Deacon Richard Schmidt and his wife, Kathy, in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, which includes the tomb of the apostle James and is the official end of the Camino, or the Way of St. James. Courtesy photo

Why Be a Pilgrimage Guide?

Four deacons share the experiences of abounding graces

Comments Off on Why Be a Pilgrimage Guide?

A pilgrimage often becomes the perfect opportunity for deacons to grow as spiritual leaders. Their preparation to act as pilgrimage guides — which involves much prayer and a deep dive into increasing their knowledge of the saints and history connected to the sacred sites to be visited — helps them to embody the spirit of Christ the Servant. Ultimately, embracing the call to pilgrimage leadership reminds them again of Jesus’ mission when he walked on earth: that life is a journey toward God; one we make with others; and that, during that journey, being of service to the People of God is a vital part of the diaconate.

Recent interviews with four deacons reveal why they believe all deacons should go on a pilgrimage, and even become pilgrimage guides or leaders, because they witnessed the powerful ways that pilgrimages can become a conduit for Christ to pour out his graces, leading to healing, spiritual growth and renewal in their lives and in the lives of those they served.

Here are their stories.

Deacon Richard Schmidt

Deacon Richard Schmidt, of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, assigned to Holy Trinity Parish, Peachtree City, Georgia, and a partner with Nativity Pilgrimage

Deacon Richard Schmidt loves pilgrimages. He loves going on them and organizing them as part of his job with Nativity Pilgrimage as manager of sales. He also mentors other deacons so they can lead their own.

He went on his first pilgrimage, to the Holy Land, in 2019, with his wife, Kathy, a year after he was ordained. The group consisted of priests and deacons. He’s returned two times since then, both times as a leader.

He recently returned from a pilgrimage to the Marian Shrines in Fatima and Lourdes and looks forward to trips to Mexico, Ireland, Italy and Medjugorje later this year. Because of the war, no pilgrimages to the Holy Land are planned at the moment.

The reason he appreciates the opportunity to go on these trips is to see the spiritual impact they have on each pilgrim.

“Wherever you go,” he said, “you have such a deep focus on a particular saint or holy site, and the result is a deeper spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ. … We focus on that person or event in our Catholic history, such that you can’t possibly see them the same way again. You feel so close.”

One example he shared occurred near the Church of All Nations, next to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed in agony before his crucifixion. The group prayed during Eucharistic adoration in a dark church — one light on the altar and one on Jesus — a very moving Holy Hour.

One of the pilgrims was not particularly devout in his faith at the time, Deacon Schmidt said. He described the man as a widower, his wife having passed away a couple of years earlier. The man was deeply affected and was weeping at the end of the evening. Seeing how adoration touched his heart was amazing, Deacon Schmidt said.

Another example was a woman whose relationship with the Blessed Mother was deeply impacted from a pilgrimage to the Marian shrines of Lourdes and Fatima. She prays the Rosary every day now.

“Leading pilgrimages has been such a blessing,” Deacon Schmidt said. “My own faith and spirituality are stronger after witnessing how people in the group are affected and [how they] return home with a closer relationship to Christ, with a better understanding of Scripture. Leading people to Christ; that’s what we are called to do.”

Deacon Gustavo (Gus) Camacho

Deacon Gustavo (Gus) Camacho, of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, assigned to St. Vincent de Paul Parish, in Houston, Texas. The pilgrimage companies he’s been associated with include Inspirational Tours and Canterbury Tours.

Deacon Camacho
Deacon Gus Camacho.
Courtesy photo

Gus Camacho had been on many retreats, but he had never been on a pilgrimage, even though he was always interested in going to Jerusalem and Rome. That all changed once he became a deacon.

Since his ordination in 2011, he has led all of the pilgrimages he’s been on, including one to Jerusalem; one to Italy, Switzerland and Austria; and one to the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany. He also plans to lead one to the Marian sites in Europe in June 2024. He has another in the works that would be a pilgrimage to Rome for the 60th anniversary of the re-establishment of the permanent diaconate.

