Some months ago, I had heard Catholic Answers mention an upcoming pilgrimage to Rome. I figured this would be a wonderful opportunity to visit there. When I was in the Navy, I had visited various ports in Italy, but never made it to Rome. I would have been interested in the ancient ambiance of Rome, but not the churches there at all. Being an admitted Catholic Answers fan-boy, the thought of going on pilgrimage with Chris Check, Cy Kellitt, and Joe Heschmeyer, along with fellow CA fans, was quite enticing.
Having recently returned from this pilgrimage, it exceeded my high expectations and hopes. I like the idea of travelling, but don’t enjoy having to plan everything out such as what to visit and the scheduling involved.
Their itinerary and destinations impressed me with their careful planning. It’s important to strike a delicate balance between visiting well-known churches and ones that are less popular but still significant. There was a lot of walking involved, along with taking a group bus to some destinations. The Hotel Forum, where we stayed, had an ideal central location adjacent to the Roman Forum. The beauty and atmosphere of this hotel added to the experience.
When I had first seen the itinerary, I did not realize that we would have mass each day as a group at the side chapels of the churches visited. Somehow, I imagined we would attend the parish masses. Obviously, I had not thought about this deeply since many of these locations were not parishes. It was a pleasant surprise to hear Mass as a group in so many beautiful side chapels. We were there, not just to wonder at the beauty and to absorb the history of these churches, but to pray and worship God.
In part, this is easier said than done. So much of what I saw was overwhelming, with so much to absorb. I tended towards gawking at first with feeble attempts at prayer while doing so. It took me a couple of days to have some balance and not to waste this opportunity for prayer. Even if it was the distracted prayer, part and parcel of the human condition. I found the awe-inspiring beauty would almost shame me into prayer.
The historic aspects of what I was seeing were also daunting, I have a tendency to atomize history as a collection of facts, not usually coherent with other collections of facts that occurred around the same time. What I had read about the history of the Church and Western Civilization had no real concreteness in my mind, it was just data. Seeing this in person anchored me more into this history. Witnessing the various relics and bodies of the saints brought this home to me even more.
Some years ago, I had seen a picture of the reliquary with the skull of one of the St. Valentine’s. I would tongue-in-cheek post this on social media with the caption “Happy Valentine’s Day!” Seeing this reliquary in person on a side altar was another story. That this is something real and not just a piece of history or a character from a story. I would experience and repeat this reaction multiple times on this pilgrimage. For example, when visiting the Necropolis with the bones of St. Peter under the Vatican Basilica. I knew in some detail the intricate story of the finding of these bones during the reign of Pius XII, but going on the Scavi tour connected me to the start of the Church that just book-reading could not do.
I will also only briefly touch on the masterpieces of art that we saw and how seeing them in the context of their surroundings is so different than seeing them in a coffee table book. I was not prepared to see Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” in person. We had just had mass in the same church it is in when we walked over to see it. I had seen representations of this statue in so many Carmelite books, but I was kind of in a daze, seeing it in person. This presentation of the transverberation is so striking (pun intended as always).
I am trying to give only general impressions here and not to describe every church we visited and the impact they all had on me and the various levels of reaction I had. This was a pilgrimage primarily ordered towards visiting the churches of Rome and not the various major tourists sights. We walked by some of these and they were discussed, such as the Colosseum (really amphitheater, as Chris Check would remind us.) The organizers designed the pilgrimage with enough time to visit such sights as we desired.
I have nothing but acclaim for the staff of Catholic Answers and the work they did to set this up. Most days, as part of the package, we would all eat together for lunch or dinner with other meals on our own. Although many of us would also group for these meals. I expected I would enjoy meeting and conversing with other people on this pilgrimage. Those whose lives were changed for the good because of the mission of Catholic Answers. I heard a lot of significant stories regarding how CA affected them and their families. This was such an important part of the pilgrimage as we got to know each other. The conversations were both good and knowledgeable. These are people well-aware of the challenges facing the Church who are also aware of the joy of being a disciple of Christ. There were serious conversations, but not rants.
In day-to-day life, I am rather isolated. I work from home and my daily visits to my parish usually involve very little conversation. To discuss church history, theology, philosophy, etc, is quite the treat for me. Finding the various depths of knowledge among them was a delight. Although, my self-ego reaction is subsequently wanting to study more since my areas of knowledge are often only skin-deep. Seriously, I would pay to go on a pilgrimage just to be with such people. I suspected I would really enjoy being able to spend some time with Joe Heschmeyer, despite his being funnier and smarter than me. I could easily be a Heschmeyer-groupie (hopefully not in a cringe way).
In short, if you ever can go on a Catholic Answers pilgrimage, I would fully suggest you do, especially their Rome pilgrimage. Chris Check has so much insight on the history of Rome and the churches we visited. I also have a lot of praise for our tour director Angela, which CA had requested because of their previous experience with her professionalism. Also our guide, Elena, who was a hoot!
I wish I was a skilled enough writer to convey what I experienced, the group comradery, and how well thought-out and executed this pilgrimage was.
One last note. From the stories I heard from others, it is a salutary reminder that evangelization and helping others in the joy of finding Jesus in the fullness of the Church is something we all take part in.