Day 8 - October 12, 2016

Wednesday was a free day for all of us to finish touring, shopping, resting and packing. We began the day with Mass in a church right near the hotel - Santa Maria Ai Monti. This neighborhood church is the final resting place for St. Benedict Joseph Labre who is the patron saint of the homeless.  Benedict Joseph was the oldest of 15 children. Born in France in 1758 he eventually renounced his wealth to live a life of poverty and pilgrimage. He walked to France and lived among the beggars. He lived among the ruins of the Colosseum and always shared his food with others. After some miraculous healings for beggars and the multiplication of bread, he became well known in Rome. He died near this church and is buried in a side altar. We prayed at the Mass for all the homeless here in Rome and back near our homes, for the homeless driven from their homes because of violence, especially in Syria and Iraq, and for the homeless now in Haiti. 

Our Farewell dinner was held at the Terme del Colosseo where we had an opportunity to celebrate the experiences we have shared together this past week.  Our pilgrimage has helped to forge new and deepen existing friendships has we journeyed these days together in faith as pilgrims. We look forward to one last opportunity to return to St. Peter's Basilica tomorrow morning to celebrate our last Mass together before heading to Fiumicino Airport for our return flight home. Arriverderci Roma!  Welcome home pilgrims!

Day 7 - October 11, 2016

Yesterday morning our coach took us one hour outside of Rome to the Castelli Romani to the small town of Castel Gandolfo where we visited the Papal Palace where the popes have traditionally spent the summer months. The hills of the Castelli mountains provide a respite from the summer heat in Rome.  One side of the town overlooks a beautiful lake that formed in the crater of an extinct volcano, and on the other side one can see the ocean. The popes first started coming to Castel Gandolfo in the 1600’s to a palace that originally belonged to the Barberini family. In addition to the summer residence where the pope continued to offer the traditional Angelus blessing on Sunday's at 12 noon from the balcony overlooking the small town square, the property also included extensive papal gardens built over the ancient ruins of the Emperor Domition's summer palace. There are trees along the walkway that are 300 years old and the oldest of them all is 800 years. You can view the ruins of a first century amphitheater and covered walkway in addition to the sculpted gardens. We saw the building where Pope Paul VI died in August of 1978.  Pope Francis has decided to remain in Rome throughout the summer as he enjoys the presence and company of other people. Aware that the property at the summer residence was not being utilized with the resulting negative affect on the local economy, Pope Francis decided to open up these papal gardens to visitors for the first time in history. 

We celebrated Mass in the Church of St. Thomas in the center of town and then broke for some time for lunch and shopping. On the way back into Rome we drove up the Gianicolo Hill for a panoramic view of the city of Rome. After returning to the hotel we enjoyed an evening meal together followed by walks for gelato. 


Day 6 - October 10, 2016

We had another full day in Rome which included walking through our final two holy doors. We began at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls which is built over the tomb of the Apostle Paul.  Fr. Nick Desimone celebrated our Mass today as we honored this great missionary apostle. The emperor Constantine built the first church here in the 4th century.  A fire in 1823 destroyed the basilica and construction for a new one began the following year. 

We drove along the ancient Appian Way to visit the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. This ancient burial ground was the final resting place for one half million Christians.  There were nine popes buried here as well as well as martyrs, including St. Cecelia. The catacombs for Christians began because most people were not able to acquire above ground tombs on their own. The walls of the catacombs were decorated with frescoes containing basic Christian symbols - Jesus the Good Shepherd, the fish, a dove with an olive branch and even Jonah. The bodies of popes and martyrs were eventually moved to the churches. As a result by the ninth century the catacombs were abandoned. It was not until archeologists began their work in the 19th century that the catacombs were discovered and excavated. 

After this fascinating tour we went to lunch at Cecelia Matella restaurant which was built along the Appian Way where we enjoyed their signature pasta.  We then headed back into the city for our tour of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. 25,000 people pass through the Sistine Chapel everyday. We saw sculptures and other carvings, the tapestry hall and the map hall as we snaked our way through the buildings to the Sistine Chapel to see the masterpiece of Michelangelo - the chapel ceiling and the Last Judgement. We were not disappointed at the incredible beauty of this sacred place. The exit to the Sistine Chapel spilled over into the entrance to St. Peter's Basilica through the holy door.  This magnificent church was overwhelming in size and beauty as we admired the Pieta, the statue of St. Peter and the bronze canopy over the papal altar. 

We returned to our hotel with tired feet but also grateful hearts for all that we had seen today.

