In the footsteps of Peter, Paul and Francis...
It would be easy to write a Christian travelogue of our pilgrimage, but Di, Gaye, Pauline and Ian felt it would convey more if we expressed what we gained from the Pilgrimage. So we arrived in Rome by modern transport and to our guest house, Casa Santa Lucia for five nights of our stay in Rome, a city where the ancient and the modern, the medieval and the baroque exist cheek by jowl, and yet seem to present an harmonious whole, a time of reflection on our own faith journey as we entered into following Peter, Paul and Francis. Our guide for the whole trip was Chiara who succeeded in keeping the disparate group together and in order with her genuine humour and enthusiasm.
We had all wanted to visit Rome for a long time and the Pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi gave us the opportunity to fulfil this ambition. The experience was everything we had hoped for . . . and more! Not expecting Rome to be so green, with many beautiful trees softening the landscape. On the other side, Rome was so busy that most of the time it felt like we were tourists. It was a city of incredible contrasts and there was too much to take in in such a short time. Our short drive up the Appian Way, the route Peter and Paul would have taken when entering Rome and to the Catacomb of Domitilla and the burial chambers of the early Christians. 17km of tunnels and the deepest more than 20m below today’s street level, cool and quiet and quite challenging being amongst our Christian ancestors. Bishop Michael took the Eucharist of the Resurrection deep in the Catacomb and one felt humbled by the moment. Our daily Eucharist with Bishop Michael, throughout the pilgrimage, taking different themes from our journey allowed us time to reflect on what we had seen and heard.
Then through the walls into the city past St. Paul’s gate where he is believed to have entered Rome. There were many more moving experiences: being so close to the Pope who in his address spoke about the ‘bland mediocrity of life without Jesus’; being made aware of the suffering which took place in the Coliseum; the overwhelming beauty of basilicas, visiting too many in such a short time; at our visit to the Anglican Centre the Lampadusa Cross made from the shattered remains of one of the boats bringing refugees to Italy, reminding us of the suffering of so many; the quiet reverence of so many people in these sacred places.
The calm of our centrally situated guesthouse was a welcome oasis at the end of physically demanding, sometimes emotionally draining but always wonderfully fulfilling days.
We visited the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. Massive, so beautiful, a poem of gold, marble and art. Artists, craftsmen and sculptors all using their skills to give a glimpse of the glory of God. Then, to find near the entrance a small relief carving of two hands behind prison bars, one hand gripping a bar, and the other outstretched with the wound made by the nails. Below was the inscription “I was in prison and you visited me” Matt 25:36. Such a contrast, perhaps it represented two sides of our faith – worship and service.
Another highlight was being able to join the community of Sant’Egidio at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, founded on Prayer, Poor and Peace and the incredible work they do in 70 countries. It makes you realise how far a comfortable modern middle class Christian is from the total commitment we saw there.
Somewhat exhausted we left Rome, Peter and Paul and headed north to Umbria and Francis. The rugged countryside of Umbria provided a stunning backdrop to the olive groves and vineyards as we made our way to Assisi. We stopped en route in Orvieto, perched high on a cliff edge once the centre of Etruscan civilisation. Up into the medieval part of the city and the stunning Gothic Cathedral.
Then to the Church of St Maria degli Angeli (Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels) outside Assisi where St. Francis built the small hut which lies inside it.
Our time in Assisi was not exactly relaxing but did allow more time for reflection. As we stood beside the Roman pillars in the main square wondering if, perhaps, St Francis or St Clare had stood at that very same spot! Learning about the sacrificial lives of these two servants of God reminded us of the privileges of our lives as we seek to serve Him. As Gaye expressed it
“Assisi fulfilled a desire I have had for nearly 70 years. As a child in Selborne, my grandfather used to take me into the church to see the stained glass window depicting St Francis feeding the birds. I now felt I was a pilgrim at last, I had time just to “be” in God’s presence, away from the noise of the city, for me this was a “thin place” – where earth and heaven touch.”
Sunday was our last day and the Anglican community of St. Leonard’s welcomed us for their Sunday communion. A mixture of many nationalities leading to a very moving moment; the Lord’s Prayer said in each person’s own language, perhaps truly speaking in tongues.
Then our pilgrimage in Italy was over, in the coach as we left Assisi we all sang “Laudate omnes gentes, laudate Dominum” (Sing praises, all you peoples, sing praises to the Lord). Alleluia.
Learning about oneself is part of the pilgrimage experience. We really appreciated the friendship and support given by our fellow pilgrims as we worshipped together and shared many experiences, some of which were spiritual, some emotional, some exciting and many were great fun!
Finally a huge thank you to Bishop Michael, for his total commitment and support, his very much needed spiritual guidance and historical knowledge as we journeyed and his enormous sense of humour.
Rt. Rev. Michael Langrish