What Works: Vacation Advice from the Pope

Pope Benedict on summer vacation in the Alps. Credit: CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters

The pope has made several comments concerning vacations, which were highlighted in a piece on the Vatican Radio website. (I learned about that post thanks to Mary DeTurris Poust in Our Sunday Visitor‘s Daily Take blog.) Whether he’s your spiritual leader or not, he touches on some powerful ideas, so let’s take a look.

Pope Benedict offers two basic goals for our vacation besides relaxation:

  • spending time with others
  • spending time with God

It’s one thing to spend an hour or two with a person, or to be with family or a partner all the time in the daily routines of life, but there’s something special (and sometimes challenging) about travelling together. Quality time is a great thing, but the hours of non-quality time during a vacation — in cars, waiting at airports, between events — create a different kind of intimacy.

Are you challenged by the pope’s suggestion to spend time with others? Is there a visit to family that you could do instead of that beach vacation which will yield greater fruit in the long run? Maybe not — and not every vacation should be about visiting family; getaways are valuable too. But it’s worth asking yourself.

“I would like to recommend that during this time of vacation, you revivify your spirits by contemplating the splendors of Creation. Parents, teach your children to see nature, respect and protect it as a magnificent gift that presents to us the grandeur of the Creator!” — Pope Benedict

It’s obvious how to spend time with other people — bring them along or go to them — but how do we spend time with God while on vacation? The pope offers three ideas, and we’ll explore each one a little.

  • being in nature
  • reading scripture
  • visiting sacred spaces

The sacred in nature

I’ve written numerous times about how powerful and enriching it can be to spend time in nature. Camping with my family was my first introduction to the divine. We built vacations around visiting natural wonders: descending the side of Bryce Canyon on mules; exploring geysers and hot springs in Yellowstone; watching the swallows of San Juan Capistrano; staying through a hurricane on Cape Hatteras; looking up from the floor of a redwood forest.

In a talk to a group of pilgrims — during his own vacation at Castel Gandolfo last year — Pope Benedict said:

“I would like to recommend that during this time of vacation, you revivify your spirits by contemplating the splendors of Creation. Parents, teach your children to see nature, respect and protect it as a magnificent gift that presents to us the grandeur of the Creator! In speaking in parables, Jesus used the language of nature to explain to his disciples the mysteries of the Kingdom. May the images he uses become familiar to us! Let us remember that the divine reality is hidden in our daily lives like the seed in the soil. “

Whether it’s the majesty of a western canyon or summer night sky, the delicate beauty of a wildflower or songbird, or the insane complexity of a fractal pattern or balanced ecosystem – it’s hard not to feel the presence of something greater than yourself when you spend time in nature. Cherish these opportunities; some of them are probably closer to home than you realize.

Daily practice

Pope Benedict suggests bringing a Bible with you on vacation. This is a not a trivial or overly pious idea. It is easy when vacationing to leave all your normal spiritual routines behind. It might feel like you don’t need daily prayer, meditation and sacred reading when you’re vacationing on the beach, especially if you see those practices as salves, bandages, for the damage done by regular life. But touching base with God is not just something to do when you need it; it enriches the good times even more than the bad, because without a crisis to absorb the good energy, so to speak, it’s all available for enrichment.

It may seem appropriate to continue a daily yoga or running practice on the beach but it might feel weird to pull out a spiritual book. But if it’s already part of your daily spiritual practice to read, let me suggest that you do it on vacation too.

Sacred spaces

The pope’s third suggestion is to visit sacred places while on vacation. When I popped into Notre Dame while in Paris it became a high point of that vacation. (And I wasn’t even Catholic then!) Visiting monasteries, churches, shrines and other spiritual sites can be uplifting. While it might be half a day out of a two-week vacation, it’s a memory you’ll always have with you. And you might even consider devoting a vacation to making a pilgrimage, like the Camino or Lourdes.


As any regular reader of my column knows, I’m a bit of a word nerd. It’s fascinating to me to see how much of the meaning of a word can be found in its roots. Words are not arbitrary sounds assigned a meaning; they are rich little vessels that contain history and ancestry. Often a word’s roots aren’t immediately obvious but in the case of “recreation” they’re pretty plain. It literally means to create anew.

The pope encourages us to “revivify” our spirits while on vacation. Consider destinations or side trips to take in the divine majesty and beauty of nature or spiritual sites. And even if your vacation is calming and escapist, maintaining your daily and weekly spiritual routines will help ground you and might even stimulate spiritual growth.

Share your thoughts about the pope’s suggestions and I’d love to hear about experiences you’ve already had, this year or in the past, where a vacation turned into something spiritually enriching.

This post was originally published on August 1, 2011.