Finding faith as a weary pilgrim

In the bull indiction for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis suggested various ways on how to live out this mercy year, one of which was embarking on a pilgrimage, specifically to one of the Holy Doors he designated in Rome or throughout the world.

Now, I don’t know about you, but ever since I entered the Catholic Church at Easter 2015, a lot of folks have spoken to me about pilgrimage and its importance in the life of a Christian. We are encouraged to not only go on physical pilgrimage to religious sites in the world, but many say the idea of pilgrimage is, in fact, a microcosm for the individual Christian’s journey — that each of us are on an individual pilgrimage in our own lives.

Call me brash, ignorant, or just plain dumb, but up until a couple of weeks ago, I had no idea just exactly what a pilgrimage entailed. Then, I left for Italy on a 10-day pilgrimage, and it all began to make more sense in my baby-Catholic mind. I came to discover that pilgrimage plays a crucial, and indeed necessary role in coming to a fuller understanding of the faith.

The idea of pilgrimage dates back to the early Christians; of course, going on a pilgrimage then was a much different affair than it is now. Planes, trains and automobiles were but a figment of the future’s imagination, and what is a roughly 14-hour journey today could take weeks, months or even years, depending on the destination. Though the method was much different, the intent remains very much the same — to visit sacred sites and pay homage to those fellow believers who, as the liturgical prayers tell us, have gone before us in a sign of faith.

These sacred sites are many, but they can include the tombs of martyrs, churches or locations which were home to important moments in the history of Christianity, or as this Jubilee Year is indicative of, Holy Doors, which provide extra graces for those weary pilgrims who travel long and far to pass through them.

This brings me to my next point: don’t go on a pilgrimage expecting it to be a family vacation. The very idea of pilgrimage implies hardship, and although a pilgrimage today doesn’t have to be as difficult a one as the pilgrims of old had to endure, I think an important facet of going on pilgrimage is to suffer in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who walked the roads, and even paved them, long before us.

If life is indeed a pilgrimage, then it would only make sense that going on pilgrimage is not a comfortable affair. As we’ve heard many times before from the early Church fathers and those modern commentators on being an authentic disciple of Christ, being a Christian is not a call to live a comfortable life; it’s a call to live a dangerous life, a life contradictory to the very fabric of society and culture, a life modeled after a man who was divine in nature and misunderstood even by those closest to him, a life that demands everything of us and rewards us with even more in return.

As is the case with life, we many not fully understand the extent of the pilgrimage we choose to embark on, and we certainly don’t know what to expect. But it’s a funny thing that happens when we choose to leave our comfort zone as men and women and travel as weary pilgrims: as we walk along these paths in faith, we end up discovering what faith really is.

COMING UP: A Catholic newbie goes to Rome

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Day one — We go as pilgrims

Sept. 16, 2016

A few months ago, I was offered the generous opportunity to join the archdiocesan pilgrimage to Italy, led by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and Monsignor J. Anthony McDaid, and document it. My initial response was one of excitement — my wife and I have never been to Europe before, and as fond admirers or European culture from afar, we jumped at the opportunity.

Of course, the very idea of pilgrimage implies hardship and leaving one’s comfort zone to embark an a journey into the unknown, which, frankly, was a terrifying prospect for us. I’ve enjoyed traveling more and more as I’ve gotten older, but going overseas to another continent seemed so far off in my wife and I’s life.

As proud parents a beautiful 15-month-old daughter, we considered going as a family at first. However, a plane trip to Boston over the summer nixed that idea, and we ultimately decided to leave her at home with family — as it turns out, chasing a 22-pound, busy-as-a-bumblebee banshee up and down the aisles of a 747 didn’t seem very feasible on a 14 hour flight.

And now here we are, on a plane, toddler-free, en route to a country where millions of faithful have trekked to throughout the centuries, about to retrace the steps of several great saints and martyrs who have given us a lived example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

A little bit about me: I entered the Catholic Church on Easter of 2015. I grew up in non-denominational churches, doing my best to pursue a relationship with Christ (a task I still work on to this day), and long story short, I met my wife, who is a cradle Catholic. I’m sure you can guess what happened next; it’s a tale I’ve found to be quite common among converts.

I’m what one might call a “Catholic newbie” (ok, that’s my own title I gave myself), so my knowledge of the faith is limited but growing, and my soul is like a sponge, eager to soak up all of the holiness and grace it can.

I really have no idea what exactly to expect over these next 10 days, but I do expect it will be nothing short of incredible. I’m familiar with a few of the sites we’re visiting, and of course I can’t wait until we get to Rome, but I think what I’m most excited for is experiencing firsthand the rich history of the Church and hopefully, learning more fully what it means to be a follower of Christ.

Today, I, along with about 40 others, leave our normal, everyday lives for the next 10 days and we go as pilgrims to the beautiful countryside of Italy and the Eternal City of Rome. Pray for us on our journey, that we might be open to what the Lord has to reveal to each of us in our own lives, and that this journey be one of faith, fruit and, yes, even fun.

