Every time I travel to Rome my faith is energized. Bishop Donald Hying, Frs. James Lobacz and Matthew Widder and I accompanied 60 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for the canonization of SS. John XXIII and John Paul II.
These two individuals were tremendously popular figures in the 20th century. Their impact on the church and their influence in the world will long be remembered. Being in Rome, we also witnessed firsthand the popularity of Pope Francis.
On Wednesday we attended a papal audience. Even though we were in reserved seating, we arrived at 5 a.m., waited for three hours before the gates opened, and then an additional two hours before the audience began. More than 100,000 people crowded in and beyond St. Peter’s Square in order to glimpse the pontiff.
We were blessed by the Holy Spirit as two members of our group were selected to be presented to Pope Francis for a blessing in the audience hall. We all cheered as Bruno and Mona Henke were shown on the large viewing screen being touched by Pope Francis. In a special way, we were all connected to the pope through them.
As he made his way through the crowd in his popemobile, we received a larger-than-life view of this pope who uses St. Francis as a model for his personal life.
We experienced the church universal as a multitude of languages were used to translate the pope’s address in which he emphasized the resurrected Jesus who lives for us and now we must live for him.
Pilgrims are always on the move as the nature of a pilgrimage is a spiritual journey. We packed and moved so we might have a different spiritual experience in as many sites as possible.
Every day we celebrated Mass. This pilgrimage was in honor of the new saints so this was a time of unique spiritual favor and we wanted to take advantage of this spiritual environment. Prayers were offered for the archdiocese, the Archdiocesan Synod, parishes and the personal petitions of those living and dead.
In Florence, one of the birthplaces of the Renaissance, we saw artwork that reflected the beauty of God in the lives of figures of Sacred Scripture which adorned the churches. We viewed what some maintain is Michelangelo’s greatest work, “David.”
God used the artist to depict the beauty of his creation. The depiction of man’s dignity found through the creator is evident in “David.”
At Santa Croce, we visited the tombs of some of the great figures of the Middle Ages. We then made our way to Assisi, the home of St. Francis and St. Clare.
The peaceful countryside surroundings were a sharp contrast to Florence. We quickly entered the world of St. Francis, recognizing his simple life, attraction for God’s creation and compassion for the poor.
We celebrated Mass in the Chapel of Peace whose celebrant chairs were marked with the coat of arms of St. John Paul II. Every site we visited was filled with pilgrims.
I was told the amount of visitors equaled the number who come to the holy sites in the height of the summer season. After paying our respects at the tombs of SS. Francis and Clare, we travelled again to Rome to visit the major basilicas.
Joined by Fr. John Paul Mitchell and Deacon Nathan Miniatt, we offered Mass at St. Mary Major in one of the side chapels that would be larger than most churches in the United States.
The day of the canonization generated crowds that, like us, wanted to be present for the spiritual significance of the moment. Pope Francis was very solemn reflecting the mood. Two individuals would be now declared saints. It doesn’t get any better.
In the afternoon, at the Pontifical North American College, we were joined by our seminarians, John Baumgardner and Michael Steger, who gave us a tour, including spectacular views of Rome from the roof of the seminary.
We then celebrated Mass in honor of the new saints. Fr. Mitchell preached and Deacons John Gibson and Miniatt assisted. We were also joined by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who told us about his experience of St. John Paul and spent time socializing with the group.
We took a special tour of the Vatican Museum with a religious sister, experiencing evangelization through the beauty of the church’s art.
Milwaukee native Cardinal James M. Harvey escorted us into the Basilica of St. Peter. The enormous size of this largest church in all of Christendom is amazing. We prayed at the tomb of St. Peter as the bodies of the newest saints were present for veneration. Tens of thousands offered their prayers.
At St. Paul Outside the Walls, Cardinal Harvey celebrated Mass for the pilgrims and reflected on the lives of the new saints and their relationship to the Basilica of St. Paul. We ended our pilgrimage at an Italian restaurant with pasta, wine and song.
Spirituality can be fun. It’s the residual effect of drawing close to God.
Returning home we have the Archdiocesan Synod before us, Pentecost Sunday. The Friday before the Synod, we will offer our archdiocesan tribute to St. John XXIII, depicted in a statue located next to the eucharistic chapel, and St. John Paul II, represented by me, a John Paul II bishop, in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy.
As a church, we pray the inspiration of these great leaders will lead us closer to holiness and that our synod will reflect our dedication as a church to live the Gospel message.
The goal of every Christian should be to become a saint. St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II, pray for us.