Pilgrimage Journal: Rome, the Eternal City

I have to admit I never really thought that I needed to see Rome or the Vatican to deepen my faith.  I was wrong.  All four of us will forever be changed by what we have seen, felt, touched and by the people we have met all from Turin to Pisa to Assisi to Rome.  It doesn’t mean you can’t be a good Catholic and not come to Italy, but, like seeing the Shroud of Turin a few days ago, my view of my time on earth feels different when you see what the Church has done through the centuries in a place like Italy.

Seeing the grandeur of St. Peter’s, and understanding its rich history and meaning, has opened the hearts of all four of us.  God had a plan on our first full day in Rome that was beyond anything we thought possible.  You will see in the photographs how blue the sky was, how pretty the spring flowers were, and how magnificent the buildings looked, but you won’t understand is how great the people were that we met.  By the way the pictures from our first full day are posted at this link, http://gallery.me.com/markarmstrong2#100367

We arrived early at St. Peter’s and line up to get through security to attend the only Sunday morning Mass that is offered in Latin, the rest of them are in Italian. Stepping inside the largest Church in the world is not something that can be written about.  It must be experienced, as a guide later told us.  He was right.  We walk about ten feet inside one of the 50-foot doorways and just stand there in awe.  To our right is the Pieta, the only statue behind glass because of a crazed individual who attempted to destroy it in 1972.  On both sides are giant cherubims holding holy water for you to bless yourself, something all of us immediately went to do.  I pause and pray and soak up the enormity of it all and suggest that since we need to go the nearly 1,000 feet to the other side of the Church for Mass, we should slowly move across one of the side aisles.

We first come across the incorrupt body of Blessed Pope Innocent XI from 1689, one of several incorrupt bodies at the Vatican.  He was known for his reformation of the Vatican administration and his sensitivity in his dealing with the Jews within the Italian States. We wanted to stay and look more at the marvels all around us, but knew that we also wanted to be close enough to see what was going to take place at Mass, so we moved towards the altar.

Sitting down in the pews, you are looking at an altar of immense proportions. Cast figures of four apostles with a giant empty chair of St. Peter stand beneath the only stained-glass window in St. Peter’s that of a simple dove of the Holy Spirit.  I look to my left after saying the morning offering and see the statue of St. Veronica and learn later this is the very spot where the Veil of Veronica is kept at St. Peter’s.  After just seeing the Shroud of Turin, I am struck by God’s choice of seats for us this day.  When I show my fellow pilgrims where we are sitting they let out an audible gasp.

At last the Latin Mass begins.  The procession includes, by my count at least 53 priests, 9 Bishops and the Cardinal.  The incense burners created clouds of smoke that almost obscure the entire altar and even as far back as we are sitting we can smell its sweet heavenly aroma. The joy of receiving Communion here for the first time is almost like receiving the Sacrament for the first time.

As Mass ends, we quickly make our way back outside to St. Peter’s square where literally hundreds of thousands of people are gathering waiting for Pope Benedict.  Each Sunday, if the Holy Father is at his apartment just above the square, he recites the Angelus with everyone, gives a blessing in several languages and will bless any objects that people bring to the square.  We have brought all the items we have bought in Turin, Pisa and Rome with us to Mass and now are eagerly awaiting, like the hundreds of thousands of others, for the Pope to open up his window.

The Pope holds up both hands and the crowd gives him a hearty cheer.  Leading us in the sign of the cross, with giant big screen TVs that line the outside of  St. Peter’s Square, people can recite the prayers with the Holy Father.  It is a wonderful experience.  So many people from all over the world praying together with the leader of our Church.  I keep thinking, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there is love, there am I”…wow, there must be a lot of love out here on this day.

Crossing the Tiber

We left St. Peter’s Square, knowing that we would be back the following day for a Vatican Museum tour, including seeing the Sistine Chapel and more time inside St. Peter’s.  We crossed the Tiber River that runs through the middle of Rome.  Our first stop was the Pantheon.  Half the front of the building had scaffolding on it, but the inside was as remarkable as expected with its famous “Oculous.” Nearly 2,000 years old it remains still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.  It was converted to a Catholic Church in the 7th century and you can attend Mass here.

