Pilgrimage 2014 - Rome, Assisi, Florence

By Dr. Kent Hare

From the 20th to the 29th of October, Fr. Ryan Humphries of the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Natchitoches led a parish pilgrimage to Italy.  The trip was managed by Magnificat Travels of Lafayette, which deserves immense credit for a virtually flawless ten days.  Here is a short account written by pilgrim Kent Hare, professor of history at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches.

A year-long preparation, both physical (for a lot of walking) and spiritual (through prayer, fasting, and confession), finally ended very early on Monday, October 20, when approximately thirty Natchitoches pilgrims assembled at St. Mary’s School for Mass at 3 am in the morning, immediately followed by a bus ride to Dallas.  There we met up with the Magnificat representative who would accompany us for the pilgrimage, Alexis Darbonne.  A quick flight to Atlanta united us with about a dozen individuals from south Louisiana who would join us – as well as what appeared to be a plane full of other groups of pilgrims and at least a dozen priests and religious who boarded the flight to Italy with us.  We felt very safe on that flight!

The overnight flight deposited us in the Rome airport bright and early, soon after sunrise on Tuesday morning the 21st.  Who cares if it felt like just after midnight?  It was time to set off for Assisi!  We boarded our bus for the next nine days, meeting the amazing driver Luigi (I swear, Luigi could negotiate that tour bus through the eye of the needle!  Without a scratch!) as well as our Italian escort, Debra Mallinson (who was not Italian at all, it turns out, but rather a British expatriate married to an Italian).  Debra commenced a narrative that literally did not stop for the next nine days, immersing us in the culture and deep religious history of Italy.  It was charming.

We drove across the stunning countryside from Rome into the hills of Umbria to Assisi, seeming to go back in time to the medieval world of Sts. Francis and Clare.  We immediately saw the wisdom of Magnificat’s urging that we prepare ourselves physically in a steep, brisk, uphill walk from the bus park at the bottom of the city to our hotel – learning quickly that everything in Assisi is literally uphill.  Both ways!  A quick chance to check into the Hotel Giotto was followed by the beginning of the spiritual component of our pilgrimage with a short ride back to the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels in the valley by Assisi.  There we heard our first daily Mass in Italy and marveled at the first of many beautiful, ancient churches we would see.  Like just about everything else we would encounter, St. Mary of the Angels is of immense historical significance.  In this case, the existing 16th-century basilica completely encloses the famous Porziuncula, the little, delapidated ninth-century chapel which St. Francis restored, in which he and his first followers created the Order of Friars Minor in 1209, and where he would a few years later receive Clare into the religious life and thus begin the Poor Clares.  The aura of holiness was tangible in that basilica.

As tired as we were at that point, we nonetheless enjoyed an early (by Italian standards – only 7 pm) three-course dinner back at our hotel before individually reflecting on our first day in Italy and collapsing into our beds.

… Whence we sprang early Wednesday morning for breakfast followed by another uphill walk, to the Basilica of St. Francis, the headquarters of the Franciscan Order.  Built into the side of a hill, this huge basilica actually contains two churches – Upper and Lower – directly atop each other above the tomb of St. Francis in the crypt below.  Before a local tour guide, Marco, conducted us through the complex, we heard Mass in the basilica’s “Peace Chapel.”  Marco’s exuberance was infectious as he explained the famous frescoes by Giotto and others, before leading us out and up (of course) a long street to the plaza in front of the Basilica of St. Clare.  At that point, just after noon, the group split up for a little free time.  In addition to lunch and shopping while exploring the town at our leisure, many of us individually toured St. Clare’s and viewed the original painted crucifix from San Damiano’s Church which famously spoke to Francis and urged him to “Rebuild my Church,” as well as St. Clare’s incorrupt body.  My wife and I were blessed to unknowingly time the latter at just the right time to witness the Poor Clare nuns briefly close the curtains in the viewing area and sing the afternoon Office.  Absolutely beautiful.  Late in the afternoon, those of our group who wished (the majority, it turned out), made an optional excursion to San Damiano’s Church itself, further up the hill overlooking Assisi.  A statue of St. Francis sitting there, looking off the bluff, epitomized the tranquility of the place.

Every day thereafter began and ended the same – a hearty breakfast and a three-course dinner, with a barrage of religious sites in between.  Mass was sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the evening.  Thursday brought a day trip to the picturesque town of Orvieto, built atop a flat volcanic butte a couple of hours from Assisi.  Inside the Duomo (cathedral), we beheld a material relic bearing Our Lord’s Precious Blood, the Corporal of Bolsena.  In 1263, a skeptical priest was stunned when the Host he consecrated began to bleed.  Investigation of this miracle led directly to the institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi the very next year. 

Friday morning – too soon for most of us – brought our departure from Assisi, traveling to Florence for one night flanked by a busy afternoon and morning that gave us opportunities to go into the Church of the Holy Cross containing the tombs of many famous Italians, see Michelangelo’s magnificent David in the Academy, tour the Duomo, and view many important works of Renaissance art in the very epicenter of the Italian Renaissance, at the Uffizi Gallery.  And then we were swept out of Florence for long bus ride back to Rome, where our lodging, the Hotel Cicerone, was within walking distance of St. Peter’s Square.

