Our mapped-out plan was in various ways redesigned because God had an even better plan. A plan that brought out the best in each of us and at times, perhaps the worst. There was one opportunity after another to strengthen our characters and build our spiritual muscles. Our Lord was the navigator that guided us through this trip and the anchor we held on to in moments of uncertainty and fear. From His hands we received immediate graces and graces that I trust we will be discovering for years to come. View the slide show of some of the highlights of our journey:

Whether it be a pilgrimage to a local shrine or a weekend trip to a beautiful cathedral in the next state over, I encourage you to plan a family pilgrimage. If you want a strong marriage and a healthy family, pray together, play together, work together and journey together.

What can you plan today to further your family mission and strengthen your family bond?