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By Gina Nisbet-Fonseca, Pilgrim

“That’ll be gate D29,” said the ticket agent as she handed me my boarding pass.

I made my way to the gate and waited. After a few hours of reading and checking my boarding pass repeatedly, I finally spotted some familiar faces in the gate area. I felt a twinge of excitement mixed with apprehension. Will we get along? Will I fit in with everyone?

So began two of the most memorable weeks of my life. I was going to Spain with other friends of the Jesuits. This was going to be my first visit to Europe. Spain had always been high on my bucket list. When I impulsively reached out to the trip organizer, Chief Advancement Officer Paula Parrish, seeking general information, I had no idea I would embark on this journey. I was inquiring on a whim, thinking for sure that it was out of my reach.

Father Brian Christopher, SJ, with Gina Nisbet-Fonseca at Toledo, Spain.

However, Paula was welcoming and convincing. Her passion and enthusiasm made me feel that I could be part of this pilgrimage. After a few conversations, I registered for the trip. The seven months leading up to the travel date were filled with valuable information and reminders about how to prepare. I never felt lost, and for that, I’m grateful.

The actual journey was beyond anything I had imagined. On March 1, 2023, we landed in Madrid where our motor coach was waiting to take us to our hotel. Upon arrival, we met someone who would make this journey the most memorable experience ever, Jorge Leitao, our tour director.

Jorge was phenomenal! He was organized, focused and knowledgeable, and he quickly allayed any concerns we may have had. I immediately felt at ease knowing that he was in charge. He was dedicated to the group and attentive to each pilgrim’s needs.

That evening, we met Fr. Brian Christopher, SJ, our tour chaplain, who brought Ignatian spirituality and prayerful reverence to this special journey to trace the footsteps of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. His contributions added meaning to every stop along the way.

We were fortunate and blessed to have had an opportunity to attend the Masses he celebrated almost every day, and I am forever grateful for his powerful homilies and morning prayers that started us off each day. He had a theme for each day that we prayed the Examen. It included themes from the first week of the Spiritual Exercises: desire, community, openness to encounter, courage, disorientation, disillusionment, humility and mercy.

His companionship made this pilgrimage even more amazing and memorable.

On the first day of scheduled activities, we left early for the beautiful city of Toledo. The ancient, medieval city was one of the highlights of the trip for me. We saw the majestic walls of the Alcazar, as well as the surrounding landscape which transported me to another time. I was mesmerized.

I was even more awestruck as we walked through the narrow streets and visited the 13th-century gothic Church of Santo Tomé. We visited a Damascene steel workshop where we saw how swords, knives and even some beautiful jewelry had been made. After a visit to the El Greco Museum, our Toledo encounter culminated with a private Mass at the Cathedral of Toledo.

La Catedral de la Almudena in Madrid

The following day took us to Ávila, home of St. Teresa of Ávila and the Carmelite nuns. The convent was breathtaking, as were the surrounding views. The convent was another trip back in time, and I couldn’t get over the fact that the current nuns still live as they did in the days of St. Teresa! I was floored to learn that they chose to forego hot water, especially since on that day it was about 38 degrees Fahrenheit.

The following day we wrapped up our stay in Madrid with a coach tour of the city, a guided tour of the El Prado Museum and Mass at San Andrés, one of the oldest churches in Madrid.

The pilgrims admire the architecture of La Catedral de Nuestra Señora del Pilar in Zaragoza, Spain.

Next, we visited the royal palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, near Segovia, with its stunning gardens and beautiful sculptures. Then, it was on to charming San Sebastián, especially fascinating because of the Basque influence. In addition to the beauty of the language, I’ll never forget the panoramic views of this city.

We drove from San Sebastián to Pamplona, site of the event that changed St. Ignatius forever. During the Battle of Pamplona, Iñigo was severely wounded by a cannonball, the catalyst for his journey that would eventually result in the formation of the Society of Jesus. Later that day, we visited Azpeitia, where St. Ignatius was born, as well as the Shrine of Loyola and the Sanctuary of Ignatius.

As someone who has worked with the Jesuits for 34 years, I was enthralled as I took it all in. It felt like having a book you’ve read suddenly come to life. I was able to conceptualize all the stories I had heard about St. Ignatius all these years! It was truly a holy and special experience for me, made more incredible by Mass in the Chapel of Conversion, where St. Ignatius surrendered himself to God.

Statue of the injured Ignatius at the Battle of Pamplona

From Loyola, we journeyed on to Zaragoza, a city that brought its own charm. We were privileged to visit and attend mass at the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar. Here we were blessed to be able to touch the actual pillar built at the place where the Virgin Mary had appeared. What an experience! Later, we had a guided tour of the Goya Museum. I am still in awe at all the amazing art pieces on display. Goya’s unique style produced some spectacular pieces, including his famous portrait of King Charles IV of Spain and his family.

