I am writing this at 38,000 feet somewhere between the JFK airport in New York and Minneapolis/St. Paul where we will be making our final connection in a couple of hours to our home in Bismarck, North Dakota. If our flight stays on schedule, we will be flying over the Basilica of St. Paul in Minnesota at precisely the same time we were singing vespers in Italian with the monks at St. Paul’s Basilica outside the walls of Rome yesterday. Our entire 9-day pilgrimage has been transformational for us and we are continually thankful for these moments of connection with saints like St. Paul that give us an opportunity for prayer and reflection. St. Paul is my favorite saint, my confirmation name, the man I most identify with in life because I think sometimes we all need to get knocked off our horses to see what God wants from us.
Traveling with my newly-confirmed 14-year-old daughter Teresa and her two friends, 12-year-old Rebecca Liffrig and 13-year-old Samantha Pearson has been such a blessing. I like to move quickly through airports, crowds and lines; people who know me will tell you I am always in a rush. These young girls were easily up to the task of keeping up with me as we walked as far as ten miles some days across the old cobblestone sidewalks that is make up the places we saw in Italy. In fact Teresa’s favorite part of the trip was the walking. “I just loved be able to walk everywhere and see some many different things everywhere we walked, it was amazing that there were churches on one corner, then a fountain, then a museum, you could walk anywhere and find something special,” she told me on the flight home.
Samantha, our friend who is a Baptist, most enjoyed the Vatican itself. Our beautiful two-bedroom apartment was just outside the walls of the Vatican and each day we walked to St. Peter’s square first. “I was amazed at all the details inside that Church,” she told me. “I just couldn’t believe all of what you could see. I would never get tired of looking at the beauty there.”
The standing joke throughout our adventure when we introduced ourselves was that Samantha was the only non-Catholic in a group of four. She would pipe up and say, “But I think I am getting close.” Each day of the trip her forefinger and thumb would get closer and closer together. And yesterday when she was helping to make an Italian-style dinner for our seminarian friend Bob Shea, we asked how close she was now. The finger and thumb was pressed together and we all gave out a heartily laugh.
And for Rebecca, “Going inside all those churches. I never could have imagined that there would have been so many churches with so many things to see inside them. And seeing the Pope — that was pretty cool too,”
I know too, that their faith lives have been transformed in ways that will affect them for the rest of their lives. My parents took my two brothers and me on a trip around the world when I was 15-years old. We were living on Guam at the time — my parents were school teachers for three years on Guam — and we had flown to Japan the summer in 1970. Over two-and-half months in the summer of 1971 we flew from Guam to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Bangkok, Katmandu, Calcutta, New Delhi, Agra, Kashmir, Bombay, Yemen, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, the Sudan, Cairo, all over Greece, Zurich, Amsterdam and back through the U.S. to Hawaii to Guam. That trip was not a pilgrimage as such, but we certainly were exposed to how the rest of the world lived. From the eastern influences of places like China to the poverty in India and Nepal to Africa tribesmen to the ancient cultures in Greece — they all left a lasting impression on me. I know it later influenced my decision to join the Peace Corps after I graduated from college, to help people less fortunate than I.
And had I not joined the Peace Corps I would have never met my eventual bride of nearly 28 years, Patti, and been Dad to ten children.
The original reason I wanted to go to Italy was to see and pray before the Shroud of Turin. I have written extensively about that experience, and if you haven’t read about or seen all the pictures and short movies we have posted, please do.
In a few weeks the Shroud will go back away from public view until the year 2035 (unless there is a special opportunity permitted as there was this time). As noted before, it will never be a requirement of our faith to accept that the Shroud is the true burial cloth of Jesus Christ. After seeing it four times and spending nearly three hours in front of it last week, we know is there was a linen cloth 2,000 years ago that was used to bury our Lord before he was laid in the tomb. Science has not been able to replicate this bloodstained shroud precisely or prove that it is not what it is purported to be.
For me the most profound moment came when I sat for my final time before the Shroud during the morning Mass at St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Turin. This church was built on a site of earlier Catholic churches that date back to the 3rd century. Mass has been said here for well over 1800 years. The Shroud itself arrived in the 16th century so the future saint, Charles Borremeo, the Archbishop of nearby Milan would not have to make the arduous journey to France where the House of Savoy had the Shroud in a church there to see it.
The Mass that morning was crowded, not packed. As I said before, you didn’t need a free ticket to attend the morning Mass and be close to the Shroud, you just showed up. Mass was in Italian and there were about a dozen priests concelebrating. At the precise moments when the priest lifted up the bread and wine to confect them into the Body and Blood of Christ, my eyes lined up with the Shroud. There were the bloodstains, there was the crucified body, there was our Creator who suffered, died and was buried for all of us. Emotionally and spiritually I knew that communion would never, ever be the same for me again.
We are the body of Christ. There was the body of Christ. Transubstantiated by the Italian priests and physically represented in one of the Church’s most venerated relics. The choir began to sing angelically as we all went up to receive, with my eyes focused again on the Shroud. And then, another profound moment; the Eucharistic Procession to the chapel room across the courtyard where Eucharistic Adoration takes places during the Shroud exhibition.
Then the Mass at St. John the Baptist’s was over. I walked forward to the front pews to kneel and say a rosary and a chaplet of mercy. Then it was sadly time to leave. While the rest of the trip to Pisa, Lorenzana, the Vatican and the rest of Rome was spectacular, nothing will compare with the first two days in Turin. It is a story that I will relive forever.
Upon landing at the airport in Minneapolis/St. Paul and ready to board the final leg to our homes in Bismarck, we met up with our dear friend the Vocations Director for the Diocese of Bismarck, Father Tom Richter. We were excited to tell him about our time in Rome with his seminarian students and our trip to the Shroud of Turin. He turned to the girls and said, “I hope you three realize the tremendous gift you have been given. You probably won’t realize the significance of what you have experienced until you are much older.”
I’ve got one more thing to talk about before I wrap up. Last Sunday at the North American Pontifical University at the Vatican, we had an opportunity with those same seminarian students there to see the new movie about Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Look for a review about that movie, how you can request a relic, host a private screening of this movie and be an Apostle in the cause for Archbishop Sheen’s canonization on Catholic Exchange soon.
If anyone is interested I intend to put together a PowerPoint presentation about the Shroud of Turin, including slides and pictures that I gathered while in Turin this trip. I would be happy to provide it to you or present it to your Church gatherings anytime. You can contact me through our website, www.RaisingCatholicKids.com
Highlights from the entire trip are posted here, http://gallery.me.com/markarmstrong2#100392