By Father Robert D. Bruso
A pilgrimage is always a journey outside of oneself. It occurs in space and time, but is also a journey of the soul.
Twenty eight pilgrims from the Diocese of Worcester have joined with 20 pilgrims from the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C., on this pilgrimage for the Year of Mercy. The highlight will be walking through the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica.
We left Boston on Monday, July 11, and arrived in Venice on Tuesday.
On Wednesday Father Eric Kowalski, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Greensboro, N.C., celebrated Mass at the Basilica of St. Mark, in the chapel below St. Mark’s tomb.
We five priests took turns celebrating or concelebrating our pilgrimage Masses. The others were Msgr. Robert K. Johnson, rector of St. Paul Cathedral in Worcester; Father Lawrence J. Esposito, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Linwood and St. Augustine Parish in Millville, and Father Noah Carter, associate Pastor of Our Lady of Grace in Greensboro. Deacon William White, of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Dudley, served as deacon. Our altar servers, Anthony Pham and Zachary Gonzalez, were from Greensboro. In the sharing of the Eucharist, we became a community of faith, fellow pilgrims on a journey of faith.
Today I celebrated Mass in the cloister chapel at the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. There the pilgrims committed themselves to surrender to God’s will in the course of the pilgrimage, letting go of the desire for control, placing our trust in our merciful and all-powerful Father.
This afternoon we arrived in Florence and visited the Church of San Miniato al Monte, overlooking the city.
Our day in Florence featured Mass celebrated by Father Esposito. Concelebrating Mass in the Duomo of Florence, almost directly under Brunelleschi’s dome, reminded us that these great human efforts where
undertaken for the glory of God.
This masterpiece of art and engineering was the crowning achievement of the Florentine Renaissance. Too often, contemporary historians view the Renaissance as a radical break with the traditions of Christian Europe. Actually, all Renaissance art flowed naturally from the rich patrimony of the Church. Benedictine abbeys preserved what was left of Roman culture, art and literature. Christian universities reintroduced the world to Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and the Greek humanist tradition. We also visited the Basilica of the Holy Cross, Santa Croce, the main Franciscan church of Florence. The exterior is made of cream, brown, pink and green marble, so the interior comes as a surprise in its plainness. The simple altar beneath the vast expanse of unadorned walls reminded us that we were in a church built by the sons of St. Francis, the Poor Man of Assisi.
Later, some pilgrims returned to San Miniato al Monte. Others went to the Basilica of San Lorenzo, the church of the famed Medici family.
My group found a couple places closed: the Servite church, Santissima Annunziata, and the former Dominican Convent of San Marco, decorated by Fra Angelico, patron of artists, whom Pope John Paul II canonized. We ended up enjoying some prayer time at the little Baroque Church of Santa Felicita in the Oltrarno.
Assisi, the city of SS. Francis and Clare, never fails to inspire. We stopped at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels, the Marian title from which Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Worcester took its name). The basilica was built around the simple stone chapel given to Francis by the Benedictines. Called the Portiuncula, or “Little Portion,” this chapel is where St. Francis founded the Franciscan Order. A few feet away is where Francis died, laying naked on the ground to be more closely united with nature and with Christ crucified.
We also visited the Basilica of St. Clare, still home to cloistered sisters, the Poor Clares. Venerated in a side chapel is the San Damiano Cross, from which Francis heard Jesus say, “rebuild my church.” This cross is associated with discerning God’s will, so it was moving to have in our group a woman entering religious life Aug. 28 and a man planning to begin preparation for priesthood in January.
Assisi is always thronged with pilgrims, more people per square mile than in any city in the world, it is said. Yet there is a serenity in Assisi. It is a place of prayer and reflection and it cannot fail to touch one’s heart with a desire for simplicity of lifestyle and closeness with God.
We visited the 2,000-year-old Roman temple, now the Church of Santa Maria, in the main square of Assisi. The contrast between the exterior, with its somber Roman columns, and its Baroque interior, is striking.
We proceeded to the great Basilica of St. Francis, where Francis is buried in the crypt. After prayer and a lecture on the meaning on Giotto’s frescos, which cover the walls, we went to the Romanesque Chapel off of the cloister on the lower level. The principal celebrant was Msgr. Johnson.
Tonight we gathered in groups to discuss our experience, a faith-sharing practice we continued on other days.
We end our pilgrimage in Rome. For four days we will be privileged to be in the city which is at the heart of our Catholic faith. Here we sense more fully the universality of the Church.
