Day 6 Blog
It is one thing to walk through a famous church, but it’s altogether different to celebrate the Eucharist within its sacred walls. As we were reminded many times throughout the formation process for this pilgrimage, we are pilgrims, not tourists, and this distinction gives us a special advantage. Not only are we being guided through these places by people who are passionate about their subjects, but the spirituality of the place really comes alive for us when we celebrate Mass there.
On Tuesday our Mass was first thing in the morning at the Basilica of St Dominic in Siena. Fr Camillus Nwahia gave a beautiful homily about family.
“In today’s Gospel, Jesus is talking about what it means to be family. Although he had a very close bond with his family, he is asking, ‘Who are my brothers and sisters’? Those of us here have left our families behind to be here. But we are forming those family bonds with each other. It is not always easy, but hopefully by the time the pilgrimage ends we will understand each other and discover our essence and abilities. Our pilgrimage and family bond will help us be united with God himself,” said Fr Camillus.
After Mass we were taken on a guided tour that took in the Sanctuary of St Catherine and the Cathedral of Siena. Catherine’s life story was fascinating and it is always amazing to be in the places that these saints worked and lived. The book she wrote in 8 days (which led to her being made a Doctor of the Church), The Dialogue of the Divine Providence, was recommended to us by our guide who told us that her key messages were to ask God for help and not to judge others.
The cathedral, on the highest hill of Siena, is a sight to behold. We walked up gorgeous alleyways to get there and eventually you turn a corner and see the famous columns glistening in the sunlight. We were told that the cathedral is not just a building, but a way of thinking. When they designed and built these places they were “making a philosophy” as our tour guide put it. Our guide described the cathedral as being like a book with the façade being the first page. It was overwhelming inside.
After the walking tour we had some time off to explore Siena so some of us climbed the clock tower in Piazzo del Campo to enjoy the incredible three hundred and sixty degree views across the Tuscan villages that surround Siena. It was breathtaking.
Pilgrims enjoyed lunch, went shopping and explored the alleyways of this incredibly beautiful city.
In the afternoon we went as a group to the Basilica of St Francis. In the 18th century over 300 consecrated hosts were stolen from this church. The majority were found and sealed in a ciborium which was opened 50 years later and they found that the hosts were incorrupt. A highlight of the day was saying the rosary together in this church. Pilgrims were genuinely moved to share this experience.
Of course there was also pizza, pasta and gelato. As Salvatore always says, “Why not”!
Upon our return to the hotel we gathered together for some prayer and reflection led by Fr Greg. Many pilgrims shared something that has been special to them so far on our journey. Some of the things people mentioned included an appreciation of being affirmed, the enjoyment of being able to slow down long enough to really listen, feeling affirmed in their faith journey, gaining perspective, being excited for our clergy to have the opportunity to celebrate Mass in such special places, finding God in people’s stories, saying the rosary together, realising that we all have the same value to God, being connected to our tour guides and seeing God in our relationship with them, how valuable this experience will be when teaching students, the trust we have already, the joy we experienced on our first night in Siena, the sanctuary we are finding in these ancient churches, the spirituality of St Catherine and how we are brothers and sisters in Christ and on the right path.
As one of our pilgrimage co-ordinators, Sue Lacey, said afterwards, “Christian pilgrimages are about encounters, with each other and with God.”
We are developing a wonderful camaraderie. It becomes more noticeable each day. We are becoming real friends to one another. An enjoyable part of any friendship is the way we tease each other. This was on display at the end of our second day in Siena. Fr Peter Street approached the shady area where Bishop Bill and some pilgrims were escaping the scorching Italian sun. Peter placed his brand new fedora on Bishop Bill’s head and Bishop Bill said, “You’re joining the ranks of the cool, Peter” to which Peter replied, “I am, Bishop”. Quick as a flash, Bishop Bill deadpanned, “You’ve never been there before.”
We have laughed a lot!
“It is amazing to celebrate Mass in these incredible churches. It catches my breath every time.”
“An amazing experience that happened to me in Siena was in the Basilica of St Dominic. When we entered I noticed a group of Italian ladies praying the rosary in Italian. I was mesmerised by this and decided to join them, but as I sat down and got my rosary beads out they finished. A lady noticed this and came over and sat with me and prayed one decade of the rosary in English and then another in Italian. I was crying and so moved by this experience. It’s something I will never forget.”
OBSERVATIONS: Looking forward
“I am most looking forward to visiting the holy city of Assisi, the home of St Francis and also Rome because the saints of those two places are my favourites. Their prayers and life stories are very inspirational to me and inspire me in the way I want to live my life.”
Day 7 Blog
Wednesday saw us journey from Siena to Assisi, home of St Francis and St Clare. Our first stop was St Mary of the Angels Basilica which is Vatican-owned and whose holy doors are four centuries old. The basilica houses the church that St Francis restored after the crucifix spoke to him. It was incredible to sit within this small church and imagine St Francis there; to touch the stone walls that he once touched. There was a restorer at work on some scaffolding, meticulously cleaning this sacred space with a tiny paintbrush.
As Deacon James noted, “When you see these places in physical reality, the stories of the saints have so much more meaning.”
We saw the thornless rose gardens outside the basilica where two white doves nestled in a corner.
We then drove up to the old town of Assisi. It is indescribable; stunningly beautiful, an ancient fortress perched high on the hill. Pilgrims walked the streets and had some lunch before meeting back at the Basilica of St Clare where a guide gave us great insight into the life of this beloved saint.
We saw the crucifix that spoke to St Francis, the only one to show Jesus on the cross with his eyes open; the risen Christ. The crucifix shows the passion of Jesus, as told in St John’s Gospel. We also saw St Clare’s crypt where her body is on display, encased in resin, and actual relics of both the saints, including their clothes and belts.
It was hot in Assisi, really hot. Pilgrims were wilting in the forty degree heat, but we carried on towards the Basilica of St Francis, the pretty laneways and flowers distracting us from our discomfort.
The basilica is filled with the amazing 14th century frescoes of Giotto, as well as the tomb of St Francis. Our guide explained the meaning behind all the frescoes, although they are done in such a way that the meaning is obvious because many people at the time could not read and write so the frescoes had to be understandable.
In the afternoon we celebrated Mass in a chapel of the basilica. Bishop Bill spoke about St Francis’ life.
“The joy radiated out of him, no matter what hardship he faced. People were attracted to his goodness. He was a cool, fashionable young man, the son of a wealthy family. The dramatic gesture of rejecting this wealth didn’t happen overnight. Over many years he moved into ways of trying to become closer to God.
“He had to get over some of his fears to follow God. He was afraid of leprosy and disfigurement but eventually overcame this to embrace the lepers and become more like Christ. Here, by the tomb of St Francis, we pray that we learn to be as free as he became of concerns for ourselves,” said Bishop Bill.
After dinner, as the sun set over Assisi, we returned to our hotels for some well-deserved rest.
We are getting into a rhythm. We know the drill. We arrive at the lobby with our bags, we have some breakfast and we hit the road. We know that most times we use a bathroom it’s going to cost us 0.50 euro. We know that there will never be tissues in any Italian hotel room. We know which Italian chips are best and that our new diet includes ham and cheese for breakfast. We know to pack a scarf to enter Italian churches. Our Italian accents are improving.