When we reached beautiful Barcelona, it was hard to believe that this was the final stop on the pilgrimage. Time had flown by. We began our visit with a Flamenco presentation, the perfect introduction to Barcelona’s rich culture. The following morning started with Mass in the crypt of the famous La Sagrada Familia, the most recognizable landmark of the city. After additional touring, that evening we learned how to make sangria! This was one lesson that had everyone’s full attention!

St. Ignatius of Loyola Baptismal Font

Finally, more bucket list experiences: we visited the cave at Manresa where St. Ignatius composed the Spiritual Exercises. Being in that cave was a surreal experience, and one I’ll never forget. I was overwhelmed by being in the birthplace of the Ignatian spirituality that enhances my life so deeply.

Then, it was on to Montserrat! The views were incredible, and the monastery was impressive. It was the perfect way to end an unforgettable journey.

Our farewell dinner was bittersweet. While I was grateful for all my experiences, I was not ready to part ways with a group of people who had become like family to me. I am consoled by the fact that I have made more than 30 new friends.

This trip was amazing in every way – no detail was left out. The sights were breathtaking. I felt informed and prepared for what was happening each day, and I was never rushed.

I would definitely sign up for another adventure with these wonderful individuals.

If you’re interested in joining other friends of the Jesuits on a similar tour, check out next year’s options: 

Here’s what other participants had to say:

Sr. James Xavier, SSJ from New Jersey

We are both so grateful for all you did for us. What a blessed and beautiful experience … Now the difficulty is trying to share all that beauty and awe with my Sisters …

Julianne and Dennis R. from Fort Worth, Texas

I hope we will be able to arrange another trip with the group. We had so much fun. I think that this was the best group trip I have ever been on.

Cathy D. from St. Louis

The trip was wonderful and I am still processing it. … Fr. Brian was a gem and enriched our experience immensely. Thanks tons!!!

Father Brian Christopher, SJ, delivers a homily.

Jeanne L. from St. Louis

My memories are of pretty mountains with snow and the ocean … walking the streets where St. Teresa of Ávila walked and seeing many artifacts and rooms in her convent. Loyola was magnificent, with the statue depicting Ignatius after being shot in the leg by a cannonball. Awesome homilies at Mass by Fr. Brian … the black Madonna statue at the basilica of Montserrat.

Larry and Jeaneane M. from Fort Worth, Texas

I have told so many people about what a wonderful trip we had … absolutely amazing.

Anne Weidmann from Belleville, Illinois

Thanks to you, Globus, Jorge and our great local guides, the “mechanics” and informational aspects of the trip seemed flawless and were very well organized. I so appreciate all of the time, effort and attention to detail which go into such an effort!

Fr. Brian’s contributions were wonderful…thought provoking and inspirational.

This trip truly “had it all” in so many respects…The wonderful sights and history of Spain, amazing art, grace filled Masses in amazing churches, most touching personal look at St. Ignatius’ life and delightful, faith-filled new friends in whom I saw the face of God. What could be better?

Pilgrim friends enjoy dinner together in a Spanish restaurant.

Dr. Anne C. from St. Louis

The trip really was one we will remember for the rest of our lives and for that we are so grateful to you, Brian, Carlos, and the whole province.

Jeff J. from Plano, Texas

What an awesome trip! It was both highly enjoyable and spiritually powerful … Nothing can replace visiting the actual sites where Ignatius was. There were virtually no problems of any kind! Everything seemed so very well planned AND executed! Jorge and all the local guides were wonderful. Brian was an awesome chaplain, too.

Patrick and Randalle M. from Alexandria, Louisiana

Patrick M. and trip director Jorge

“I have an important meeting with an architect friend in Spain!” This was my answer when a client asked why I couldn’t attend their Board Meeting. TRUTH: my heart told my mind that IS what we were going on the St. Ignatius Pilgrimage trip for. My meeting was set at the edge of the Cardoner River in Manresa, Spain.

What our “architect Ignatius” did design was a world class learning, spiritual, relationship building, awe-inspiring two weeks that STILL has our minds, hearts, souls & body wondering “what happened?” Here are the main ingredients of this “Gumbo” of Ignatian Feast:

  1. World-class accommodations, guides, food and travel in safe and graciously comfortable environments.
  2. Connectivity to Spanish culture and history by our Jesuit host (Paula) and chief Globus tour guide (Jorge) that was a daily high-level education and moving experience.
  3. A galvanization of purpose forged on an Ignatian / Jesuit focus that placed us in continuous spiritually elevated places that was not expected. Being in places to “touch” Ignatius in the stone edges of his cave, his prayer crucifix, his birth and conversion places… still has not been totally digested.
  4. Honestly … we never expected the growth of relationships with 30 of the most beautiful, loving, fun-filled, holy, genius, caring “new friends” that started as strangers. We helped, prayed, loved and laughed with each other individually and as a group – beyond what either of us could have ever dreamed of.
The group explores Spanish history on an audio tour.