This was published in the diocesan newspaper this week – I thought I’d share it here, since it’s hard to link to the print edition of the paper.
When I began work as Director of Adult Formation for the diocese, I knew I wanted to take people on pilgrimage. My own time spent in Rome had a deep impact on my spiritual life and the discernment of my vocation, and I knew that no amount of study or reading could replicate what happens on a pilgrimage. To walk in the footsteps of saints, to experience Catholic culture lived out, to see the Holy Father, and to pray and celebrate Mass with fellow pilgrims are formative experiences that cannot be taught, but lived.
Before the trip even began, our group experienced sorrows and joys. One of the couples planning on coming with us had to cancel their trip after the husband was diagnosed with cancer, and he passed away two weeks before we left. He and his family were remembered along every step of our pilgrimage, and we offered Mass for the repose of his soul in Assisi. Two of our pilgrims were united in Holy Matrimony on the feast of Pope John Paul II just a few days before we left, and on our trip Father John Hammond blessed their marriage before Mass in St. Peter’s basilica, directly in front of Pope John Paul’s tomb.
The high point for everyone was the chance to see the Holy Father. Months before we left, we found out that both the Wednesday General Audience the Pope holds weekly and the special Papal Mass that is held every year for All Soul’s Day had been cancelled. Francis was traveling to Sweden right when we were arriving in Rome. Since these were the only opportunities our pilgrims were going to get to see the Pope, I had to break the hard news to everyone. They weren’t going to get to see Francis.
Behind the scenes, I worked with my fellow tour leader, Mountain Butorac, who lives in Rome with his family, to see what we could do. Since we were familiar with the Pope’s routine, we knew there was a good chance that he would stop at the Basilica of Saint Mary Major after returning to Rome from Sweden. He usually goes to pray in front of a famous icon of the Blessed Mother before and after his trips. We planned our visit of St. Mary Major for Tuesday afternoon and prayed, not daring to tell any of the pilgrims about the possibility so as to avoid getting hopes up. I entrusted the intention to St. Jude, patron of hopeless causes!
God – and St. Jude – were certainly smiling on our pilgrimage. Not only were we in the basilica when the Pope arrived, we were in the front row along the temporary barricade that had been set up. The Nashville pilgrims were less than 20 feet away when Pope Francis quietly came to the basilica to lay flowers at the altar and silently pray at the icon. We joined him in singing the Salve Regina, and then as he left, he gave a small wave to us. To see the surprise and happiness on the faces of our Nashville group, a group that had thought their chance to see the Pope had been taken away months ago, was well-worth keeping the secret under wraps for so long!
To top it off, the Papal Mass that had been cancelled was rescheduled, and so our group joined a small gathering of mostly Italians for Mass in a Roman cemetery outside the city of Rome. There were only about 1,500 in attendance, and our group was a mere 60 yards away from the makeshift altar that had been set up amongst the mausoleums and graves. I have been to dozens of Papal Masses, but this one certainly took the prize for most unusual!
Besides our times with the Holy Father, the trip was marked with beautiful liturgies celebrated by our own Father Bulso and Father Hammond, prayer in front of the tombs of saints like St. Francis, St. Clare, and St. Paul, and the traditional climbing of the Holy Stairs on our knees. We saw the Sistine Chapel, relics of the Passion, the wood of the crib of Our Lord, and the table of the Last Supper. We were able to go under St. Peter’s Basilica and see the very bones of our first Pope. We walked through the Holy Doors of all four major Roman basilicas, making our Jubilee pilgrimage complete.
New friendships were forged as people from various parishes journeyed together. Gelato and pasta were consumed, memories were made, and prayer intentions were lifted up. Most of all, a group from Nashville, TN, touched the heart of the Church in the footsteps of saints, and brought you with us.