 

Day two — Naples, Pompeii and Jet lag

Sept. 17, 2016

After a very long and sleepless 14-hour journey, we have finally arrived to Italy! It’s 8 a.m., but it feels like midnight Denver time, and we have a full day ahead of us. Needless to say, all of us pilgrims are exhausted, but we’ll power through and soak up the sites we have to visit today, aided generously by a healthy dose of Italian caffé, which is the real deal.

After gathering our luggage and passing through customs, we meet up with our tour guide, Francesco, who will lead us to and through the various sites for the duration of the pilgrimage.  He’s in his mid 30’s and says he’s “100% Roman,” but his English is very good and he’s got a great sense of humor. Between him and our trusty bus driver, Antonio (who we’ll come to find out is the most hardcore tour bus driver ever), I’d say we’re in good hands.

Our first taste of a genuine Italian cappuccino comes at a pit stop on the way to Naples. The baristas are all decked out in slacks, vests and bow ties, and it’s apparent they take their craft very seriously. Despite the high caffeine content, we all still nap on the bus every chance we get — a sure side effect of jet lag. Even so, looking out the window of the bus, we get to see the beautiful countryside of Italy, a picturesque setting that’s as charming as it is overwhelming.

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The hustle and bustle of Naples wakes us up, whether we want to or not. It’s Saturday morning, and the Italian inhabitants of Naples are enjoying a typical weekend by lounging in the piazza, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. The town of Naples reminds me of San Francisco, with a bit of classical flair — apartments line the busy streets, people are forced to play a game of Frogger when crossing the streets, and the statues and churches located throughout the town give it a certain charm.

We stop in Naples for our first taste of the extravagant architecture churches in Italy are known for. The Church of Gesú Novo (New Jesus) is located in Gesû Novo Square, and was originally built in 1470 as a place for Roberto Sanseverino, Prince of Salerno. The Jesuits purchased the church in the 1850s, and converted it into the church it is today. The Church of Gesú Novo is significant primarily because it is dedicated to St. Joseph Moscati, canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1987 and whose remains are located in a bronze urn under the altar.

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The facade of the church is nothing spectacular, featuring a rather plain pattern of stones, but upon entering, this is by the far the most intricately crafted and beautiful church I have ever stepped foot in. Beautiful, colorful frescos line the ceiling and walls of the the church, and detailed statues overseeing several prayer altars, including a Crucifix, St. Frances Xavier and St. Joseph Moscati can be seen throughout the church. A fellow pilgrim, John, tells me this church is nothing compare to what awaits us in Rome. Hard to believe, considering the scale and immensity of The Church of Gesû Novo.

We stop at Trattoria Medina for lunch, where we get our first taste of Italian hospitality and eat our fill of authentic Neapolitan pizza the region is known for. Each meal is comprised of many courses, each one contains enough food to make up one course in the United States. Indeed, I have a feeling our stomachs will be stretched significantly on this pilgrimage; all a part of the experience, I suppose!

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A few more hours on the bus and we arrive at the ancient ruins of Pompeii, a city destroyed in 79 A.D. by the nearby super volcano, Mount Vesuvius. The ash from the volcano has preserved most of the city for thousands of years, and it is truly a surreal experience to walk roads that people have walked on for millennia. Seeing the way the ancient people of Pompeii lived is fascinating, from the way the town is arranged to the different kinds of shops and traditions that were prominent in their way of life. It’s easy to picture children running about the streets as their mother calls them in for dinner; a whole different world than ours today, but still remarkably similar.

Jet lag is really starting to set in; we are all totally exhausted. Still, we’re not done yet! We continue to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary, a famous Catholic church in Pompeii built by Blessed Bartolo Longo for the purpose of serving orphans and adequately preparing them to enter the working world. A local, English-speaking priest offers anticipatory Mass for us pilgrims, and yes, even though many of us fight to keep our eyes open during the homily, it is the first Mass of the trip we get to celebrate together, and prepares our souls for what the Lord has in store for us over the course of the next nine days.

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After a long and full day, we arrive at our hotel, Hotel Stabia in Castellammare di Stabia, enjoy a nice dinner together, and leave before finishing to lay our heads down for some much needed rest. Tomorrow we continue on to Pietrelcina and begin to retrace the life of Padre Pio.

Day three — The life and times of Padre Pio

Sept. 18, 2016

Our first full night’s sleep, and I think we all feel very rejuvenated. Each hotel will be providing us with breakfast while we are here in Italy, which we find is a bit different than an American breakfast. Sure, there’s cereal, hard boiled eggs and yogurt, but there’s also plates of meat and cheese, and toast comes prepackaged is more like a cracker. One thing’s for sure though: continental breakfast in Italy is way more legit than that in America. They take their food seriously here, and it shows in every meal we eat.

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We depart from our hotel at 8 a.m. and drive to Pietrelicina, the birthplace of Padre Pio. Padre Pio is quite famous in the rest of the world but especially in Italy. He’s a relatively recent canonized saint, and died only about 50 years ago, so his impact and presence is still very fresh and preserved in this part of Italy (literally so — but more on that later). Pietrelcina is a quaint little town in the south of Italy, one that one would never expect to give birth to such an important figure in the modern Church. Then again, perhaps that’s the point.

