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3 Catholic families living as pilgrims


Larisa Blinova | Shutterstock

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 07/18/21

Life is a pilgrimage, and some families are embracing that truth quite literally.
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Whatever else life may be, it’s definitely a pilgrimage. We have a goal, a purpose, a heroic journey to make. Looking back on our lives, hopefully each of us can see how far we’ve come, and then, turning to the future, be excited about where our steps will take us next.

For most of us, our travels are metaphorical. We take up a spiritual journey to make our way closer to God, or a pilgrimage for self-improvement, an interior journey of self-discovery. The few times in my life I’ve been privileged to physically join in a pilgrimage, the experience became much more than a metaphor. The physical toil of it – I once rode my bicycle 400 miles to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wisconsin – mirrored, and even began to shape, what I was feeling inside. The physical effort enhanced the spiritual journey in a way I never could have predicted.

Some intrepid souls take the idea of pilgrimage quite literally. And these pilgrims even include large Catholic families. Personally, as much as I love the idea, I shudder at the thought of sharing a tiny living space on a sailboat or a renovated school bus with my six children, but these families make it work. Not only are they surviving, they’re thriving.

Here are a few of their stories …

The Swift Family Robeson Expedition

A few years ago, I noticed a large family file into the pew at Mass. Afterwards, they disappeared, only to reappear maybe six months later and disappear again. This pattern has repeated. I finally discovered their secret – they all live in an RV and travel extensively.

I asked Greg, father of the clan, if there was a reason they took up travel. He says, “After a trip to the Bahamas in 2012 with three kids in tow, we vowed to commit resources to making those memories, even if it meant downsizing our material goods in order to consistently have that quality time.” From there, a new lifestyle emerged organically from a desire to raise their children free of typical social pressures. He says, “Consistent themes from our onset three years ago have been simplicity and sacrifice, learning by doing, green time over screen time, and family adventure over material comfort.”

There are challenges, though. Greg says, “In an RV, I replace the same part sometimes every year … We get to learn new grocery stores, delivery zones, cell service, RV mobile mechanics, county parks, local crime data and safety metrics.” However, the benefits are worth the effort: “We get to learn from people of different cultures who see opportunity based on their unique experience. This paradigm shift is so good for the kids … Emotionally, we all get to learn about boundaries and giving other members of the family “space” when we have limited physical space … Physically, I have found it easier to fast and eat more in alignment with what the body needs. With a smaller fridge and pantry, you are quickly confronted with choosing between wellness and illness while grocery shopping.”

To keep up with the adventures of the Swift Family Robeson, check out their YouTube channel.

Blowin’ In the Wind

Some of the sailors on Blowin’ In the Wind are less than three feet tall and don’t know how to read yet. Tom and Anna live and sail year-round with their four young children, all of whom contribute to the crew. Tom says, “We didn’t plan to live a life that emphasized travel; it took us by surprise. In many ways most of the traveling that we’ve done has been in search of a home, but at every place we’ve stopped, we became aware very strongly at some point or other that there was something that we needed to do that we couldn’t do there.”

The traveling evolved from a feeling of rootlessness into having a definite purpose: “Anna and I realized that all of our travels were pilgrimages, even if we didn’t necessarily think they were when we set out on the journeys.”

Pilgrimage has had a positive impact on their children. Tom says, “When we travel, our kids’ worlds get bigger. And they find things that they didn’t know they were looking for.” He goes on, “The challenges are that this life is very hard … everything is much more difficult than in a house or apartment on land. From the process of buying food to preparing and cleaning up from meals, to getting mail and even dealing with sewage … But of course the challenges are benefits in their own ways, as they force us to be more attentive to how we live and what we’re living for.”

You can see more at the Blowin’ In the Wind YouTube channel, and read more thoughts from Tom and Anna at their websites.

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A post shared by The Stapletons (@thestapletonsmusic)

The Stapletons

I caught up with Kate Stapleton at a Shakespeare summer camp. She and her husband Casey form a harp and guitar duo with a unique musical sound and, when they’re not touring the country playing shows, they help create Shakespeare productions with young people. The goal is to travel the country with their young brood of five children, living in a renovated school bus, and spreading beauty and joy. “We built bunks in the bus for the kids and put in an old farmhouse sink,” says Kate, “In it, we can go into places that are silent and live a stripped down life which is refreshing. I’ve gotten into touch with living simply.”

When they’re not traveling, the Stapletons call Pittsburgh home. For them, there’s a connectedness between pilgrimage and a strong sense of place. “When we’re home, growing herbs, hanging clothes from the line, baking for the farmer’s market,” that’s the joy of inhabiting a particular place and knowing it well, Kate says, “but to work with art it’s so important to be able to go out …”

“We really stumbled into pilgrimage,” she says, “We began writing music about it … We met so many people along the way. It’s been incredible to meet these communities of people who are beacons of hope — faithful, vibrant communities of people who are living out the faith. We come away from these trips feeling hopeful.”

As travelers, the Stapletons have the privilege of participating in all sorts of communities around the country and calling many places their home. Because wherever people are, wherever there is art and beauty and joy, that is just the sort of place to be.

You can follow the Stapletons on Instagram.

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