Rome – Day 4

Today we leave our hotel earlier than usual. We are making our way to the Holy Door at St Peter’s Basilica. We walk to Termini station to catch the bus to the Vatican. We have two choices, the 40 or the 64. Both have the distinction of being called the pick pocket buses.

As we board, there is a mad rush to get in. Most of our pilgrims get in, some however are the last to board and so have to literally shove themselves onto the bus! With all the bodies crammed inside, we won’t be cold that’s for sure.

When we arrive, we make our way to the starting point of the Mercy walk which will lead us to the Holy Doors. Once there, our pilgrims start to put on their lavalava which was kindly made for us by Ake.

Ioane then takes up the cross to lead us in the walk. As we proceed down the via del Conciliazione praying the Rosary, we notice people stopping as we pass, some making the sign of the Cross. As we walk we are mindful of the many people who cannot be physically with us, but whom we carry in our thoughts and in our hearts. As we inch closer to the basilica, we become very emotional. This is a once in a life-time event for most if not all of us.

Our final part of the walk before entering the Holy Door is a recounting of the final moments of Jesus’ life on earth – our Catholic tradition calls this the “Stations of the Cross”. There is a subdued sense of joy in what we are doing right now. Although the stations are a reminder of the intense suffering Jesus shouldered on account of us, we feel a sense of joy that we now walk with Him and share his suffering, albeit in a symbolic way.

As we approach the Holy Door we are silent. Being led by the cross we pass through the doors and enter into the basilica. The ushers are making way for us. They open the barriers which allow us to process through the centre aisle of the basilica. People look at us, some take photographs. They know as well as we do that what we are doing is something special.

At the end of the aisle we proceed to the altar, covered by Bernini’s massive baldachino (canopy). The ushers then open the barrier that holds back the throngs of people from approaching the staircase leading to the tomb of St Peter. As we make our way to the tomb of St Peter, we pause before it and listen to words of Jesus who says to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my Church.”

This is all too much to take in. Not only have we been given special access to this sacred site, but in the words of Jesus we perhaps can hear him saying to each of us pilgrims, “You are the living stones that I will use to build my Church!”. We have been so blessed today. This will be a day that I and perhaps all the pilgrims will remember for the rest of our lives.

We celebrate Mass in the basilica at the Altar of St Joseph, then make our way around the huge basilica trying to take it all in. This is not my first time to the basilica, not even my second or third time yet I still marvel in the beauty and majesty of this great monument to God.

Following a stop for lunch and a bit of shopping, we make our way to Vatican Museum. The museum is filled with priceless artifacts and works of art. As we meander through the many corridors of history, we are in awe of the talent that God has given to the artists and artisans who have left a great inheritance for us.

Our museum tour culminates in the Sistine Chapel. The chapel is where the elections of the Pope have occurred for centuries. It is this room that thousands of people look to, waiting for the traditional signal of white smoke to bellow from the chimney atop this building, signalling that a pope has been elected.

Our pilgrims sit in awe of this room, so full of history – our history. Many of history’s most influential men have sat in this room. This is a very special place for us.

Rome – Day 3

We awoke to another crisp but beautiful morning in Rome. We head to the number 14 tram stop to take us to the Basilica of the Holy Cross or Santa Croce. In this church are relics of the cross of Jesus brought to Rome by St Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine.

In a chapel to the rear of the basilica, relics connected to the crucifixion of Jesus are enclosed behind a glass cabinet. A nail, pieces of the crown of thorns and the titular or the name plate that was nailed to the cross, are on display to be seen and venerated by the faithful.

In silence before these artifacts, our pilgrims are confronted with the reality of the crucifixion. To see the nail that pierced the flesh of Christ, the spine chilling reality really takes hold. It is the flesh that yields to the nail. The carpenters hand becomes joined again to the wood.

For our pilgrims, this is an overwhelming place.

The basilica of the Holy Cross looks directly down the via Carlo Felice towards the Papal Basilica of San Giovanni Laterano – St John Lateran. This church and not St Peter’s is the Cathedral of the diocese of Rome. It is the mother of all churches in the world. So important is it, that it has its own feast day in the church’s calendar.