Our time in Rome began on Sunday morning, October 26, with Mass in the sister basilica of our own minor basilica, the Major Basilica of St. Mary Major, concelebrated in Italian by Fr. Chris Decker of Baton Rouge.  St. Mary Major is the largest Marian church in Rome, and was built during the fifth century, immediately after the 431 Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary “Mother of God.”  We then went directly to St. Peter’s Square, where at noon we – and hosts of pilgrims from all over the world – were part of Pope Francis’ weekly Angelus service.  In the afternoon, we traveled outside the ancient city-walls of Rome to tour the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, artifacts of the very first age of the Church, when the Faith was still outlawed and persecuted, containing both tombs where some of our earliest Fathers in the Faith once reposed  and some of the earliest Christian iconography.  In the evening, back in the city, we briefly toured the Pantheon, one of the most ancient surviving buildings in Rome, from just before the BC-AD divide, a pagan temple to all the Roman gods which later became a Christian church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs of Rome.  Then we were “let loose” in the Piazza Navona, one of the centers of Roman night life, for our only evening meal on our own.  A group of about ten of us had dinner at an excellent open-air restaurant to the sounds of a jazz band in the plaza.  Of course, even there we had the opportunity for more “religious tourism,” viewing the relics of the young Roman martyr St. Agnes in her immediately adjacent church.  There are hundreds of churches in Rome, each of them with their own fascinating significance.  We could only see a fraction.

Monday was largely given over to the Vatican.  First, we heard Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica – actually two Masses, according to our preferences:  most heard Mass in English, said by Fr. Chris; a few heard Fr. Ryan say a Traditional Latin Mass at a small altar within sight of the main Papal altar.  It was wonderful, moving beyond words.

Soon after that, we met our Roman guide, Roberta, who would be with us for two days.  She was quite good – a perfect balance of knowledge and piety.  From Michelangelo’s Pietà, past various shrines, chapels, altars, and tombs – including that of St. John Paul II – then out and around to the Vatican Museums, a vast repository of artistic treasure culminating in the Sistine Chapel.  It was magnificent, standing there beneath some of the most famous paintings in the world, knowing that is where the Cardinals assemble in conclave to elect each new Pope.

Late in the afternoon, we visited the third of the four Major Basilicas that were a major objective for our pilgrimage to Rome – St. Paul Outside the Walls, perhaps the most visually stunning of the churches we saw, with palm trees in the front courtyard and the golden shimmer of mosaics on the façade that put me in mind of something out of the Caribbean.  The similarly idiosyncratic interior has as one of its most notable features several ranks of circular medallions high around the periphery, bearing the visages of all 266 Popes to date – and room for at least five more.

Our last day was a flurry of activity that began at the remaining Major Basilica, St. John Lateran, the oldest and first in rank among the churches of the West, the Pope’s own cathedral in his capacity as Bishop of Rome.  In the Lateran Palace immediately adjacent, we were privileged to climb the Scala Sancta, the very steps from the Praetorian Palace in Jerusalem that Our Lord scaled after he had been scourged.  We did so according to indulgenced custom – on our knees.  Many in our group found the experience the most moving part of their pilgrimage.  We then visited the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, venerating several relics of the Passion including fragments of the True Cross brought back to Rome by St. Helena, mother of the first Christian Emperor Constantine the Great just after AD 300.  Our early afternoon lunch break was near the Trevi Fountain (under restoration, unfortunately), then we visited the Colosseum before walking to our final church – and final Mass in Rome – at the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains.  There we saw Michelangelo’s famous “horned” statue of Moses.

That long final day culminated with the “surprise” with which Debra had been teasing us for several days.  It was a Farewell Dinner hosted in Le Terme del Colosseo (“The Baths of the Colosseum”), a great arched hall that was once part of the water system for the Roman baths adjacent to the Colosseum.  Which was cool enough in itself – but then a trio of singers swept out and serenaded us before the first and every other course of the best Italian dinner we had, with plenty of wine to go around.  Everyone had a great time, including Fr. Chris who ended up joining the show!  

Starting very early the next morning, Wednesday the 29th, a similarly uneventful series of bus rides and flights saw us home by the early hours of Thursday the 30th.  Truly, this pilgrimage went off without any hitches, far more smoothly than could be reasonably expected.  All involved in its organization, preparation, and facilitation deserve our most sincere thanks:  from Fr. Ryan Humphries who conceived it, to Ashley Hebert to whom he said “Put together a pilgrimage to Rome, Assisi, Orvieto, and Florence” soon after he hired her as the Minor Basilica’s director of evangelization, to Magnificat Travel which Ashley found and worked with in bringing together the details – Maria Tegre who runs it and Alexis Darbonne who accompanied us – to Fr. Chris Decker of Baton Rouge who accompanied us with his pilgrims from south Louisiana, and in Italy Debra Mallinson our escort and our amazing driver Luigi.  And of course, the pilgrims as a whole, who quickly formed a small faith community all our own.  We left Louisiana and assembled in Italy as friends, acquaintances, or even strangers, and ended up family.  No one came back unchanged.  Speaking only for myself, I will treasure the memories of Italy 2014 all my life.