We arrived in time for the Angelus with Pope Francis. After leading us in prayer, he spoke about the day’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42), the story of Martha and Mary. He reminded us that true hospitality is not about preparing every detail of a feast, but being present to our guest. How often it is like that in prayer. “Parliamos, parliamos, parliamos” (We talk, we talk, we talk) but we don’t listen to the Lord. We are so busy we have to finish our prayer and get on to the next thing.
The pope also spoke of the tragedy in Nice, thinking especially of the “bambini,” the children wounded or killed in the attack. He blessed us all and asked us to pray for him. As he faded from the window, the crowd roared its love and approval.
I couldn’t help but notice the flags held aloft and waved: the United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama, Brazil, Chile, Ireland, Italy, India, China, the Netherlands, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Lebanon… The world gathered in one place, united in faith, wishing harmony, blessing and peace for all.
After lunch, we proceeded down to the Tiber to begin our procession for the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Gathering at the Ponte Sant’Angelo, we assembled under a tent where volunteers gave us a processional cross to carry and worship aids in English with prayers and Scripture readings for various stations.
The first station was at the Tiber, the second in front of the Church of Santa Maria in Transpontina on the Via della Conciliazione, the third under the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square, the fourth before the Holy Door and the final station before the Confessio. This was the heart and soul of our pilgrimage, to enter prayerfully and in faith through the Holy Door in this Jubilee Year and to receive the plenary indulgence associated with it.
We then travelled to the Basilica of St. Paul-outside-the-Walls, the site of the martyrdom and burial of St. Paul. Our principal celebrant was Father Carter. There are four Patriarchal, or Papal, Basilicas in Rome. By going through the Holy Door at the Basilica of St. Paul-outside-the-Walls, we have passed through two of them.
We returned to St. Peter’s Basilica for Mass in the Lithuanian Chapel. Monsignor Johnson was the principal celebrant. Afterwards we had a guided tour of the Basilica as well as a visit to the Vatican Museums, a repository of the world’s greatest art, to be shared with the world. The Museums are the second largest in the world, after the Louvre in Paris.
We also visited the two other great Roman basilicas, St. John Lateran, which is the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, and St. Mary Major, the world’s largest church dedicated to Mary, and went through their Holy Doors.
Although it seems like today was slow-paced, that does not take into account the long lines at the Holy Doors, the heat and humidity, and the security checks to enter into any of the basilicas. It is a sad reality that in this city of peace and prayer it is impossible to go more than a few blocks without seeing Italian soldiers and police officers, armed with machine guns, on alert to combat the ever-present threat of terrorism which has gripped Europe.
This morning we toured the Catacombs of San Callisto and had Mass in the tiny underground chapel of SS. Paternio and Calogero. The cramped space gave us a sense of the early Christians finding their faith under attack. Although we have had nothing near their experience, we have known the distain and dismissal of those who misrepresent the Church’s teachings and believe the Church must water down the truth to accommodate fads. After a very moving Mass celebrated by Father Esposito, we visited the Coliseum and the Trevi Fountain.
Our North Carolina pilgrims, especially, were disappointed to learn that we couldn’t visit the shrine of St. Maria Goretti in Nettuno, as their parish had hosted her relics. Last night wildfires had broken out in the national forest south of Rome and today roads were closed and railroads were suspended.
So several of us visited the Pantheon, or the Church of Santa Maria ad Martyres, and the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the burial place of St. Catherine of Siena, and the Church of Sant’Ignazio, the burial place of St. Robert Bellarmine.
Today is the last full day of our pilgrimage. We began with Mass at the Church of Santa Maria della Mercede, St. Mary of Mercy, for which I was the principal celebrant.
Some people then returned to St. Peter’s Basilica. Others went to the Chiesa di Gesu, the Church of Jesus, the international headquarters of the Society of Jesus. We venerated the tomb of St. Ignatius Loyola. Then we returned to sites several of our group had missed yesterday and ended with a visit to Sant’Agnese in Piazza Navona.
We have been blessed to share this pilgrimage with pilgrims from the Diocese of Charlotte because that reminds us there is no North or South in Jesus, only one body of Christ. The international crowd at St. Peter’s Square brought home to us the universality of the Church.
Each day, more youth clog Rome’s streets, headed to Krakow and World Youth Day. They are witnesses to the Church of the future, alive with joy and enthusiasm. There are Australians with green and yellow tee shirts, proclaiming: “It’s AUSTRALIA! There are no kangaroos in Austria!” There are Brazilians doing a samba line in the streets. There are Spanish youth singing lively hymns in the piazzas. There are Americans from every part of the country. I met a Philadelphia high school student who is a Boston Red Sox fan. He even asked to shake my hand. Of all the little miracles we encountered on our pilgrimage, that was perhaps the most surprising.