We visit the tiny house where Padre Pio, or Francesco Forgone, was born, and the small church he was baptized in, Santa Ana Chapel. Also in Pietrelcina is the church where young Francesco celebrated his first mass when he was ordained a priest, called Santa Maria degli Angeli. To think this young priest, with such simple, humble beginnings would go on to become a saint is remarkable.

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We continue on to Piana Romana, the small village where Padre Pio would receive the wounds of Christ for the first time, or the invisible stigmata. A relatively modern church was built in the 1960s, and in addition to the beautiful main chapel, a small chapel across from the church houses a replica of the tree where Padre Pio received the stigmata. It’s a site where many pilgrims come to pray for the intercession of Padre Pio, a man who was so in touch with the Holy Spirit, so one with Christ, that many attested to him reading their very soul while he was here on earth.

Our next stop is San Giovanni Rotondo, the town where Padre Pio spent the majority of his life conducting his ministry as a tender priest and powerful confessor, and where we happen to be staying for the night. A giant hospital owned by the Holy See was built there in honor of Padre Pio, whose likeness can be seen on the facade of the facility.

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We get some free time before dinner to explore the town a bit, which might as well be called “Padre Pio Land,” and then return to the hotel for dinner and fellowship. Tomorrow, we visit the church where Padre Pio received his permanent stigmata and the confessional that he practically lived in, and we even get to see the saint himself.

Day four — Miracles, miracles and more miracles

Sept. 19, 2016

We wake to a crisp morning air in San Giovanni Rotondo, where a beautiful sunrise paints the trees outside of our hotel window a soft orange. We’re starting to feel more rested, and our bodies are becoming adjusted to the out-of-whack schedule (pro tip: copious amounts of Italian caffé helps with that). After a nice continental breakfast, complete with the rare bacon and eggs (probably a special accommodation for us Americans), we start the trek back into San Giovanni Rotonodo to the main church, where Padre Pio spent over 50 years serving the people as a priest.

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We enter the church, which is beautiful in a very simple, unremarkable way, and immediately to the left, encased in glass, is the wood confessional where Padre Pio would spend up to 17 hours a day hearing confessions and absolving the faithful of their sins. One can’t help but reflect upon all of the souls that were redeemed in this confessional. There are stories of people going to confession with Padre Pio and having their souls read; he knew which sins they were withholding. The beautiful thing about this is, and what we’ve learned about Padre Pio, is it was out of a pure desire to be a vessel of God’s mercy for the people, that they might know how much they are loved. Modern theologians say this is part of the reason why Padre Pio received the permanent stigmata at this church.

There are actually three main churches dedicated to St. Pio in San Giovanni Rotonodo. The original church is connected to a more modern church, which contains beautiful shrines to a few modern saints, including St. John Paul II and the recently canonized St. Teresa of Calcutta. We spend some time admiring the beauty of the newer church before descending a staircase into an small chapel known as the Shrine of St. Pio. Padre Pio’s tomb was housed here before another, even newer church was built nearby, where Padre Pio’s tomb currently resides.

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We celebrate Mass in the Shrine of St. Pio with a fellow group of pilgrims from Canada. It’s very reverent, and we can almost feel the presence of St. Pio there with us. Afterwards, we take a tour of the churches, which features a full exhibit retracing the life of Padre Pio, and is full of relics from the saint. We have the opportunity to pray in front of the crucifix on the balcony where Padre Pio received the permanent stigmata.

This was a profound spiritual phenomenon that occurred to Padre Pio when he was around 30 years old and remained with him for the duration if his life. His hands would perpetually bleed from invisible wounds, and he had to wear rags and special gloves over his hands, practically to prevent his blood from covering everything he touched. Rags faintly stained with Padre Pio’s blood can be seen in the exhibit at the church, as well as shoes, habits and many other objects Padre Pio interacted with regularly. However, there are nothing compared to what awaits us in the newer church.

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We walk down to the newer church dedicated to Padre Pio, an enormous building whose roof looks a bit like a spaceship. The main sanctuary features a shrine to Padre Pio with a statue of the saint, and a beautiful marble altar. However, it’s what’s in the bottom part of the church that’s most significant. We follow a long, spiral corridor lined with gold mosaics that eventually ends at yet another chapel, and there, in the center, lies the tomb of Padre Pio, visible for all to see.

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It’s difficult to convey in words just what it was like to see the body of saint peacefully laying in a glass coffin. Padre Pio is what the Church calls incorruptible, meaning his body has not fully decayed, even 50 years after death. His hands have decayed, but his face is still perfectly preserved, without the use of any sort of chemical or anything. He looks just as he did when he died in 1968. It’s inexplicable by means of science; in other words, it’s a miracle. It’s no wonder so many pilgrims travel here and have a devotion to Padre Pio.