Inside the Cathedral, there are twelve imposing statues of the Apostles that line the nave. The chair or cathedra, the seat of the bishop sits proudly, almost throne like in the rear of the Cathedral.

In a side chapel we celebrate our Mass for the day. The pilgrims at this stage are used to celebrating Masses in other languages. This has been a source of great joy and comfort to our pilgrims, knowing that no matter where you are in the world, whenever you step into a Catholic church or celebrate Mass, you belong. I suppose particularly in the Lateran Basilica, that is especially true. St John Lateran is sometimes styled, “Omnium urbis et orbis Ecclesiarum Mater et Caput: “Cathedral of Rome and of the World.” This is our church.

Next to the Lateran Basilica is a building often overlooked. It consists of twenty-eight white Marble steps, now encased by wooden steps. The stairs lead to the Sancta Sanctorum, the personal chapel of the early Popes in the Lateran palace, known as the chapel of St Lawrence.

The steps are, according to the Christian tradition, the steps that led up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, which Jesus Christ stood on during his Passion on his way to trial. The stairs were, reputedly, brought to Rome by St. Helena in the 4th Century.

The tradition is that those wishing to climb the stairs, must do so on their knees. At each step, prayers are said. Over the centuries the wood which protects the stairs have become so worn that wells have been created in the wood, making it very difficult and sometimes painful to climb. Some of our pilgrims climb the steps, others choose to remain at the bottom and say prayers there.

After a little break in a local cafe, we head to the big roundabout in Rome – the Coliseum. The presence of the armed soldiers and carabineri are very noticeable here. Not surprising, considering that this is one of Rome’s top tourist destinations.

I told our group, that two thousand years ago, we wouldn’t have come anywhere near this place. Many Christians were martyred here for their refusal to renounce their belief in Christ and swear an oath to Caesar.

Today though, it is much safer to be here. We eat our lunch ‘al fresco’ as the chill of the morning has gone and the day has become very pleasant. The last time we were in Rome, the coliseum was shrouded in scaffolds as it underwent cleaning. This time, the 90% of the scaffolds have gone, allowing the sun to illuminate the shining white stone of this ancient edifice.

Our last visit for the day is the to Papal Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls – San Paolo Fuori le Mura. After his execution and burial in Rome in the 1st century AD, Saint Paul’s followers erected a shrine over the grave. Early Christians frequently visited the site to honor the great Apostle to the Gentiles and author of more than half of the New Testament.

The current church on this site was built after a fire ravaged the old church in 1823. The fire was reportedly started by a workman who was repairing the lead of the roof. This resulted in the destruction of the basilica.

The basilica has numerous relics, the most notable of which are the bones of St Paul and a set of chains said to be the prison chains of St Paul, used in the last days before his execution. They are exposed in the church on his feast days.

Another amazing feature of the basilica are the medallions that depict all the Popes back to St Peter. These run beneath the ceiling of the church. The medallion of Pope Francis, the current pope is illuminated. Our pilgrims are so intrigued by this whakapapa (genealogy), one even commented that “this is my seventh pope!” citing that Pope Pius XII was pope when she was born.

Today has been a long day but very enjoyable. We’ve covered a lot of ground. But there’s more to come.

 

 

 

 

Rome – Day 2

It’s Sunday in Rome. The bells of numerous churches can be heard ringing in the new day. The bells of the nearby Papal Basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore send signals across the Esquilino hill. The basilica is built on the spot where the legend says that Our Lady asked for a church to be built in her honour. The site was marked by the outline of snow which fell on a summer’s day.

In the very brisk Roman morning we walked the short distance from our hotel to the basilica. This is the first of the four papal basilicas that we will visit, and also the first holy doors that we will pass through.

As we approach the holy doors, a sense of awe befalls the group. There isn’t anything too significant, in a worldly sense, about passing through doors. Yet as we cross the threshold between the world outside and the embrace of the church, our faith tells us that something special is happening.

