Pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome -
The Basilica of St. Peter
The Basilica of St. Paul
The Basilica of St. Francis
Here are just a few of my thoughts and reflections on our recent team pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi led by Father Charles and Father Duncan. Rome and Assisi are very different places: one a bustling and crowded city, the other a peaceful hillside town, but both steeped in Christian history and of great spiritual significance today.
Our hotel was just around the corner from the Vatican, and it soon became apparent how important, and indeed powerful, the Roman Catholic church is in that city. St. Peter's square itself, full of pilgrims of all ages and nationalities, many faithfully waiting to see the Pope.
I found St. Peter's Basilica to be a very spiritual place, helped no doubt by the mass that was taking place while we were there. And yet there are so many other spiritual corners of Rome.
On our first day we visited the catacombs outside the city where many early Christians were buried. We celebrated the Eucharist in a tiny chapel deep underground, just the bare rock for walls, all of us squeezed in, standing room only. The feeling of connection to those early Christians was so tangible, indeed you could sense how it must have been for Christians across the centuries who have had to worship in secret, in tiny underground places. I found it very moving.
There are so many beautiful churches in Rome, each one seemed to have such a different effect. In some it was the beautiful artwork that spoke to us, like the paintings by Caravaggio, the conversion of St. Paul and the crucifixion of St. Peter in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. In others it was simply the quiet beauty of a space of worship, set apart from the busy streets.
Of course there was the ancient Roman history as well: the Coliseum and the truly impressive Pantheon, commissioned during the reign of Augustus as a temple to all the gods of ancient Rome, and later converted into a Christian place of worship in the 7th century.
Part of me wished they had simply left it as a Roman temple, which just goes to show the different emotions and thoughts a pilgrimage can bring.
After a busy few days in Rome, enjoyable and fascinating as they were, it was quite a relief to retreat to the mountains of Umbria and return to Assisi, a city I first visited eight years ago, and there was certainly a sense of coming 'home'. Assisi is definitely one of those 'thin' places, as they are known in the Celtic Christian tradition, a place where heaven and earth feel very close.
Assisi has to be one of the most perfect cities, St. Francis of course is everywhere and he probably would have hated all that attention, but there are so many places where you can still get a sense of the simple life he led. The tomb of St. Francis in the crypt: a place to sit and pray in the early morning, listening to the monks singing in the basilica above. The twisting taxi ride (not for the faint hearted!) up the mountain to the hermitage where we walked in the same woods as St. Francis all those centuries before. The church of San Damiano: where Jesus spoke to Francis, commanding him to restore his Church.
There were trips too to other places in the region associated with Francis. La Verna, over 4,000 feet above sea level (and yes it can be cold and wet in summer in Italy too!), where Francis received the stigmata, the visible signs of the wounds of Christ. My personal favourite was Greccio where, in 1223, Francis devised the first living crib.
You could wander around Assisi for hours and always discover something new to see, each turn in the winding narrow streets leading to something unexpected. Even watching the spectacular thunderstorm across the valley gave a true sense of being close to God in nature.
Pilgrims on a Journey
Of course a pilgrimage is not just about the holy places we visit, if anything it is even more about the people you share the journey with. Whether that be jokes on the coach, a time of prayer together, the sharing of thoughts and concerns, the eating of pizza, pasta, pork and gelato, the sharing of a good bottle of wine, or indulging in a hot chocolate with cream and more chocolate, it is the people who make a pilgrimage.
There is time to catch up with old friends, and time to make new friends as we discover so much together. For me, this has always been the best thing about a pilgrimage. So I would like to thank all those who shared this pilgrimage journey with me, and pray that it will continue to support and sustain us in our daily lives.
Reported by Martin Dollery