This is a continuation of The Catholic Pilgrim in Europe four-part series, where I recount the most significant moments during my March Break Europe tour, with other travellers from Chaminade College School. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here.
We boarded the bus for Rome and the Vatican, another region which I fell even more in love with Catholicism and therefore, fell in love with the city and its history.
Why is Rome so important? I say it is the “heart” of the Roman Catholic Church – that is why we have “Roman” in the title. The first Pope, Peter, at one time lead the Catholic Church in Antioch, but moved to Rome. It is there that the first pope did much of his ministry. It is there that he was martyred for professing faith in Jesus Christ.
While Rome has modernized greatly since the time of St. Peter and the apostles, I could not help but think that many saints have one walked in these areas from martyrs to popes.
There were many things I could remember about Rome, but I am only going to recount the highlights during my time in the Eternal City
After walking down the Spanish Steps, we went to the Trevi Fountain, and then to the Pantheon. The Pantheon was originally a temple to gods, but now it is a Basilica, a Basilica of Mary, Mother of Martyrs. Raphael and some other notable people are buried in there. However, it is a very ancient building. Bishop Barron, on his recent visit there remarked that many of the “pivotal players” of Catholicism have seen this building. This is what he had to say about the Pantheon:
The Basilica was indeed very old and the rich history behind it, including the people buried in the Basilica was striking to me (so did many of the Churches of Rome). Like Bishops Barron, while walking through Rome, I thought of the many people before me, including the saints and other famous people including theologians, philosophers, artists, etc. who have walked the streets of Rome and likely saw many of the same building I did during my time there.
What was striking for me was the Friday March 15, which was the highlight of the trip for me, where we spent a whole day walking through Vatican City and enjoyed walking the streets of Rome (specifically Trastevere) after visiting the Colosseum.
That day started with the Vatican Museums which unfortunately, I did not do much research on, but it is huge – very large compared to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. We saw many artifacts not only of Catholicism, but statues of gods and goddesses, things before and after the time of Christ, tapestries, maps, etc. While we only had time to go through a very small fraction of the museums, the crowning jewel of the Vatican Museums tour was ultimately the Sistine Chapel. I was a little disappointed with its size, since I thought that a Chapel used for the Conclave, it should have been a bit larger to have rows of tables for 121 men… but nevertheless, I was amazed at the beauty. Indeed, what I said years ago in a class assignment, “The Sistine Chapel is a place filled with life,” is very true, especially when you step in and see the stories of the creation of the universe. I walked around the chapel a few times, walking through the centre isle, as Cardinals would do when they approach the altar to cast their ballot. I wanted to walk in their shoes for a couple minutes. Standing in front of Michelangelo’s fresco of The Last Judgement was striking, especially knowing that the Cardinals would cast their ballot, saying, “Testor Christum Dominum, qui me iudicaturus est, me eum eligere, quem secundum Deum iudico eligi debere.” (English translation: “I call as my witness Christ the Lord, who will be my judge that my vote is given to the one who, before God, I think should be elected.”)
From the Sistine Chapel, we walked to St. Peter’s Basilica. We used a special group entrance, and passed by the locked Holy Doors. That was a special moment for me to see the doors up close since I wrote about the Holy Doors at length throughout the Jubilee of Mercy in 2016. Another moment I remember was standing at the front and centre entrance of the Basilica, the place where the clergy and the Pope would process out for outdoor Papal Masses. I saw the canopy that covered the Mass area and I remembered pictures of the funeral of Pope John Paul II, in which the coffin passed through that way, and Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis processing out for beatifications, canonizations, inauguration and closing of important events within the Catholic Church such as the Year of Faith and the Jubilee of Mercy.
The most significant part of the trip was ultimately St. Peter’s Basilica, the church in which I have seen countless pictures of throughout my lifetime, at the moment suddenly brought to life. While I loved seeing the Pieta and many, many beautiful pieces of art, tried to contain my picture-taking to a minimum since I wanted to be in a prayerful mode. I went by the famous bronze statue of St. Peter, to the right of the Papal altar whose feet have been worn down from all the kissing of pilgrims throughout the centuries. I did that same reverent gesture that pilgrims have done. Then, I proceeded to the Altar of Confession, and stood as close as I could to gate leading down to St. Peter’s tomb. I took off my ring and laid it near the gate. I took out the Breviary I prepared months prior to the trip, and opened to the page which I added, with the Profession of Faith. It is customary for pilgrims to do a profession of faith at the tomb of the apostles of Sts. Peter and Paul. Bishops do so during their Ad Limina visits and it is perhaps one of their spiritually important moments during those visits. I did the same as I slowly read the Nicene Creed and once again, professed my belief in the doctrines of the Catholic Church. For me, that was a very important moment on the trip.
Another specific highlight that day was the Colosseum, a “must-see” for anyone who goes to Rome. It has become one of the most iconic landmarks of the eternal city. For me, visiting the Colosseum was important not because it was a landmark of Rome, but rather it was to pay homage to the many Christians who professed faith in Jesus Christ. Symbols of Christianity were present all throughout the Colosseum, most prominently the Cross. It is there that the Way of the Cross with the Holy Father is celebrated on every Good Friday. I took time looking at all the ancient inscriptions and minimal art that was in there, but this too was a moving part for me.
Everywhere you turn in Rome, there is some trace of Catholicism, even within fountains (such as the Trevi Fountain) and monuments. Sometimes it was a cross that topped a monument, a papal coat-of-arms that decorated a fountain or the papal tiara with crossed keys that was engraved on an obelisk. Not only were symbols of Christianity visible almost everywhere in Rome, but everywhere you turn, there is a church. That fact should be of no surprise, especially when there are more than 900 churches in Rome. Every time I passed by a Church, I wanted to step in to “check it out”, obviously with the reverence due to the Eucharist reserved in every Church. While you just can’t miss the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, people tend to forget about the hundreds of churches in Rome. Besides the “big” stuff in Rome, I remember the times when I randomly dropped into a Church near a gelato shop that my friends were stopping by or a souvenir shop. The thing is, you never know when you will return to those places, so you want to go into every Church and every Church I stepped in was beautiful! You don’t know what you’ll see. Without a guidebook, you will be surprised to find a tomb of saint or large relics. I remember stepping into the gorgeous Santa Maria in Trastevere with beautiful mosaics adorning the sanctuary. Then, on a smaller scale, I remember stepping into San Salvador in Onda. I did not know what to expect in that Church until I saw a tomb of a saint beneath the altar – that of St. Vincent Pallotti. I grabbed a couple prayer cards from the vestibule that were freely available.
Those impromptu visits to those Churches really allowed me to see the influence Catholicism has in Rome, it showed how powerful the Catholic Church was. I wonder how those 900+ churches are maintained. Yet, all of these things are to ultimately glorify God. One day, these earthly building of worship will pass. God does not need 900+ churches in a city but these churches should serve as instruments that lead us to the heavenly banquet, not merely pieces of art. We can go into these churches and can find awe in them. But do they help us come closer to God? We must answer to God one day about what we have done to serve him and his Church. May the beautiful places of pilgrimage that we enter be a push for our spiritual lives, that we may become not only church builders on earth, but temples of the Holy Spirit.