It is as if, the arms of the forgiving father embracing the prodigal son, now reach out to embrace us in an extremely passionate way. The Father’s mercy is for all; no one is left out. The door closes on no one. This is the significance of the holy doors, opened in this extraordinary year of Jubilee. The love of God is thrown open for the world. All we must do is simply pass through into that love. This is mercy.

After Mass, we head towards the Vatican, the Eternal City. The Holy Father is due to appear at midday for his regular Sunday Angelus address. As our bus turns the corner of the Corso Emanuele, the mighty dome of St Peter’s Basilica rises in the distance. Hearts start beating faster as we near the goal of our pilgrimage. Walking towards the square down the Via del Conciliazione, the weariness of two weeks constant travel seems to dissipate. The crowd gathered in the square in anticipation of the arrival of the Pope generates a great sense of joy and excitement amongst our pilgrims. We have made it! The result of months of saving and preparation are now coming into full fruition. New Zealand is probably the furtherest you can get from Rome, and yet here we are.

Immediately though, we are recognised. An Argentine TV company approach us asking for our thoughts about Pope Francis. Of course we oblige. More people say hello, recognising the silver ferns that we carry. No flag debates here though. It feels quite good to have people come up and greet us with enthusiasm.

Then in a top floor window of the Apostolic Palace, a small figure dressed in white appears. He begins to speak and the unmistakable voice of the Holy Father rings out across the square. His voice is tender. Although the pilgrims cannot understand his words, they can hear in his voice his love for each of us, his care and concern for the flock that has been entrusted to him. It is a difficult thing to explain why a 15 minute speech draws upwards of twenty thousand people. Yet this happens every Sunday that the Pope is in Rome. There is no greater institution on earth than the papacy.

Rome – Day 1

As our train enters into Termini station in Rome, there is a quiet sense of excitement amongst our pilgrims. We have arrived.

After checking in to our hotel we set off on our Roman adventure. Our first stop is the ancient basilica of St Lorenzo or Lawrence. Lawrence was a deacon in the early centuries of Christianity. The legend of his martyrdom is that he was put over a hot grill. It is said that at one point during his grilling, he beckons his torturers, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side!” The marble on which St Lawrence’s charred body was placed still bears the mark that was caused by the intense heat of his body.

Moving on, we make our way to the Church of Sant’Ippolitto, the parish church to which Cardinal John Dew was named as titular priest on his elevation to the Sacred College of Cardinals by Pope Francis last year. Unfortunately, the church that day was closed. Our pilgrims, one of whom regularly attends Mass as St Anne’s in Newtown, recorded a message for Cardinal John and said prayers for him and his ministry.

Mass that evening was celebrated with the American community based at Santa Susanna, but for the time being were using a chapel at the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, while their church is being restored. This was a lively community. I presume by the number of children present that this was a Mass for families. The priest celebrant for that Mass was particularly scathing of the younger members of his congregation, admonishing them and directing them to “sit still”, “stop talking at the back”, “stop rustling the newsletters”. Oh well, when in Rome…

Our first day in Rome comes to an end.

Loreto

It is by pure happenstance or divine providence that we are able to visit Loreto. Because of our visit to Medjugorje we can take the ferry to Ancona which puts us a short distance away from Loreto, famed for the Holy House of Nazareth. The legend says that the house of Joseph, Mary and Jesus was miraculously brought to Loreto by the angels.

Since then many hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have come to venerate this place. In the basilica of Loreto, we celebrate Mass. Behind the altar is a marble decorated edifice with sculptures. Encased in this marble structure is the Holy House. Our pilgrims are able to enter and spend time in prayer or touch the walls of the house.

Whether this is the house of Joseph, Mary and Jesus is a matter of faith. In some ways, it doesn’t matter if it is or isn’t. What matters is that we are here. When you consider the many centuries of Christian pilgrimage that have occurred here, this is the house of God in that respect, where God comes to dwell with his people.

Croatia and the ferry…

Crossing the border from Bosnia to Croatia was again another mission. Not only for the long and winding road, but as in the crossing from Croatia to Bosnia, the border control process was very slow.

