Highlights of Rome on Pilgrimage
In May, 57 Southern Cross pilgrims travelled to the Holy Land and Rome. Günther Simmermacher reviews the highlights of the Rome leg of the pilgrimage.
A pilgrimage is always packed with highlights. That is why I always urge pilgrims to keep a journal of their journey.
The Southern Cross’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Rome, led by Fr Russell Pollitt SJ, will have filled the journal of the diligent diarist. Our group of 57 experienced many moments of grace, joy and wonder.
This week and next I will recall some of these in a highlights package, starting with the Rome segment of the pilgrimage.
One of the joys of leading pilgrimages is that every group has its own character and dynamic. This is influenced by many things. The itinerary, of course. The spiritual director and guides. Personalities within a group. Particular events…
Almost invariably, everybody on a pilgrimage is very nice—and if they aren’t, maybe they really need the graces of a pilgrimage. In our group nobody needed to address that particular problem.
The pilgrims always care about one another. On the morning of the second day, one of our group suffered a nasty fall in our hotel, requiring treatment in hospital. After the group had returned from the day’s activities, her room was filled with concerned people who just a couple of days earlier had been strangers to her.
This group was, for its size, also very disciplined. Timekeeping is important. If at every site somebody is a few minutes late, soon you’ll lose an hour in a day. This group wasted little time.
Over the years I have experienced many excellent spiritual directors on pilgrimage. We benefited from the muscular but gentle spiritual direction of Fr Pollitt.
He preached superb homilies and guided us well in our reflections. It was evident just how much this priest loves the Mass and its liturgy. He was also great company, with a fine sense of humour.
The Catholic HQ
The Catholic Church is everywhere in Rome. Even the most pagan of all intact ancient buildings, the Pantheon, is a converted church.
And everywhere there’s Catholic history. Palaces and fountains built by assorted cardinals, and streets named after men from Church history. Walk into almost any church in central Rome, and there’ll be religious art by the artistic superstars of their day: an unexpected Michelangelo sculpture here, or a surprise Caravaggio there.
Of course, there are priests everywhere. Souvenir shops even flog a calendar of handsome Roman-collared priests, with something for everybody. Father August and Father October sport cappello romano hats for the elegant preconcilar hunk look. Alas, these “priests” are all models.
At the papal outfitters Gammarelli some of us bumped into a real priest of a Polish order, in a white robe. He had just bought a white zucchetto, or skullcap. Trouble is, only the pope may validly wear a white zucchetto.
Since no cleric is allowed to impersonate the pope, this priest presumably bought the zucchetto in the hope of exchanging it with Pope Francis at the next general audience. Still, he put it on for us, looking quite pontifical.
The spirit of Pope Francis permeates Rome, in ways trivial and profound. Tourist-tat merchants flog Pope Francis bobbleheads, and for the more discerning there are Pope Francis rosaries.
Our group had a more spiritual pope-related experience: our inaugural Mass was in the basilica of St Mary Major, the church which Pope Francis visits before and after every foreign trip to pray before the icon of Salus Populi Romani in the Borghese chapel. After Mass, we also had an opportunity to kneel before that icon and pray.
A couple of days later, the group had the chance to see Pope Francis in person at the general audience in St Peter’s Square. It pays to be in the care of people who know exactly when to come and where to stand: our group saw Pope Francis pass them by, at a close distance, not once but twice.
And the wily audience attendees will position themselves near a mother with a baby. Most of the time, the pope will stop right there to hug the infant.
Meeting the saints
We Catholics love our saints. And for our fix of saints, Italy is the place to go. In Rome you can’t move for tombs of saints.
There is, of course, St Peter’s basilica, where many saintly popes are buried. For tourists without top-level connections it is quite impossible to get close to the tomb of St Peter, on top of which the great basilica is built (its altar, beneath Bernini’s glorious bronze canopy, is located directly above it).
Two tombs in the basilica are particularly popular: those of Popes St John XXIII and St John Paul II. The former is displayed in a glass cabinet; I have been blessed to have had Mass twice there, and once at the tomb of then-Blessed John Paul.
In the crypt is the plain tomb of St Paul VI. Next to it, there is an empty tomb that once held the remains of St John XXIII and then St John Paul II. Clearly, that tomb has saint-making powers!
Somebody suggested that one sad day we might bury Pope Francis there. But I suspect that the Holy Father will stipulate that his remains be transferred to Buenos Aires, to be buried in the cathedral there, or perhaps in a poor parish church. If so, he’ll likely be ignored.