He said he prepares for a pilgrimage by praying, discerning and preparing religious/historical information that might be useful. He hopes to keep pilgrims’ hearts on the goal of the pilgrimage, which is deepening their relationships with the Lord and growing in faith.

Deacon Gus Camacho
Deacon Gus Camacho with Father Tom Smithson at a baptism in Jerusalem. Courtesy photo

His advice to deacons is to prepare. “Then let the Holy Spirit be your guide,” he said. “Don’t ever think you are in charge, and let yourself also experience the bounty the Lord has for all on the pilgrimage, including yourself.”

Being on and leading pilgrimages has had profound effects on his faith life and those he has served on the trips by causing him, and them, “to center” their lives on their faith.

“I have found,” he added, “that pilgrimages help us also better identify our faith and the stories we have heard as we learn more about our faith.”

One example of this a group he was with that went to Cana, a village in Galilee, where Jesus performed his first public miracle.

“I prayed over the single women who accompanied us on the trip — that the Lord would provide them with good, faithful and faith-filled men, and all were married within two years,” Deacon Gus said. “I have a very close relationship with them, and I have also participated in their lives since. I presided at all but two of the weddings, one because it was out of town and the other because I was out of town. These are my spiritual daughters, and I will always pray for them and be grateful to God for providing a response to my prayer. God is good, all the time.”

Deacon Tim Kennedy

Deacon Tim Kennedy, of the Byzantine Catholic Church in the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, founder of Fun and Faith Travel and Tours.

Deacon Kennedy
Deacon Tim Kennedy. Courtesy photo

The most life-changing pilgrimage that Deacon Tim Kennedy went on was to the Holy Land. He had been on two pilgrimages previously, in 2014 — one for the canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII and the other to attend the National Convocation of the Renewal in the Holy Spirit in Rome.

“It just made me a person of deeper and deeper faith,” he said. “I wanted to be a better deacon, a better husband, a better brother, a better friend. I really came back changed.”

He’s been there a total of 11 times now, most recently through a pilgrimage tour company called Faith and Fun Travel and Tours that he and his wife, Angie, founded.

Deacon Kennedy
Deacon Tim Kennedy at the celebration of Mass at the Basilica of the Transfiguration in the Holy Land. Courtesy photo

Before leading others on a pilgrimage, they prepare by praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary first, asking her to pave the way and to direct where they’re going to go. Then he reaches out to his contacts and secures ground services, hotels and flights.

Normally, he also looks for a priest to go with the group, so daily Mass can be celebrated, something he won’t be doing this year as he and Angie have become members of the Byzantine Catholic Church in the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, where he is studying to be a priest. He expects to be ordained in May 2024. (Eastern Catholicism, which is in full communion with the Latin Catholic Church, has a long-standing history of ordaining married men to the priesthood.)

He believes all deacons should lead a pilgrimage, and his advice is exactly the same that he received from his pastor before his ordination: Turn everything over to Our Lady and ask for nothing and refuse nothing.

“Even if you just do it once, it will really change your ministry,” he said. “If it’s something you are fearful of, get out of the boat, go out into the deep water and let the Lord surprise you. Do your research and secure a relationship with a Catholic tour operator that offers completely private groups, led by Catholic tour guides.”

Deacon Matt Coriale

Deacon Matt Coriale, the executive director of the Josephinum Diaconate Institute at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio

Deacon Matt Coriale
Deacon Matt Coriale. Courtesy photo

Reading about and seeing photos of a pilgrimage site in a book are fabulous ways to research sacred places. But nothing beats actually experiencing it firsthand. Ask Deacon Matt Coriale.

During his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in 2018, he and other pilgrims visited the Mensa Christi (Latin for “Table of Christ”) Church. Tradition has it that the church is where Jesus met with the apostles after his resurrection. In the church, a large, rectangular limestone block that served as a table is where Christ ate with his disciples. The Sea of Galilee is nearby.