This experience is certainly the highlight of the day, but we still have two more important religious sites to visit. The first is the town of Monte Sant’angelo, which contains the cave in which St. Michael the Archangel appeared three times. A beautiful shrine to St. Michael resides there, and though photography is prohibited due to it being a sacred space, I manage to snap off a few shots before getting yelled at by a short Italian man. Even so, there’s something about this cave that’s very peaceful. Many pilgrims pray for St. Michael to protect their loved ones while in this cave, and this same watchful presence they intercede for can be felt in the cave.

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We hop back on the bus for a four-hour drive up to Lanciano, where the most famous Eucharistic Miracle resides at the Church of St. Longinus, who tradition holds was the Roman soldier who pierced Christ’s side with a spear at the Crucifixion. It’s a relatively simple church, but of course, what makes it so profound is the Eucharistic Miracle that sits above the altar in the sanctuary. This miracle can be traced back to the 8th century, when a Basilian monk doubted the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist while he celebrated Mass. The host turned into a piece of flesh, while the wine coagulated into a few globules of blood. Scientific studies have shown the flesh to be a piece of the heart, and the blood to be the universal type AB.

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Despite what one makes of this, it’s fascinating to look up and see these two specimens displayed for all to see and pray in front of. I’m finding the faith aspect of being Catholic to be more and more tangible while here in Italy; seeing a 50-year-old body perfectly preserved or a piece of flesh that was transformed from a piece of bread shouldn’t make any sense. But Christ doesn’t tell us to walk with him by sight — he asks us to walk in faith. That’s precisely what us pilgrims are doing while here in Italy, and I think we’re all beginning to feel something stir inside of our hearts.

Day five — The Holy Face of Jesus

Sept. 20, 2016

Day five. We are halfway through this pilgrimage, and we’re starting to feel some semblance of normal, as far as the time change is concerned. Monsignor J. Anthony McDaid joins us in Lanciano; we have a spiritual shepherd to guide us through these sites now! Today, after staying the night at Hotel Excelsior in Lanciano, we will travel up to the town of Manoppello, where the Holy Face Shrine is located. This shrine houses what is believed to be Veronica’s Veil, the inner cloth which laid on Jesus’s face in the tomb. It’s a few hours’ drive from Lanciano, so we all have time to nap on the bus and continue soaking in the breathtaking countryside of Italy.

Our tour guide, Francesco, has been very helpful on our pilgrimage thus far. It’s clear he knows his country inside and out, and the little tidbits of information he shares with us highlight the more interesting, lesser-known facts of Italy (for example, each region of Italy has their own special pasta they’re known for). Antonio, our bus driver, is also downright awesome; he doesn’t speak a lick of English, but somehow he gets along with everyone on our group and is always very friendly. He smokes a cigarette every time we stop, and with the way traffic is in Italy, I don’t blame him; if I lived here, I might take up smoking too. There are no rules on the roads of Italy; much like it surely was in the Roman Coliseum, anything goes.

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We make our way into the town of Manoppello, nestled on the side of a hill in the Abruzzo region of Italy. Many of the towns in Italy are actually situated on hillsides; there really are no other ways to build towns in Italy, considering its many rolling hills and lush greens. We work our way up the hill, narrowly dodging a fellow tour bus and a car here and there to the Church of the Holy Face of Manoppello. The facade of the church is quite beautiful, featuring an intricate tiled design that makes it instantly recognizable from photos. We pass through the Holy Door of the church, which was designated a pilgrimage site for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and are met with a gorgeous chapel, at the center of which is a face staring back at us.

A German nun runs who lives at the church in Manoppello has dedicated her life to studying this cloth some  believe to be Veronica’s Veil, and is very knowledgable about the Holy Face image. We are treated to a short presentation about the Holy Face before Mass, during which we are able to see the Holy Face up close. A series of light fixtures within the reliquary that houses the Holy Face allow the sister to highlight a few of the cloth’s mystical features, and they are mystical, indeed. I’ve heard people say that the face almost seems as though it’s alive, and after seeing if for myself, I can attest to this. There is something truly miraculous about this cloth.

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Monsignor McDaid celebrates Mass for us, and the presence of the Holy Face makes Christ’s presence among us feel especially real. After Mass, we are given a more technical, scientific presentation about the cloth in the lower level of the church, where a full exhibit awaits us.

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What’s perhaps most fascinating and convincing about this exhibit is the connection between this face and the Shroud of Turin, how they appear to belong to the same man. What’s more is that the Holy Face contains many of the same features that often appear in depictions of Christ in ancient art. One can make of this what they will, but once again, our faith dictates how we perceive these apparent phenomenons. My soul was certainly shaken.

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After prayerfully contemplating the Holy Face a bit more, we depart from Lanciano to have some lunch. Today we are treated to a special lunch in the absolutely gorgeous coastal town of Silvi; the green hills against the backdrop of the Adriatic Sea looks like something out of a painting. We eat at a little restaurant called Ristorante Vecchia, which highlights a cuisine movement in Italy, playfully called the “Slow Food Movement.”

