Monday, at Rome's Fiumicino Airport, the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi -- the Vatican institution whose mission it is to evangelize through pastoral tourism and the ministry of pilgrimage -- signed a five-year contract with Mistral Air. The partners then sent off their first group of pilgrims to Lourdes, accompanied by Benedict XVI's vicar for Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini.
At a press conference that day, Monsignor Liberio Andreatta, the vice president of ORP, said, "With this initiative the history and the pastoral design of our pilgrimages has changed."
For years, explained Monsignor Andreatta, the dominating characteristic of the week-long pilgrimages to Lourdes was a ride on a train, a day and a half trip there and home, which afforded time for the pilgrims to get to know each other, to walk together and "immerse oneself in Lourdes' great appeal."
"It was the most opportune moment to prepare the pilgrimage," he continued. "In this way the pilgrim would not arrive in Lourdes completely catapulted into a reality that he or she doesn't understand, and in contact with a message that they cannot digest in such a brief time."
But, the priest affirmed, "over the years the habits of pilgrims have changed. The modern pilgrim tries to maximize his time."
Monsignor Andreatta explained that the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi did not want to lose the time of reflection offered by a peaceful, preparatory train ride.
He said: "In a society of well-being and consumerism, where everyone is running, we did not want pilgrimages to enter into this vortex of frenetic pace where everything is consumed."
Thus, chartered flights offered a good solution and a response to the wishes of the faithful for a better use of their time.
"We found an airline company that gave us the opportunity to use airplanes like we were using the trains -- to get to know each other, to listen," Monsignor Andreatta affirmed.
Father Cesare Atuire, delegate administrator of ORP, explained how the plane trips will meet Vatican objectives.
"When you come on board these aircraft," he said, "you meet a staff that is sensitive to listening, to welcoming," because "the pilgrimage starts from the moment you leave your house. The conditions surrounding a man or woman traveling to a sanctuary must prepare them for this meeting."
The planes are decorated with pontifical logos and staffed by people specialized in religious pilgrimages.
Cardinal Ruini concluded: "The ways of doing pilgrimage change often, but its deep soul remains substantially the same when one is speaking of pilgrimage and not just of tourism. The search in this kind of travel and prayer leads to a more profound contact with God."