We decided to have lunch at one of the restaurants that line the plaza in front of the Pantheon.  It was a classic Roman place, with our waiter in a tuxedo and comforting to us, an outside fresco of the Blessed Mother on a building overlooking our table.  After lunch the girls decided it was time to check out the shops on the cobblestone streets towards Trevi Fountain to buy postcards and gifts for friends and relatives back home.

A beautiful sunny day in the springtime brings out the crowds in Rome and it was packed around Trevi.  A fountain has existed here for 2,000 years and in 1629 Pope Urban VIII asked Bernini to sketch out a new one, but both men died before it could be completed.  It took Pope Clement XII in 1730, through a contest, to get a new fountain going again.  He also died before it could be built, but finally it was finished by Giuseppe Pannini in 1762.  It is stunning, 85 feet long and 65 feet tall with marbles statues and water gushing out all over into a giant pool; it is the largest Baroque fountain in the world.  And a traditional legend holds that if you throw a coin into the fountain, you are ensured a return trip to Rome, so of course, even though we are on a Catholic pilgrimage, we comply with this pagan custom, knowing it will no effect on whether we return or not!  I read in one of the tour guides that an estimated 3,000 Eroes (that’s almost $5,000) is thrown into the fountain each day.  The money is fished out by the city and used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome’s poor.

A few more winding blocks and we are at the base of the Spanish Steps, the longest and widest staircase in Europe.  Beautiful flowers are in bloom in planters that line the steps and people are packed sitting on the steps as they chat and enjoy the view.  The stairway of 138 steps was built in the early 1700’s and links the plaza below to the French Catholic Church Trinità dei Monti or Holy Trinity on the Hill.  Built in the 17th and 18th centuries there are beautiful frescoes and marble statues in here as well.  We pause for a time to pray and give thanks for all that God has done for us.  When I ask the girls what they think of everything they have seen, they are overwhelmed.  Coming from a place like North Dakota, to see so many ancient wonderful works of art, churches and so many people speaking languages from all over the world, it is hard to take it all in. “I could have never imagined anything like this at all Mr. Armstrong,” said the always polite 12-year old Rebecca Liffrig.  Her interest in joining a religious order has only been strengthened this trip, for sure.

We make our way back, nearly as we came, stopping for some gellato, that famous fruity Italian ice cream that is available on nearly every street corner.  We are set to meet with our seminarian friend Bob Shea at the Pontifical North American College where we will be watching a private screening of the new Archbishop Fulton Sheen movie.

About a week ago Mary Kochan forwarded me an email from Lisa Wheeler who is doing publicity for this new film.  The email was asking for seminarians or other Catholics who might want to attend a screening of this movie in Rome.  I instantly emailed Lisa and explained that I was going to be in Rome that very day with my fellow pilgrims and asked if we could attend.  She readily agreed and so we attended this event at the College.

I will write more about this movie and how you can get a copy for your parish to screen in a future Catholic Exchange article, but for now let me tell you that it was wonderful to be in Rome with so many young men studying to be priests from all over America watching a movie about the life of Archbishop Sheen.

We concluded the evening by climbing to a rooftop terrace at that overlooks the Vatican and the rest of Rome from the college.  The nighttime lights of the dome of St. Peter provided a perfect backdrop for conversations and stories about our faith.  Such energy in these young men, such zeal, such passion.  I don’t think any of us wanted the night to end, including the three girls who had walked over 10 miles and had gone to Mass at St. Peter’s, prayed with the Pope, saw several more ancient churches, tossed coins into Trevi Fountain, and now were talking about their faith with young men only a few years older than they who will ordained in the next year or two.

Tomorrow we go back inside the walls of the Vatican to spend time in the world’s largest museum, see the Sistine Chapel, art works by Raphael, and learn more about our faith.  Ever since we have touched down in Italy, nearly a week ago, we have been given a gift to enrich our faith beyond our wildest dreams.  We will continue the journey and report back to our Catholic Exchange readers tomorrow.


Co-author of "Amazing Grace for Fathers", website at RaisingCatholicKids.com

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