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This is exactly the opposite of American fast food; we are served four full courses and not rushed to finish eating in any way. We savor each bite of the homemade lasagna and free-range pork, and finish the meal with a spot of coffee. We walk away from the restaurant full, happy and never wanting to eat a Big Mac ever again.

 

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The remainder of the evening is spent driving to the town of Loreto, where a great Marian shrine is located. Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, who has been in Italy for the past week on business, meets up with us at the hotel. We explore the town a bit before dinner, head back to the room, and get some rest. We’ll need it for tomorrow, when we at last enter the Eternal City.

Day six — When in Rome…

Sept. 21, 2016

Early morning today, as we have an 8 a.m. Mass at the Basilica of the Holy House. We eat a quick breakfast and out the door we go to walk to the church. This is by far the biggest church we’ve encountered thus far, and the most ornate inside. The claim to fame with this church is that in the center of the altar, there is a marble-encased shrine that is said to hold the house of the Holy Family, where the Virgin Mary received the annunciation that she was to bear the Christ, the savior of the world. One thing I’m beginning to notice here in Italy is that each of these churches tells the story of the Christian faith, and all Christians are a part of that grand tale.

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We go down some steps into a small chapel on the lower level; in these giant basilicas in Italy, it seems to be customary to have several smaller chapels and altars where pilgrims can celebrate Mass. Archbishop Aquila offers a special Mass devoted to Mary for us, and speaks of her example of faith. As he recounts the story of the annunciation in the church where the very house she received the task to be the Mother of God supposedly sits right above us, this classic Biblical story I’ve heard a thousand times suddenly becomes much more real.

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After Mass, we have the opportunity to go back to the main chapel and visit the Holy House. This basilica is absolutely beautiful; vibrant frescos are located all around, bright mosaics adorn the ceilings, and the marble shrine in the center could take an entire day to fully examine. Some say that angels brought the Holy House from Nazareth to this location in 1294, but the Church recently traced the transfer to a family known as the “Aneglos.” Either way, it would appear some sort of “angel” brought this house here.

As I enter the shrine and walk through the door of the Holy House, the first thing I notice are the walls, which are adorned with inscriptions and are made from very old-looking bricks.. Scientific studies have concluded that it is very likely that this house came from Nazareth around the time that Mary lived, which means this structure is over 2000 years old.

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This in and of itself is amazing, but when one considers the possibility that an event such as the annunciation occurred inside these walls, and that Christ himself grew up here, it becomes overwhelming. The longer I stand within these walls, the more convinced I become that this is indeed the place. It’s clear that the Holy Spirit is moving something in me; I’m beginning to understand why people go on pilgrimage to these sites.

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As much as we’d like to stay here in the Basilica of the Holy House, Rome is calling for us. As wonderful as these last five days have been, we’ve all been looking forward to getting on to Rome. It’s about a four hour bus ride to Rome from Loreto, so we have plenty of time to contemplate what we’ve seen thus far, and of course, slee – I mean pray.

We catch our first glimpse of Rome and get a second spark of energy. We have finally arrived in the Eternal City! Rome is a clash of the very old and new; ancient ruins pepper an otherwise modern city. It’s an interesting dichotomy, one that’s perhaps common here in Europe, but still unlike any other city in the world. As we drive through the bustling town, the city walls that weary travelers would approach after a long journey still stand to this day, and one can almost imagine what this city must have been like in the ancient periods. It’s very different now, but in a way, still very much the same.

We have a full guided tour ahead of us. First on the agenda for today is visiting St. Clemente Basilica, one of the oldest churches in the city. The current church was restored in the early 1700s and was was built on top of the older basilica which dates back to the 12th century. Ruins of the original basilica remain under the church, which we are able to experience firsthand. It’s already impressive that this basilica is essentially two churches tracing history, but it goes back even further, as beneath the old basilica lie even older ruins that date back to Ancient Rome. We get to see a small chamber that was built to worship a Roman god, before Christ walked the earth.

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We exit St. Clemente are head towards one of the highlights and most famous landmarks of Rome, the Coliseum. Anybody who’s seen the movie Gladiator is likely familiar with the Coliseum, and though it did have a lack of Russell Crowe, it certainly did not fail to live up to it’s reputation.

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It’s difficult to write on the sheer size of the Coliseum, and even harder to comprehend how such a structure could have been made by the hands of man. Looking down into the Coliseum from up where the stands were, one can almost picture what it would have been like for 50,000 Romans to fill this glorious place.

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We continue the trek through ancient Rome, having the opportunity to see the Forum, which includes the prison where St. Paul wrote the book of Philippians from, as well as the giant monument Constantine constructed when he became emperor in 300 A.D., which consequently was when he legalized Christianity after 300 years.

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With all the splendor of ancient Rome, it’s easy to forget that countless Christians were persecuted in these places for many years. We thank the Lord for their courage to follow Christ, even in the midst of such terrible trials, and pass the faith on through the generations, a faith which still stands strong to this day.

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It’s been a wonderful first day in Rome, delving into the rich history of this city, but I have a feeling tomorrow will be even more profound, as we delve into the history of Christendom and the intersection between ancient history and the Catholic faith.

