A tourist goes to foreign lands in order to see new things; a pilgrim travels to become new. Because every person is unique, every pilgrimage has a different effect on the traveler. Allow me to offer a very personal “take” on my recent journey to the Roman threshold of the apostolic tombs with the bishops of Region VII (Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin).
Last month was my sixth such trip over the 32-plus years since being ordained an auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese in 1979. It probably will be my last. They occur, as you may know, approximately every five years, though the Holy Father’s health and commitments can occasion changes in the schedule. In successive years bishops come from all parts of the world.
The primary purpose of the trip is to pray at the tombs of SS. Peter and Paul, and to renew one’s sense of personal responsibility for handing on the faith of the Apostles. We did that together. As you have seen from the photographs published earlier in this paper, we had the opportunity for a personal visit with the Holy Father, who invited comments and concerns about the pastoral life of our respective local churches.
Each visit over the past three decades left me suddenly conscious of something new in Rome that year. Once it was the abundance of Japanese pilgrim/tourists and the frequency of banking hours written in Japanese. Another year I suddenly noticed women serving as traffic police and cab drivers.
On yet another visit I noted (and sampled) an abundance of restaurants offering pasta dishes made of gorgonzola cheese. This time it was the frequency of middle aged Italian joggers (men and women), the presence of uniformed women employed as sanitation workers and the enormous increase of small automobiles, often double-parked and endlessly clogging the streets. There were also young Asian visitors everywhere, doggedly reading their maps and guide books.
A return visit to the pre-eminent ancient major basilicas is always very moving for me. St. Peter’s, for all its historic majesty and spacious beauty, is akin to the Holy Father’s private chapel. It is really the Cathedral Church of St. John Lateran across town which boasts of the symbolic episcopal chair of Peter’s successor.
Archbishop Listecki presided at our Mass at Saint Mary Major where I had celebrated my first Mass of Thanksgiving more than 52 years earlier. St. Paul’s Outside the Walls was frightfully cold and, as a result, the prescribed recitation of the Apostles’ Creed was not perfunctory, but definitely not prolonged either! (Archbishop Listecki thoughtfully provided pocket sized cards with the proper wording of that creed since he remembered how we had all stumbled, intermingling the words of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds last time.)
One can’t visit the Eternal City without a vivid sense of the saints and sinners who have crossed paths over the centuries there. Tombs of famous personages crowd virtually every side chapel, and history comes alive for anyone willing to pop into a neighborhood church and take a leisurely walk to and from the altar of the Blessed Sacrament.
The names of notoriously sinful and self aggrandizing medieval church leaders are sometimes emblazoned on the facades of churches. The tombs of great artists can be found everywhere.
Once again the visits to the curial congregations were mixed. By that I mean that the conversations regarding the new evangelization, exploring signs of heroic sanctity among God’s holy people, ecumenism and the selection of bishops were open and thoughtful. Others were less satisfying.
Each age seems to have its own sins and its own triumphs of God’s generous grace.
I never fail to pause in renewed wonderment when I stand on the large purple marble porphyry circle just inside the huge front door of St. Peter’s, and recall that Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on that very spot on Christmas 800 A.D.
In good times and more difficult ones, sometimes under the duress of persecution or in foolishly triumphant political domination, the church has plodded along. They celebrated the sacraments first in Aramaic, then in Greek, followed by Latin and now most recently in all the languages of the world. With St. Paul each generation has said, “I handed on what I myself had received …” (I Cor15:3ff). They all struggled with God’s call to holiness and with the graces given by God to achieve that destiny.
Catholicity, with its full embrace of the truth of the Incarnation, is found on every street corner. This year a wonderful group of local pilgrims joined us and were present for the ceremony “creating” – the formal word for the event – our own Cardinal Dolan for service to the church and its mission, shedding blood if need be.
Ancient icons of great beauty were partnered with more modern and sometimes less striking images of popular piety. Mistakes abound, but the struggling transforming power of the Holy Spirit and the Presence of the Risen Lord abound even more. A new sense of devotion to the Scriptures fills the city. I always come away, humbled by personal unworthiness and shortcomings, but proud to be Catholic.
Lent is a good time for one’s faith to come alive in a new way, even with all the warts of our age!