Day 5 - October 9, 2016

Today was no ordinary Sunday for our pilgrim group as we joined thousands of people from all over the world to celebrate Mass with Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square. This Mass was the Marian celebration for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and we prayed for all the people from our three Marian Churches - St. Mary in Uxbridge and Shrewsbury and Our Lady of the Lake in Leominster. We arrived more than an hour before Mass in order to find seats with the best view of the altar. Our four priests - Fr. Mike, Fr. Juan, Fr. Dennis O'Brien and Fr. Nick Desimone - received tickets which enabled them to concelebrate the Mass with Pope Francis. They went inside to vest for Mass while the rest of the group found seats in the square. As a preparation for Mass all the people prayed the rosary together and awaited the opening procession with the bishops, cardinals and Pope Francis.  At the end of Mass as we prayed the Angelus, the Pope asked us to pray for the people of Haiti who experienced devastation at the hands of Hurricane Matthew. The Pope also announced the names of new Cardinals from 11 countries around the world, including three from the U.S.  After greeting the some of the priests in the priest section by the altar, Pope Francis got into his Popemobile and was driven around the square so that he could greet the people in the Square and beyond. 

It was a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon for a walking tour of some of the famous sites in the center of Rome. Our guide took the group to the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona. Lots of visitors and native Romans enjoying this afternoon. We were on our own this evening for dinner which gave people the opportunity to go out and enjoy the city at night. 

Day 4 - October 8, 2016

We began our day just down the street from the hotel with a tour of one of the most famous and easily recognizable sites in Rome - the Colosseum. The Colosseum was built by emperors for the Roman citizens to hold cruel sports and gladiator fights. The colossal size of the building is what gave origin to the name. It was an amphitheater with marble seats for 50 thousand people and room for 20 thousand more to stand. Each year on Good Friday night the pope comes to the Colosseum for the Stations of the Cross. Just a short walk away was the Church of St. Peter in Chains. Below the altar of the church you can see a glass case that holds the chains that Scripture and tradition say held St. Peter while he was imprisoned. Also of note in this church is the statue of Moses carved by Michelangelo from one piece of marble. It was to be one of 40 statues that Pope Julius II had commissioned Michelangelo to carve as part of his grand funeral monument but is the only one that was completed. 

With a short bus ride to our next stop, we soon entered through the Holy Door of the first of the four major basilicas of Rome - St. John Lateran. The first church on this site was built by Emperor Constantine making it the oldest basilica in Rome. It is the cathedral church for the Bishop of Rome who is also the Pope. The popes lived at the Lateran for 1300 years before the move to Avignon in France. When the papacy returned to Rome this church was in ruins, and this is the reason why the pope moved to St. Peter's. A Latin inscription describes St John Lateran as the "mother and head of all churches in the city and the world". A nearby building in the Lateran complex holds the Sancta Scala or the "holy steps" which consists of 28 marble steps from the house of Pontius Pilate which Jesus climbed. Pilgrims often climb the holy steps on the knees while praying. 

We had one more holy door and one more basilica before lunch at Santa Maria Maggiore - St. Mary Major. This is the largest church in Rome dedicated to Mary. Its history goes back to Pope Liberius in the fifth century who had a vision the Mother of the Lord desiring a church to be built in her honor in Rome. The pope prayed for a sign, and on August 5th it snowed on the hill where Mary Major now sits. It has the highest bell tower in Rome. Beneath the altar in a reliquary one sees the wooden relic of the manger. 

After another great lunch together at Mino's restaurant, we went to St. Peter's Square to attend a Prayer Vigil with Pope Francis. We had registered our pilgrim group with the Jubilee Year Office and were given tickets for seats in St. Peter's Square. This weekend is the official Jubilee Year celebration of Mary and Pope Francis marks these special Jubilee weekends with prayer vigils. After a long procession of Marian groups from around the world carrying a statue, icon or banner of the Blessed Mother, Pope Francis entered the Square for the Rosary. We reflected on the Glorious mysteries as we prayed, and the pope offered a brief reflection on Mary as the Mother of Mercy. We all cheered when we saw 11 year old Ellie greet the Pope. Ellie and her mother from Uxbridge are part of our pilgrim group and were chosen as our representatives to greet the pope at the end of the Vigil. 

It was another full but rewarding day for us in Rome as we returned to the hotel anticipating the Papal Mass tomorrow in St. Peter's Square.

Day 3 - October 7, 2016

We began our last morning in Assisi with taxi rides up Mt. Subasio to the Hermitage of the Carceri. Francis often spent times of prayer and contemplation in the solitude of this mountain hermitage. Francis' life alternated between periods of quiet contemplation and apostolic activity. There is a wonderful view of the mountain above and the Umbrian valley below. We celebrated Mass here on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in a chapel built for pilgrims. 

With taxi rides down the mountain to our awaiting bus, we began the one hour ride to the medieval hill town of Orvieto with its magnificent Cathedral.  We stopped for a four course lunch at a local family restaurant with antipasto, pasta, chicken and chocolate torte.   After lunch we continued our climb to the center of the town. 

Walls were never constructed around Orvieto as it was naturally fortified by being built on a plateau on top of a mountain. Orvieto is famous for its cathedral with spires that soar above the rooftops of this quaint town of 5,000 people. Building of the Duomo (cathedral) began in 1290 and it took more than 300 years to complete.  The cathedral was built to house the relic of the corporal from a Eucharistic miracle that took place in 1263. A priest, Fr. Peter, was doubting his faith yet he celebrated Mass one day in the nearby town of Bolsena. As he was consecrating the host it began to bleed onto the corporal and altar stone. The Pope happened to be in Orvieto at the time, so Fr. Peter brought the corporal to the Pope for him to verify and authenticate the miracle. The stained corporal is encased in a reliquary in one of the side chapels of the duomo. 