Day seven – The history of Christendom

Sept. 22, 2016

Day two in Rome, and it feels great. The hotel we’re staying in, Hotel Ergife, will be our temporary home for the remainder of our time here, and it’s nice to be able to unpack a little and nest a bit, even if it is for a few days. Breakfast gives us a taste of home once more in the form of bacon and eggs, and after several cups of coffee, we are out the door and ready to explore some of Christianity’s most iconic churches. Today, we have the privilege of passing through three Holy Doors designated by Pope Francis for the Jubilee Year of Mercy; today, we go to these churches as weary pilgrims in need of the Father’s grace.

A quick jaunt into the heart of the city and we end up at the first of our destinations for the day, St. Mary Major Basilica. This is the largest church dedicated to Our Lady in the entire world, and beautiful statues of the Virgin adorn the interior. We all slow our pace as we pass through the Holy Door, soaking in the graces that abound, some even being moved to tears. Before our tour of the basilica, Archbishop Aquila celebrates Mass for us in one of the auxiliary chapels, which is just breathtaking in its grandeur and scale. Beautiful statues and frescos coat every inch of the place, and I’m told this is but a taste of what to expect from the other basilicas we’ll visit.

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We’re greeted with a new tour guide after Mass, who will be with us for the next few days, guiding us through the basilicas and churches we’ll see. She leads us by a stunning statue of Mary over to the altar, beneath which lies an ornate reliquary which contains a relic of the manger of baby Jesus. As great as it would be to stay all day in this beautiful basilica and admire its intricacies, we have two more basilicas to go see. Back to the bus onto the next one we go.

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We take a short drive through the city to its outer walls, where our next destination lies. The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls dates back to the 3rd century, when Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, ruled over the Roman Empire. He founded the basilica over the tomb of St. Paul, who was martyred by being beheaded outside of the walls of Rome. As with the other major basilicas of Rome, St. Paul outside the Walls has been modified and renovated many times throughout the centuries, and today, it stands as an enormous structure outside the walls of the city of Rome, hence its name.

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The first thing I notice when walking toward the entrance of the basilica is the beautiful mosaic that adorns the front part of the church. A looming statue of St. Paul stands in the outside courtyard, greeting all who enter with a typical-yet-majestic depiction of the saint; a scroll in one hand and a sword in the other. We walk through the Holy Door and into the enormous, open nave. St. Paul outside the Wall is perhaps best known for having mosaics of every single pope, from St. Peter to Francis, lining the upper part of the walls. Some more superstitious than I say that the remaining five empty spaces for future popes marks a sign of the end times, but, as our tour guide points out, there’s an entire blank wall around the corner. Sorry to debunk the myth, conspiracy theorists.

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It’s quite profound to see every single pope who ever lived along the walls of the church. It really puts the concept of apostolic succession into perspective and is quite reassuring that yes, the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ himself founded. Of course, the most fascinating part about St. Paul outside the Wall lies under the altar. Behind a metal grate lies the very tomb of St. Paul, and above that is a box which contains the chains that tradition says bound St. Paul while he was imprisoned in Rome.

While standing there, it struck me that I was standing next to the tomb of the man who wrote some of Sacred Scripture’s most powerful passages and words; passages and words that have had a profound impact on my own life. The book of Romans, Philippians, Corinthians, Hebrews…this was a man who conveyed what it means to be a follower of Christ, perhaps better than anyone else ever has, and he did so in the midst of discovering what it meant himself. I couldn’t help but kneel and pray; as a fellow writer, I felt a sort of weird kindred spirit in St. Paul. I can’t say I’d ever felt that before.

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As much as I would love to stay at St. Paul outside the Wall, we still have one more basilica to see today. I pay my respects to St. Paul and join the group back at the bus. We head back into the city and arrive at the third of the four major basilicas in Rome: St. John Lateran. This is actually the oldest church of the four basilicas in Rome, dating back to the first century, and it serves as the proper cathedral for the diocese of Rome. Each bishop of Rome, aka Pope, is actually ordained at St. John Lateran.

I’ll admit, seeing so many beautiful churches in one day makes it difficult to take in all of the details, but then again, I feel like one could spend years examine these churches and still find something new. St. John Lateran is no exception; a beautiful nave is accented by an exquisite baldacchino which sits atop the altar. Behind the altar and some velvet rope is a sole chair, which is the bishop’s chair. The tombs of six popes are also housed in St. John Lateran, which can be viewed and prayed in front of as one makes their way around the church.

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What sticks out to me most are the ornate statues of the twelve apostles surrounding the main nave of the church. The notches in which they’re located were vacant for decades until Pope Clement XI commissioned a collection of different artists in the 17th century to sculpt them, and they are remarkable. If anything, it serves as proof enough that these basilicas aren’t simply structures built for the worship of God; they’re bonafide works of art. They’re wondrous reflections of God’s wonder here on earth, and as glorious as they are, I’m certain they don’t even do what Heaven will be like justice, which makes them all the more captivating.

