Wednesday, August 29, 2007

fly the sacred skies

Air Pilgrim has taken off. According to the CBC, Mistral Air, a small Italian carrier, has signed a five-year agreement with the Vatican to offer flights from Italian cities to pilgrimage sites including Fatima, Santiago de Compostela, Czestochowa, Sinai and the Holy Land. Yesterday saw Mistral's inaugural flight, to Lourdes. By next year the airline hopes to be carrying 150,000 passengers.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, CEO of Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, says the aim of the airline is to let pilgrims live their pilgrimage from the moment they leave their homes to the moment they return. To that end, flights will include periods of spiritual preparation and meditation, and in-flight videos with religious themes. The seat covers will bear the Papal arms of the ORP and its motto, "I seek your face, Lord." (There is apparently no truth to the rumour that "On a wing and a prayer" was ever considered as a slogan for the airline.)

Budget carrier Ryanair was quick to respond to the launching of Mistral, claiming in a statement that, "Ryanair already performs miracles that even the Pope's boss can't rival, by delivering pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela for the heavenly price of 10 euros."

Italian news agency ANSA reports that Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi is an organ of the Holy See, founded in 1933 with the objective of making organized pilgrimage, "a valid means of human advancement and evangelization." Last year, ORP presided over the holy travels of some 350,000 pilgrims, both incoming (tours of Rome and the Vatican, including audiences with the Pope) and outgoing. Its staff includes over 900 priests and some 400 lay pastors and co-ordinators who act as spiritual and technical guides for its pilgrim package tours. ORP also charters the "special trains" that give nightmares to French and Italian rail-schedule planners. In 2006, over 200 such pilgrim trains plied the Italian rails, 154 of them, carrying over 100,000 pilgrims, bound for - where else? - Lourdes.

A few more staggering numbers, courtesy ANSA:
number of pilgrims worldwide, 2007: 190 million
pilgrims to Lourdes this year: 8 million
most frequented pilgrimage site: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City, 10 million

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