Jenny has a Samoan passport, just prior to our leaving NZ, she had obtained a visa to enter Bosnia. Thankfully she did not require a Schengen Visa to visit other EU States. Samoa had only just signed a waiver agreement with EU in May 2015. However, someone forgot to send the memo around. At every check in this part of the world, the validity of the Samoan passport was questioned.

Back in Split several of us took the time to wander the ruins of Diocletian palace. Nowadays the palace is a little village of its own with shops, hotels and private residences. From painted murals you could see how impressive this site was in its day.

To get to Italy, we are taking an overnight ferry, a sort of cruise ship. Upon boarding, we are shown to our cabins, which are pretty much as expected, two beds (some four) a tiny toilet and shower cubicle, and that’s it. Lucky for us, we are pilgrims, and pilgrimages aren’t meant to be luxurious. Sometimes we have to put up with a bit of hardship.

If our cabins were on the simple side, the dining room was not. A very nice dinner and breakfast awaited us on board – that’s if you could stomach the swaying of the vessel. Back to being pilgrims again.

Speaking of being pilgrims, at the ferry station, we encountered the priest who celebrated our Mass with us in Medjugorje earlier that day, and two companions. One of them, was a nun who has been living in Medjugorje on and off for 11 years. Sr Claire Marie, could only afford a seat ticket on the ferry. We told her that we would find her a bed in one of our cabins. She was very happy about that. Our pilgrims too were very happy to offer her some assistance. This is what pilgrimage is about too, being on the same road as others.

While we were at breakfast our boat docked in Ancona Italy. As we go through border control, we get another stamp in our passport. I think that’s six or seven so far. When we exit, we are lambasted with chilled air skimming off the sea so we scamper into taxis to our hotel.

After a time of freshening up, most of our pilgrims head off to Loreto. Some decide to stay back in the hotel to rest after the night at sea.

Medjugorje

Our flight from Cologne to Split although being only one hour and fifty minutes felt much longer than that especially passing through turbulent skies. If the flight did not increase your faith in God the landing certainly did. We were relieved to be once again on terra firma albeit in a very distant land.

The bus journey from Split to Medjugorje had more stomach churning twists and bends than any rollercoaster that any of us had ever experienced. Perhaps the saving grace of this bus ride was that it was at night and the sheer drops down cliff faces were veiled by the dark night.

Upon our arrival in Medjugorje we were greeted very warmly by Maria. “Welcome home”, she exclaimed! No nicer words could have been said. Hotel Kenedi was indeed our home for the two days that we were in Medjugorje. Maria, her husband Kenedi, their two daughters and one of their two sons definitely made us feel at home with them. No request of ours was too much for them. We will remember them with great fondness and affection.

Making our way down to the church of St James for Mass our pilgrims spotted the shops and so took a slight detour. The small shops were a feast for the eyes. The religious articles on offer were uniquely of Medjugorje.

In 1981, Our Lady is said to have appeared to six local teenagers. One of them still receives visions to this day. The place where the apparitions took place is now known as Apparition Hill. The hill is scattered with a pinkish stone. This stone is used to manufacture rosary beads which are sold in Medjugorje and to my knowledge are not available anywhere else in the world.

After finally pulling the pilgrims from the store we headed to the church of St James for the daily English Mass. There is a sizeable English speaking community here in Medjugorje. Our celebration with them was a joyful expression of the peace that flows through this town.

Behind the church and the outdoor Mass area, our group headed down a boulevard adorned with the Luminous mysteries of the rosary to a very peculiar statue of the Risen Christ. From the knee of this statue an ever flowing liquid secretes from it. Although tests have been done on this statue, nothing definitive has been said of this strange phenomena. If they say that seeing is believing, then what we saw with our own eyes is truly something amazing. Even after wiping the knee of the statue dry, the fluid returns – always from the same spot.

Our pilgrims each ascended the two little steps that are put in place for people to collect the fluid by wiping it with their hands or an article of clothing. Some try to capture the fluid in bottles, but this takes quite a while.