The colorful facade of this gothic cathedral contains many works of art with colored mosaics, statues, a rose window and base relief sculptures of biblical scenes. In addition to the chapel with the relic of the corporal there is another chapel which contains beautiful frescoes of the Last Judgement started by Fra Angelico. This chapel predates Michelangelo and his idea for the Last Judgement at the Sistine Chapel. There is also a beautiful marble carving of the Pieta by Scalsa which is similar to Michelangelo's Pieta in St. Peter's. With its 5575 pipes, the church also holds one of the largest organs in Italy. It is also important to note the large marble baptistery at the side entrance to the church.  After some free time to further explore the town and cathedral we returned to the bus for the two hour ride to our final destination of the day - Rome. We arrived at the Hotel Palatino in time for dinner and a good night's rest before a very full day tomorrow.  

Day 2 - October 6, 2016

We began our day with Mass in the Church of San Damiano.  It was while praying before the crucifix in this church in 1206 that Francis heard the Lord speak to him:  "Go Francis and repair my house, which as you can see is falling into ruin."  Francis rebuilt the walls and renewed this church building, but in time would come to know that he had been called by the Lord to renew the entire Church.   The Church of San Damiano became the dwelling place of Clare and the other sisters called "Poor Clares". It was also in this church that Francis, in 1225, wrote the Canticle of the Creatures, a hymn of thanksgiving to God revealing Francis' brotherly love with all creation. 

We took taxis up the hill from San Damiano to visit the Basilica of St. Clare which was built in 1257.  The interior church is plain and bare with fragments of the original frescoes.  A chapel contains the original crucifix which spoke to St. Francis at the beginning of his conversion. A crypt below the main altar holds the remains of St. Clare. Like Francis Clare was born into a noble family in Assisi. In 1212 she fled from her family to join Francis who cut her hair and gave her a Franciscan habit to wear as she devoted herself to a life of penance. 

After the death of Francis his followers carried his body to the little church of St. George where it remained until the construction of the Basilica of St. Francis was completed some years later. In 1228 Francis was solemnly canonized and the following day Pope Gregory IX laid the first stone for the basilica. The plan of the building joined the ideals of poverty which Francis preached with the need to offer hospitality to the many pilgrims who would come to venerate the saint. The lower church leads to the crypt where Francis and four of his most devoted companions are buried.  The upper church has been the gathering place for religious meetings and services throughout the centuries. The walls of the basilica are decorated with frescoes from the most famous artists of the 13th century including Cimabue and Giotto. 

After lunch we visited Rivotorto and the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels.  Rivotorto is s church built on the plain below Assisi over the "sacred hut" in which Francis and the friars first lived and where Francis dictated the first rule. Francis and the brothers decided here to live the Gospel radically and in complete poverty.  The construction consisted of a hovel with a roof made out of branches. Around 1211 as the number of brothers grew, they moved to the Porziuncola a few kilometers away. The church of Rivotorto was built in 1854 over the ruins of a 16th century church destroyed in an earthquake. 

Construction of  Santa Maria degli  Angeli began in 1569 but the church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1832. Rebuilt by the early 20th century, this large church houses the Porziuncola, the most precious treasure of Franciscan spirituality. It was in this small abandoned church where Francis finally understood his vocation. Here Francis held the first Chapters which were general meetings of the brothers and from the Porziuncola he sent his followers forth as missionaries of peace. 

After visiting these five sanctuaries we returned to the hotel for dinner followed by our last evening strolls around this holy city of St. Francis.

Day 1 - October 5, 2016

At the end of our overnight flight from Boston on Alitalia we landed in Rome shortly after 12 noon. After navigating through customs and baggage claim, we met our tour guide, Vincenzo, who led us to our motorcoach. We enjoyed a quiet 2-hour ride to Assisi. We enjoyed seeing the landscape of Umbria with its rolling hills and fields as we made our way to the medieval hillside town of Assisi. 

During the 12th and 13th centuries Assisi built its churches, public buildings, towers and walls bringing in the most famous architects and painters of the time. This is the Assisi that we will see with our eyes over the next two days. But the spirit of this town can be found primarily in the great saint of Assisi - Francis.  One thinks of simplicity and peace when St. Francis is named. He presented to the world a new and radical way to live the Christian life.  He founded a new religious order that embraced his teachings and way of life.  His friend Clare joined him and founded a community of women.  Tomorrow we will visit the Basilicas of St. Francis and St. Clare. But this evening we settled in our rooms at the Hotel Fontebella and enjoyed our first meal together in Italy. What a great way for one of the pilgrims - Bev Randazzo - to celebrate her birthday.