On our way we bumped into other saints in their tombs: St Paul in the basilica outside the walls named after him; St Jerome and Pope St Pius V in the basilica of St Mary Major; the third-century martyr Pope St Fabian in the chapel in the basilica of St Sebastian where we had Mass; the Jesuit founder St Ignatius of Loyola (plus the finger of St Francis Xavier) in the church of the Gesù; Robert Bellarmine, Aloysius de Gonzaga and John Berchmans (patron of altar servers) in the church of St Ignatius…
The church of St John Lateran holds the tombs of several uncanonised popes, including that of Pope Leo XIII, who surely is an uncanonised saint.
At the tomb of St Ignatius in the Gesù our group was treated to a spectacle. Above the tomb is a large painting of the saint being received into heaven by Christ. Every day at 17:30 it is mechanically lowered to loud music by a macchina barocca, designed by the 17th-century Jesuit artist Andrea Pozzo, to reveal a silver statue of St Ignatius, hidden behind the painting.
We were going to miss that, so the custodian on duty lowered the painting especially for our benefit. It was a quite amazing show.
After Mass in the Gesù, we had the opportunity to view the rooms of St Ignatius, which one reaches through a most beautiful chapel. Here artefacts of the saint are displayed, including his sparse furniture, shoes and robe. But new chairs stand on the spot where he died.
Encounters with SA priests
At two of our Masses, we were delighted to welcome South African priests to concelebrate.
Fr Simon Donnelly, a Johannesburg priest who works as a translator in the Vatican’s secretariat of state, joined us for Mass at the church of the Gesù.
Some in our group knew Fr Simon as their previous parish priest, and so were delighted to meet up with him. I’ve known Fr Simon, a man with a great sense of humour, for close to 25 years, as the son of my long-time colleague, the late Gene Donnelly.
The following day, we were joined at Mass in the church of St Ignatius by three priests currently studying in Rome: Frs Tulani Gubula, Kabelo Mahemo and Emmanuel Nkofo CMM. More might have joined us but for exams and other commitments.
The priests said they were touched by our invitation to join them at Mass because they sometimes feel isolated from home.
And so the Masses with these priests were special. The African singing in particular visibly brought the feeling of home to them, right there in that remarkable Roman 17th-century church of St Ignatius.
Still, I would guess that most of our group will recall the Mass in the basilica of St Sebastian, above the catacombs named after him on the Appian Way, as the one in Rome that touched them the most.
It was one of those Masses that makes the blood course warmer through the veins. Maybe it was so because the chapel—much nicer than the main altar—was compact and strikingly beautiful. Maybe it was because the sun filtered through its windows to bathe Fr Russell, wearing red vestments, in a special glow. Maybe Fr Russell preached better and we sang more competently than at the other Masses. Maybe we had been more relaxed in this quiet place.
Or maybe we simply felt the spirit of God in this place more than in the others.
Links with Holy Land
In around 328 AD, St Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, came to the Holy Land and financed the construction of churches there, most notably those of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Her munificence also meant that she did what colonialists always do: take native artefacts home.
Many of the holy relics Helena took have been lost; the authenticity of others is disputed. Many of these items are in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome, which we passed by but, alas, didn’t have time to visit.
But we encountered a few items relating to the Holy Land—the other part of our pilgrimage—in Rome. Whether or not these are authentic may be open to debate.
On the one hand it seems plausible that the first Christians would have preserved not only the memory of places but also physical items relating to Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, forgery of relics was a thriving industry in the medieval age, so it’s not always clear what’s real and what’s fake.
The basilica of St Mary Major holds the crib of Jesus from Bethlehem, which (if it indeed is the actual manger) stood on a spot we can still venerate in the crypt of the church of the Nativity.
And the basilica of St John Lateran holds the purported table of the Last Supper.
But the big event was the Sancta Scala, the Holy Stairs, which tradition says is the mable staircase on which Jesus walked before he was condemned by Pontius Pilate.
For half a millennium, these stairs, which may be ascended only on one’s knees, were covered by wood. This year the wood was removed for restoration, and for a few weeks the stairs were exposed and accessible in their original marble state.
And those few weeks provided a window for our group to see and climb the Holy Stairs in their unclad marble state before the wood was going back on, after the feast of Pentecost.
It was one of the many special blessings we experienced.
Next Week: Pilgrimage highlights in the Holy Land.