To be sure, it was a special one — the pilgrimage we just completed to holy sites in Italy (a bunch of them).
On the very first day, we went to the general audience with the Pope, where four of our pilgrims had the unusual thrill of shaking hands with the Pontiff. (Two were in wheelchairs, and the two relatives had pushed them to the stage, where those with disabilities get a special blessing).
Our most capable guide, Federica Pontesilli, planted us as close as possible.
Few could forget the Mass our group had in the crypt basement, where a window behind the altar allowed us to view the tomb area of Saint Peter as our priest celebrated the liturgy.
Incredibly, during his homily — and unseen by him, because he was facing us — we watched through that window as dozens of bishops passed one by one in front of the tomb, reverencing it as they filed up for a meeting of recently ordained prelates from all corners of the globe.
It was surreal; at least sixty or seventy passed before our mesmerized eyes.
We visited other basilicas and churches, and a special experience for many was the “purgatory museum” and church, where a side room hosts artifacts (several of them handprints burned into a desk or clothes) said to have been left by purgatorial souls in search of prayers.
Potent it was to feel the grace as one prayed for the deceased.
Some found this to be the most anointed stop in Rome.
We next stopped at Monte Cassino, where Saint Benedict established his order and where the great saint died.
I had brought along a T-shirt I like, because it’s Catholic, but forgot what was on the back of it, when I put it on that day!
Little things like that indicate that God is orchestrating things.
And the sun made itself known in interesting ways throughout the trip.
Yes, reflection, refraction, time of day, and lens flare, perhaps, but not all the time: the poignancy and timing argued against that.
Sometimes, you have to be there, “in the moment.” God can speak to us in a sunrise, in an unexpected phone call, in words uttered during Confession.
We went on to San Giovanni Rotundo, where the most powerful feelings yet were felt by certain pilgrims (everyone has his or her experiences), and where we viewed the old church,
one of Saint Pio’s confessionals,
his cell, where he died,
and the massive new church, where we filed past his body.
You could feel his presence. It had been more than thirty years since I last visited, and I couldn’t believe how the town had grown, with now dozens of additional hotels and this church that seats 6,000! (There is also now a massive square.)
Padre Pio is now as prevalent in Italy as Saint Francis, his images everywhere.
We noted also how equally present were images of the great Michael, including above the Crucifix where an angel appeared, giving Pio the stigmata,
and above the very altar at the old church there.
It’s the same image we have used since the very beginning at the bottom of the front page of Spirit Daily!
And just thirty minutes away is the incredible cave of the archangel, the only church that is considered consecrated without human agency (by Michael himself!).
There were other stops — the eucharistic miracle of Lanciano, and Gubbio, where Saint Francis tamed the wolf. And of course Assisi itself, which is a tremendous place. We found ourselves here on September 11 with the priest with whom I spent that dreadful day, stranded for nearly a week afterward in Salt Lake City, where I’d spoken at church (learning there that a very close friend had died in the South Tower).
In Assisi, we learned from a guide that there was a new memorial for 9/11 — and after a long search, through hundreds of names, found that of my friend (on September 11!).
We’d never been to La Verna, which is where Saint Francis received his stigmata, and which — way high on a mountain — is about an hour and a half away, well worth the trip, for this too was surreal, as monks proceeded by, chanting, a Cross stood at the summit, bells rang, and one was able to touch the very spot of stigmata.
In Assisi, we also prayed before the somewhat incorrupt body of Blessed Carlos Acutis.
After the pilgrimage, we took a side trip to Sicily to visit the homeland of my grandparents (San Pier Niceto), where, at a roadside grotto, on a path my grandfather almost certainly traversed as a boy, we prayed a Rosary for the family lineage. Great power in doing that!
In a place called Taormina, the sun outdid itself, causing what looked like sparks to burst forth from the Mediterranean.
In the old city of Noto — a truly hidden gem, replete with spectacular Renaissance structures and huge churches and a cathedral — we were surprised at the explosion of graces in front of an image of Jesus at Saint Charles Borromeo, an image that, as one prayed, seemed to shift, flicker, and otherwise move, while at a church dedicated to Saint Clare, the sun, bursting through a window above it (as often happened on this trip) refused the limits normally ascribed.
In Siracusa we were able to get right up to an image of Mary that wept in the 1950s — the only weeping Madonna ever formally approved by the Vatican.
At Catania, the night before leaving Sicily, we just happened upon a small church and opening the door, were greeted by the Blessed Sacrament — radiant as the sun.
–Michael and Lisa Brown
[Our group was nothing short of terrific, as was the pilgrim company, 206 Tours, headed by Milanka Lackmann, a devout woman who has sent hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to various places in the past forty years]
On to the Holy Land (God willing).