Because the weather looks a bit suspect, we decide to go back to the hotel for lunch and to wait for the inclement weather to pass. Within 30 minutes, the rain has stopped, and so we return to our plan to go to Apparition Hill.

Once arriving at the base of the hill, there is a steep 20m climb to the site of the 2nd and 3rd apparitions. Because of the rain, the slope is very slippery. Marking the sites of the apparitions are smallish shrines with a statue of Our Lady and a blue cross. In fact this part of the hill is called “Blue Cross Mountain”. There is nothing significant about the crosses being painted blue; it is as such because that was the only colour paint available!

At the site of the second apparition, we pray the rosary. At each decade the pilgrims announce their intentions. At this point on our pilgrimage we are united by our dependence and need of God’s grace for the many intentions we carry.

At the conclusion of the rosary, I encourage the pilgrims to find a stone and to put it in their pocket, as a tangible reminder of the sacred place that Medjugorje is and the sacred time that we had just shared. Little did I realise that when encouraging them to take a stone, they would take a rock, some several!

The following morning, we bade farewell to our hosts Maria, Kenedi and their family. Maria asked me to email her when we returned to New Zealand so that they would know that we had returned safely. It was at that point that I knew that they meant what they said about us being at home with them. They were genuinely concerned for our welfare while we were with them and now even when we were leaving them.

We certainly will be back to Medjugorje… and back home to Maria and Kenedi.

Cologne, Germany

Waiting to board our train to Germany, suddenly mass confusion breaks out as we are all mustered to the one side of the Gare du Nord station a rumour then emerges that a bag has been left on an incoming train. The Parisian police and special forces swoop in on the station. Justifiably any event of this nature is a cause for extreme caution particularly as Paris is on high alert since the November attacks.

A mere 30 minutes past our scheduled departure time we are now ready to board our train to Cologne. The bag scare was a false alarm. Four hours later the spires of the magnificent Cologne Cathedral are visible in a distance. We have arrived.

Our first morning in Cologne begins with Mass at the Dom (Cathedral). The pilgrims are on awe of the size of the Cathedral which surprisingly took only 200 years to complete. The Cathedral houses the relics of the three Magi whose names tradition gives as Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. The Magi, ancient wanderers who went in search of the Christ child guided by the light of a star are an apt symbol for our own pilgrimage as we too search for the Christ within us and around us.

Today in Cologne is bitterly cold. Scattered but heavy raindrops fall upon us and so we take refuge beneath the golden arches of McDonald’s for a hot coffee. As the rain becomes more steady, I decide to abandon our plans for the day and put in place an alternative schedule.

Gods providence led us to a very warm and hearty welcome at Augusto’s steakhouse, in the shadow of St Martins Church in the old town. A great afternoon was had by all. Some pilgrims decided that we should resume our planned activities and took a stroll to the 4711 Cologne house where the famed Eau de Cologne is brewed. Unfortunately that day of all days the 4711 was closed for renovations. One pilgrim remarked, “Things haven’t gone our way today” I couldn’t help but think that in one sense she was right but what we did get was something better! That night at our pilgrims meeting all of our pilgrims expressed their enjoyment of what we did in Cologne that day.

In the morning which we were leaving Cologne we celebrated a very early morning Mass in the church of St Aposteln. The Mass was a small affair, very intimate. Without the presence of our group there would have been maybe six other people present. Yet for many of our pilgrims this Mass was perhaps the most memorable. Sensing that we were from a foreign land the Priest celebrant invited us to sing the final hymn. In gratitude to Our Lady we sang Si ou alofa oe … That church, perhaps any church in Germany had never before heard the Samoan language being sung. What a wonderful end to our time in Germany.

Paris…

As we approached Paris on the train from Lourdes, grey skies loomed over us. In a way I suppose it captured the mood of the group. For most of us, a high degree of anxiety was felt about coming to Paris since the November attacks.

That soon subsided when we left Gare Montparnasse and travelling by taxi we ploughed through the lights and sounds of the streets of the 13th Arondissiment to our hotel. The anxiety gave way to the joie d’vive that truly is a hallmark of the city of lights.