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The last stop of the day is a small building adjacent to the Basilica of St. John Lateran that house the Scala Sancta, also called the Holy Stairs, which are what Catholic tradition hold to be the steps Jesus Christ climbed up when he went to trial with Pontius Pilate during his Passion. The original marble steps and covered by wooden steps, an pilgrims from all over the world come to these steps to climb up them on their knees. I grab my wife’s hand and we go for it. It’s not an easy thing, to climb up hard steps on your knees, but when one considers what Christ himself was walking up these steps for, the act of climbing the stairs on your knees becomes a humble act of reverence and remembrance for what Christ suffered for us.

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At the end of the staircase is the Sancta Sanctorum, a small chapel also known as the “Holy of Holies,” because it contains many precious relics from the Church’s history. We aren’t able to go inside, but it’s ok. After this sprit-filled day of visiting these incredible basilicas, all I want to do is head back to the hotel and process the amazing things we’ve seen. Tomorrow, many of our dreams will be fulfilled as we go to the capital of Catholicism, the Rock itself, St. Peter’s.

Day eight — ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church’

Sept. 23, 2016

We have to wake up extra early this morning to make it St. Peter’s Basilica on time for an 8 a.m. Mass with Archbishop Aquila. We’re all dragging a bit as we eat our Italian boxed breakfast on the bus, which consists of two wrapped pastries and a yogurt, but there’s generally an air of excitement among us pilgrims. We drive into a tunnel which takes us inside the walls of Vatican City, and a short walk and turn of a corner brings us to the very place many of us have dreamed of going: St. Peter’s Square.

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The early morning is suddenly very worth it, because there’s a nigh a soul to be seen in the normally tourist-heavy St. Peter’s Square. The dimly lit basilica looks like something out of a painting against the backdrop of the orange sunset, and we all can’t help but gaze in wonder at the Church, the one built upon the rock himself, St. Peter. It’s a really profound theological concept to consider, that when Christ told Peter that he would build his Church upon him, he didn’t just mean it figuratively; Christian tradition holds that the tomb of St. Peter is actually located below St. Peter’s Basilica. Needless to say, my mind is blown at the sight of St. Peter’s.

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As we approach the Holy Door of the massive church, my mouth is agape and my speech is rendered useless. Looking up at the scale of this church is completely baffling; I wonder how it was even possible for man to build such a structure. As we enter St. Peter’s Basilica, I’m even more speechless, and my wife is moved to tears. There really are no words to describe the grandiosity and splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica; no photograph I captured can even begin to do it justice. Every single square inch of the place is covered in some sort of richly colored fresco or exquisitely-crafted sculpture; it’s quite impossible to capture it all. At the risk of sounding like a salesman, to whomever may be reading this: if you get the chance, go and see St. Peter’s Basilica. No matter your own religious beliefs or personal convictions, it is a miraculous thing to experience and must be done in-person in order to fully absorb its magnificence.

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We are led around the nave of the church to a staircase which leads down to a chapel, where Archbishop Aquila awaits us. Before Mass begins, I’m asked to do the first reading and the psalm. May not seem like a big deal, but I’ve never actually read at Mass before. As a new Catholic, to do my very first reading at St. Peter’s Basilica was a particularly special moment, one I won’t soon forget. It’s a beautiful Mass, and we leave spiritually fed and ready for the tour of St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museum.

We unfortunately don’t get to spend too much time in St. Peter’s, as we have a tour appointment at the Vatican Museum to make. Still, we take in as much as we can. We get to see the Pieta, the famous sculpture by Michelangelo depicting the Virgin Mary holding her son after his crucifixion; we pray at the tomb of St. John Paul II; we gasp as Bernini’s ornate baldacchino that sits atop the altar and his absolutely stunning “Cathedra Petri” and “Gloria” sculpture that sits behind the altar. Despite all we get to see, it’s still not nearly enough time; I’m not even sure what would be enough time in such a place.

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We trek over the Vatican Museum, which features an extensive collection of classical and renaissance art collected by the Popes throughout the centuries. It would take more space than I have here to write about all of the amazing works of art we see, but the real highlights, for me at least, were the Raphael Rooms, which are adorned with some of Raphael’s most famous paintings, including “School of Athens,” and of course, Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel. There were strict limitations on taking photos while in the Sistene Chapel, but as is the case with St. Peter’s, trying to capture such an immense and masterful work of art is a futile cause.

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The Sistine Chapel is one of the most beautiful and intricate paintings ever conceived in history, and standing within it is and gazing at the work is an incredible experience. The genius of Michelangelo is evident in the way the painting almost seems three-dimensional; the figures on the ceiling appear to be emerging from the curved ceiling, and the amount of painstaking detail leaves one in a state of bewilderment. The famous image of God and Adam just barely out of reach is at the center of the ceiling, and it’s awe-inspiring to look up and see it. Of course, when one considers the Popes who have been diced by the conclave in this very space, the Sistine Chapel takes on an entirely new significance.

