Rome. The Eternal City. The Heart of the Church.
Just two weeks ago, I boarded a plane by myself and flew to a place where I did not speak the language, where I did not have a common cultural history, and where I did not know what to anticipate. But I did go where God was calling me.
There are many things about my pilgrimage to Rome that I could recount to illustrate my certainty that without God’s will, there would have been no way I would have made it in the first place. Instead of recounting these, however, I will ponder them in my heart and for the present time only recount the bare events as I experienced them. My understanding of this pilgrimage has yet to blossom, so there are no insights I have to shed. I have only to proclaim first the goodness of God and second my wonder and awe in my unworthiness.
I arrived on Thursday night, a bit dazed and confused after a long day of traveling across Ireland to the Dublin Airport and then further flying across Europe to Italy. I stayed in a guesthouse run by sisters belonging to the Pontifical Institute of Maestro Pie Filippini, and though the sisters seemed very sweet, they spoke no English whatsoever. We communicated primarily through smiling, some exasperated hand gestures and sighs, and some excited pointing at my saint medals. My room there was extremely comfortable, and a nice, quiet, clean refuge to return to after the hustle and bustle of Rome.
On Friday, I began by getting lost on my way to the Basilica of St. John Lateran. I eventually found it, but to be honest, it greatly overwhelmed me, and I wasn’t able to properly to take it in.
After dazedly walking through John Lateran with mouth open wide, I went to climb the Scala Sancta, or the Holy Steps. When St. Helena did her excavations in Jerusalem, she found stairs that we believe to be the steps from Pontius Pilate’s praetorium, which Jesus climbed several times the day of His Crucifixion. The faithful are only allowed to climb the stairs on their knees, moving at a reverent pace. Utilizing the pamphlet available and gazing upon a gorgeous mosaic of the Crucifixion, climbing the Scala Sancta was the most fruitful meditation on the Crucifixion of my life thus far.
After collecting my ticket for the canonization, I met up with another American woman traveling alone named Maria. We walked down together to the Sancta Maria Supra Minerva, where the body of St. Catherine of Siena (minus her head!) resides. It was beautiful to be in the presence of the earthly remains of such an indomitable woman and Doctor of the Church!
My day continued in its beautiful glory and bewilderment as I went to meet a seminarian at St. Peter’s. My heart stopped when I first caught sight of the dome. I thought, “Surely, that’s not it. OHMYGOODNESS THAT’S IT.” I practically ran the rest of the way. The columned arms of the Basilica were an embrace – a warm welcome home.
A kind American seminarian, Joseph, gave me a delightful tour of the Basilica. It is so beautiful! How I wish I had a more eloquent way to describe St. Peter’s, but all I am currently able to do is affirm the great beauty of the physical building, and to marvel at the greater beauty of all that has happened there and all those who have faithfully offered up their prayers to God there.
Several days before I left, the opportunity to go down into the Scavi – the Crypt of St. Peter – practically fell into my lap, which is not something that happens to just anyone! Saturday dawned bright and hopeful as I trekked towards the Vatican to meet with those I was meant to go on the tour with. It. Was. Fascinating.
Vatican Hill was originally a cemetery for Roman families – and I was able to walk among part of its “City of the Dead” on our tour. In 320, Constantine filled in everything on the hill to lay a foundation to build his basilica, because it was also the area of St. Peter’s burial. Until Pope Pius XII gave his authorization in 1939, no one had seen what lay beneath the basilica for 1600 years! How privileged we are to live in a time when it is possible to see the wonderfully preserved City of the Dead and remains of the Constantinian Basilica.
The most amazing marvel were the remains of St. Peter, which I saw with my very own eyes! I SAW ST. PETER. I saw, with my physical eyes (and I pray some spiritual vision as well) the Rock upon whom Christ built His Church. The man who was born a poor fisherman and died a martyr for radically following Jesus Christ and spreading His message. What grace! Safe to say I lost it before his tomb and wept profusely, begging for his intercession for us all.
On Saturday afternoon, I was able to visit with the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist who live in Rome. How I love that community! The three sisters there welcomed me cheerfully and gave me a peaceful place to talk about my experiences with joy.
That evening, I went to the Vigil for the Canonization with Maria at the Basilica of St. Teresa of Avila. The parents of the two children who were miraculously healed by the intercession of Zelie and Louis gave their testimonies. Everything was in Italian, so I did not understand much, but it was wonderful to simply be present and to watch the other faithful celebrating these two wonderful witnesses to Christian love and family life.
Sunday dawned bright and early as I woke up before the sun to meet Maria so we could make it to St. Peter’s by 6am to get in line outside the gates. For two hours, we talked with those around us, watched the line rapidly grow, and tried to prepare our hearts for what was in store. At 8am, the gates opened and once through security, we ran to find good seats. Praise be to God, we found seats four rows back from the front of the section for the general audience. For another two hours, we watched the square fill up with people of every nation, age, and walk of life. We watched the seminarians, priests, bishops, and religious file in. We prayed the Rosary in Latin with thousands and thousands of our brothers and sisters, sharing together in an ancient devotion in the ancient tongue of our Church.
The Canonization Mass was the most heart-inflamingly beautiful liturgy I have ever participated in. To hear as Pope Francis proclaimed my patron saint’s parents saints – my heart burned with the fire of the Holy Spirit in awe of these two people who simply (though not easily) fulfilled who God created them to be. Sainthood and holiness cannot be equated with doing or saying exceptional things, but rather by truly allowing the extraordinary grace of God to work in you in your daily life. This is holiness: to submit to the will of God, to be who He made you – you and most specifically YOU – to be!
Today we the Church celebrate the Feast of All Saints! We joyfully celebrate those who came before us who answered God’s call to holiness by being who He made them to be. Today we pray that we too may answer His call and joyfully join the ranks of the saints someday in Heaven.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow for bringing me to Rome. I am so incredibly grateful. It is an experience I will reflect upon for the rest of my life. My pilgrimage there made ever more present to me the reality and gravity of our faith. So many have gone before us on the pilgrimage through this life to Eternal Life. The Eternal City which felt like home made me long ever more for the Eternal Home. For now, the road goes ever on.
May God bless you on your journey!