With several moments to wander around, Deacon Coriale headed to the water’s edge. Not only had the Lord walked in that very place, he thought, but Peter, James and John and the other apostles had made their livelihood there as fishermen.

Deacon Matt Coriale
Deacon Matt Coriale in Jerusalem overlooking the Old City. Courtesy photo

Inspired, Deacon Coriale dipped his hand into the sea, deliberately, as a tangible way to connect with the Lord.

“As I touched the water,” he said, “it was a very unexpectedly emotional thing to touch the water and just know that, not that long ago, God of all creation was there, calling his disciples in. … I could envision the men dragging the net full of fish in. It was just a connection across space and time. That’s the best way to describe it.”

Deacon Coriale also remembers another vivid Jesus connection during that trip. This one occurred during a visit to pray a Holy Hour in the Church of All Nations. This holy site, located near the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, next to the Garden of Gethsemane, is where Jesus prayed in agony the night before his crucifixion.

Inside the church, he said, there’s a little fence around the rock where Jesus prayed. When he knelt down, his knees struck the edge of the rock, sending searing pain through his body.

“I just remember that pain,” he said, “feeling a connection to the agony that Jesus was about to go through. And that was just one of those, again, very powerful experiences. It was something you can’t get out of a book.”

What he understood was he was experiencing salvation history in very tangible ways.

Although he had been on retreats when he was younger, he doesn’t recall ever having been on a pilgrimage before his ordination to the diaconate in 2008. He went on his first one, to Italy, in 2012. Two trips to the Holy Land followed in 2018 and 2022.

The first time he went to the Holy Land, he thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime visit. Or, if he did go again, it would be years later.

“As we were traveling home,” he said, “I very quickly thought to myself, ‘I need other people to experience what I experienced. I need others to see this — and not just what I experienced, but also what the other pilgrims had experienced.’ ”

Helping others deepen their faith lives requires a lot of preparation, which begins, he said, months before the trip starts. He tries to learn as much as he can about the sites the group will visit (“because people will be curious, and they look at the deacon or priest or whoever’s on the pastoral staff to have answers”), and he spends a lot of time steeped in prayer.

As a deacon, his goal is to always serve as best as he can to be a vehicle of grace for others.

“If you don’t have your prayer life together, your pilgrimage will not nearly be as fruitful,” he said.

During a trip, because people tend to open up during the pilgrimages, he listens closely to them to see how he can weave their experiences — without referring to their names — into his homilies. In this way, he can tie a particular location to Scripture and also to their lives.

He also tries to encourage them to be prepared for whatever direction the Lord’s will is taking them during and after the pilgrimage.

That spirit of openness also applies to the advice he would give to deacons who are considering being part of a pilgrimage pastoral team.

“Just do it,” he said. “The second thing, as far as preparing if it’s your first one, is be prepared, be open. Take the time to learn about where you’re going. But also leave a lot of room for wonder and awe. Make it an exercise of the soul and the spirit. Don’t make it an academic exercise.”

CARLOS BRICEÑO is director of communications and evangelization at the Basilica of St. Mary in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia.


Rome’s Jubilee 2025 Pilgrim Churches

For the Jubilee 2025, several churches are designated in Rome as gathering points for pilgrims. These churches will have sessions of catechesis for people to rediscover the true meaning of the Holy Year. They afford pilgrims the chance to receive reconciliation and a time to pray.

The churches include The Sanctuary of Divine Love, the Basilica di Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, Church of St. Prisca, the Basilica of Sts. Silvester and Martin in the Monti, Church of Santa Maria in Monserrato, The Church of San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini, Church of Santa Maria del Suffragio, Church of Spirito Santo dei Napoletani, Church of Santa Caterina da Siena, Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella and Church of San Salvatore in Lauro. Each church has historical significance.



Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe now.
Send feedback to us at