We’re allowed a couple of hours of free time to explore St. Peter’s Square and experience some authentic Italian cuisine. There are gift shops on every street corner and by this time of day, the Vatican is bustling with tourists and other pilgrims from around the world. My wife and I break off from the group and eat lunch at what we assume is a family-run joint. She gets a pizza, and I get some gnocchi with a four-cheese cream sauce; my mouth is watering once again just thinking about it. We to into some of the gift shops and buy some nice religious articles for ourselves and friends and family back home, then we meet back up with the group.

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Our final destination for the day is the St. Sebastian Catacombs, one of the earliest Christian burial places still accessible today. A basilica dedicated to St. Sebastian was built by Pope Damascus I atop the catacombs beginning in the early 3rd century, which also houses the tomb of St. Sebastian. As we descend into the catacombs, a feeling of surrealism and sorrow washes over us. Here’s a place where buried are some of the earliest Christians, who were martyred mercilessly at the hands of several Roman emperors. We come to one tomb in particular, and our tour guide explains to us that according to the inscriptions, it is the tomb of a baby.

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Another interesting bit of information about the St. Sebastian Catacombs is that at one point in history, relics of Sts. Peter and Paul were here, including the tomb of St. Paul, and the last thing our tour guide points out to us is ancient inscriptions on the walls that very clearly have the names “Peter” and “Paul” written. It once again served as an ever-eminent reminder that the Christian faith is no mere fairy tale; our faith is founded upon the blood of real people who experienced first-hand the radical and real love of Jesus Christ.

Day nine – Witnesses of Mercy

Sept. 24, 2016

See Denver Catholic article: ‘Witnesses of Mercy in the Americas’ explored at symposium in Rome

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Day ten — Mass with the Holy Father

Sept. 25, 2016

Well, here we are. The final day of our pilgrimage. It has been an incredible experience, one rife with memories that will last forever, but today might take the cake as far as that’s concerned: we, along with tens of thousands of other people, will partake in the celebration of the Mass with the Holy Father himself, Pope Francis.

Once again we have an early morning, but it’s for good reason. The earlier we are, the better chance we have of getting close to the altar, and perhaps even close enough to a barricade to wave to the Pope, should he decide to hop in the Popemobile after Mass and come greet the people. This isn’t Francesco’s first rodeo, so he gets us in and we manage to get right against the barricade of the second section; prime real estate as far as Papal Masses are concerned! Now we wait for a few hours until Mass starts.

About 30 minutes before Mass starts, An Italian voice appears over the loud speakers leads the people in a rosary, indicating that Mass is about to begin. The sounds of the angelic chorus that is the legendary Sistene Chapel choir begin to fill St. Peter’s Square, and the opening procession begins. We all wait eagerly for the Holy Father to come out. To see so many people gathered in the name of Christ at what is without a doubt the largest Mass any of us has ever been to is a powerful thing to witness and be a part of. It speaks to the universality of the Church that literally thousands of people from all over the world are here, in St. Peter’s Square, partaking in the same celebration of faith, worshipping the same Lord Jesus Christ. My baby-Catholic mind is blown once more.

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The Holy Father at last appears and begins Mass. Speaking of the universality of the Church, though the Mass is said primarily in Italian, several languages make an appearance in the readings, including Spanish and English. Even though I can’t really understand what is being said for most of the Mass, the beauty of the universal Church is that I always know what part of the Mass we’re at. From the readings to the Psalm to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, it’s hard to get lost.

Receiving communion is an especially cool thing at a Papal Mass. Hundreds of priests from all over the world come out into the congregation to give the Body of Christ to the faithful; the priest who gave us communion was from South America. After communion the Pope blesses the congregation, which includes the blessing of any religious articles you have with you. It makes those gifts even more special, knowing that they were blessed by the successor to Peter.

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After the Mass ends, the Holy Father greets the many bishops and priests who concelebrated with him, as well as any special guests who had the privilege of sitting up near the altar; in today’s cases, it was catechists from all over the world. Then, after what feels like an eternity (the beating down of the sun didn’t help), Pope Francis comes down from the altar and hops in the Popemobile. Almost immediately, we are mobbed from behind as arms and elbows begin to surround us; we were warned about how aggressive some of the sisters can be, and it was no joke. However, we stand our ground, in hopes that we can catch a glimpse of the Holy Father up close.

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And we do! He turns the corner and comes directly towards us. Shouts of “Papa Francesco” can be heard from all directions, and as he drives by, time seems to slow. He looks at us, smiles and waves to us with a tenderness and love that’s hard to explain. I manage to get a few pictures of him, but before we know it, he’s gone. My wife looks at me and says, “He’s so cute!” And there ya have it folks; Pope Francis is cute.

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I can only speak for myself, but I think we all walk away from the Papal Mass feeling spiritually rejuvenated and, frankly, ready to return home to our families and loved ones and share the wonderful experiences we’ve had over these past ten days. From retracing the life of Padre Pio, to standing in the cave where St. Michael the Archangel appeared, to praying in the Holy House, to walking through several Holy Doors and praying in some of Christendom’s most sacred sites, it will take some time to process and reflect upon how the Lord has changed our hearts through this pilgrimage. One thing’s for sure though: our hearts have indeed been transformed.