Our first morning in Paris was a gloomy one but our eager pilgrims were ready to go. So off in the taxi we went to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the hill of Montmartre. The Basilica stands like a towering sentinel keeping watch over the city of lights. The Basilica is for Parisians a symbol of hope that the city and the nation of France may never forget to look to God even in the darkness of tragedy and despair.

After spending precious prayerful moments before the Blessed Sacrament which has been exposed and perpetually adored at the Basilica for over 125 years the pilgrims felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from them. Our time in Paris from that moment on had been consecrated to the Sacred heart of Jesus.

From the Basilica our chariots raced us to the once rejected but now much loved Eiffel tower. The presence of armed security was a welcome sight for pilgrims. The armed guards meant that life in this bustling city can and should return to normal. I’m sure a few of our pilgrims were dying to have their photo taken with the soldiers but were too afraid to ask.

From there we moved to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. A Google search explains that it s in fact this building and not the Eiffel tower is the most visited site in all of France. I’m not sure whether I believe that entirely. At our Mass in the Cathedral it was rather off putting to see a smattering of worshippers gathered for the Eucharist while throngs of people drifted pass with no reference to what was happening right there in their midst. For our pilgrims this detracted from the Cathedral being a place of prayer and worship. Needless to say there is some justification for the many thousands of people who pass through the Cathedral everyday in that the building and the adornments are among the finest in the world. Of course people should come to witness its beauty.

The last act of this day in Paris was to visit the Louvre museum. One simply cannot go to Paris without the obligatory visit to “The lady with the smile”. On one hand being in the actual room that hangs the Mona Lisa is quite an exhilarating experience but somehow tends to end up being somewhat underwhelming. Be that as it may the pilgrims posed for their individual portraits with “The lady” while trying to avoid being decapitated by the many selfie sticks around.

All in all the city of lights lived up to all that is said about it. Onwards now to Cologne Germany.

 

 

Lourdes…

Today our pilgrimage entered into Lourdes, the foremost of the Marian apparition sites in Europe. In 1858, a young Bernadette Soubirous received a vision of Our Lady which led to her uncovering of a spring along side the Pau.

The town of Lourdes attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Many come in search of healing. Others come out of curiosity. The tradition attached to the visitation to Lourdes is that of bathing in the water of the spring. Our Lady’s instruction to St Bernadette though was to drink.

Being January, Lourdes is practically sans the masses. The Sanctuary is still with only a few people coming to pray at the grotto. Our NZ pilgrim group arrived for Mass at the Crux Gloria, set aside for the care of English speaking pilgrims.

Following the Mass we made our way to past the grotto of Masabielle to the waiting attendants at the baths. Separated into male and female sections, pilgrims present themselves to be admitted. There is a strange mix of fear and  joy upon entering the area of the baths. The attendants instruct you to strip down to your underwear and wait to be taken through to the other side of the curtain. It is there that your remaining clothing is removed and a wet sheet wrapped around you. Being led to the baths, you are then invited to pray silently. As you step down into the baths, the cold water immediately sends your senses into overdrive. A couple of steps towards the centre of the knee deep bath you are asked to let yourself be totally guided by the hands of the attendants who have done this hundreds if not thousands of times. As they lower you into the water, your feel yourself letting go. Many things that have been burdening you seem to dissolve into the water.

Once you are raised up out of the water, you feel like you are a new creation. It is reminiscent of our baptism, being made new. As soon as you exit the bath, you notice that you are dry and in no need of a towel. Further to that is the overwhelming feeling of warmth that envelopes you.

Watching our pilgrims exit the bath area, I can see a change in their expression. Some look confused, shocked even about what they have just experienced. All of them though, have a look of joy about them. They look younger!

On the Lourdes Sanctuary website, a description of the water says that the water of Lourdes has no other quality that renders it any different than water anywhere else. There is however something different about what this water does for people. The water of Lourdes provides strength for the mind, the body and especially for the spirit for untold millions who indeed have experienced miracles because of it.