My Pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi
By Marie-Therese Cryan
When my friend asked me if I would like to go on a pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi I was delighted. I had been to Rome before back in 1982 but never to Assisi. I am a huge animal lover and both St Francis and St Martin loved animals, for this reason, they are both my favourite Saints, so I was looking forward to seeing the places associated with Francis’ life.
Our group was fairly small, thirteen, including our Spiritual Director. Our lovely Italian guide John Luca made us fourteen in total as we set off on our travels.
Rome was not really as I remembered it, but then it was over thirty-five years since my last visit! I did feel that one could spend an eternity in The Eternal City and not see it all. But be warned, you do take your life in your hands every time you cross the road. Our guide, who lives there, said the traffic is one of the reasons he prefers to take groups around other places.
The distinguishing mark of the pilgrimage is, of course, the daily celebration of the Mass. This gave us the spiritual focus and helped to unify us as a group. We were able to receive the Eucharist under both species which I personally think is very special. Those who wanted had the opportunity to read and we were all encouraged to offer our own personal Prayers of the Faithful. Each day we were at a different venue. The location I liked best was the beautiful chapel in the Irish College in Rome. Dedicated to all the saints of Ireland it is worth a visit, if only to see the breathtaking gold, red and blue mosaic behind the altar. The design of the altar itself and the seating area behind create an intimate setting in which there is a real sense of closeness to God. We were all given a very warm welcome by the Rector, Msgr. Ciaran O’Carroll.
Naturally our pilgrimage was not just about religion and we managed to throw our coins into the Trevi Fountain! Legend has it that if you do this you are guaranteed to return to Rome. Unfortunately, there was no water in it on the day we went because it was being cleaned. That fact, plus the milling crowds, took away from the experience somewhat. Perhaps if I do get back to that lovely city again, the Fountain will have water and I will try and visit very early in the morning!
On the Wednesday we were in St Peter’s Square for the Papal Audience and enjoyed seeing Pope Francis again so soon after his visit to Ireland. I remembered vividly seeing Pope John Paul back in 1982 and offered up a prayer for the friend I was with at that time who died suddenly at a young age.
The two highlights for me on this pilgrimage both occurred in Assisi. Our hotel was beside the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli and on the Saturday night we were privileged to take part in the candlelight procession, which takes place in the Sanctuary and continues out around the square. A statue of Mary is carried aloft and the friars play music and sing chants of Ave Maria and Gloria. It was very simple and moving and provided a lovely sense of unity, walking with the hundreds of people who were there. It was standing room only in this very big Basilica.
My second highlight happened in the same church. Beside the Rose Garden there is a beautiful statue of St Francis and in his hands real live doves nest in the basket that he holds there. I found this so moving because these beautiful, delicate, little creatures brought the statue to life and seemed to confirm that all we know about this wonderful saint was indeed true. This spoke to me more than all the amazing paintings, frescoes, statues and sculptures that we saw during our entire visit. In this Basilica you will also find the Porziuncola, the chapel of Francis’ first community where he heard God’s call to repair his church and where he died.
Other places we visited were Greccio, where Francis set up the very first Christmas Crib, the Basilica of St. Clare, the Chiesa Nuova and Basilica of St Francis, the sanctuary at Rivotorto, La Verna where Francis received the Stigmata, Eremo delle Carceri and the church and convent of San Damiano where St Clare died. On our last day In Italy we travelled to the town of Orvieto. Sitting majestically above fields dotted with vines and olive tree this medieval town is a visually stunning place and I would love to return sometime. As I write this it occurs to me that there is a drawback in some ways to this type of holiday. You visit so many places in such quick succession that you tend to forget some of them and you do not have enough time in others. However, that is the nature of these tours and an observation on my part rather than a complaint!
I did enjoy my experience in Rome and Assisi very much and would recommend a pilgrimage as an interesting and different way to travel. One word of advice, bring mosquito cream. I returned with four bites which resulted in a visit to the doctor!