By Richard Meek
The Catholic Commentator
Initial excitement was quickly doused with a healthy dose of doubt when presented with an idea that would certainly remove me from my comfort zone.
Nearly a year ago, a reporter suggested I go on a pilgrimage to Italy that was being organized at the time. Naturally, I understood her motive: let’s get the old curmudgeon out of the office for 10 days.
And who could blame her? I sometimes wish I could take a week off from me.
But a pilgrimage?
I have certainly had friends or written stories about people who hopscotch around the world on pilgrimages, from the Holy Land to Italy to Fatima. And their experiences, although positive, always left me questioning if I would be comfortable on such a venture.
I’ve previously been on vacation with priest friends but those would not qualify as a pilgrimage. And my idea of a pilgrimage is playing golf at St. Andrew’s or Carnoustie during the day and sharing a pint in an English pub at night.
So uncertainty was like a vice in the decision-making process but who could resist a trip that promises pasta at every meal?
The group poses for a photo in front of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran Church in Rome. Although the majority of the pilgrims were from the Diocese of Baton Rouge, some came from as far away as Lafitte, Maryland and Florida.
Armed with a suitcase full of trepidation and a pocketful of something called Euros (which were rejected at my local pub upon return), I recently boarded a plane for the first step of a long journey that would include nearly 10 hours cramped in a steel cylinder at 35,000 feet.
But I knew I was in for something special when near the end of the flight I glanced out of the window and saw the Alps, their peaks proudly beaming with a winter snow. Even cramped in my tiny seat, I knew such a beautiful sight was an early morning gift from God, a token to allay my own fears even as my cramping legs bellowed their complaints.
Upon arrival in Rome, myself and 60 pilgrims boarded a bus and went straight to Assisi, with a short stop for lunch where a ham po-boy took on a different meaning. And forget about asking for the sandwich to be “dressed,” but we already know not to make that request north of I-10 anyway.
We first toured Assisi, learning about St. Francis of Assisi and visiting historic sites where he lived, ate, prayed and even slept, using a rock for a pillow. His simplicity of life, his disdain for material possessions, his giving away his own fortunes was inspirational and caused uncomfortable self-evaluations barely 36 hours into the trip.
I knew I was venturing into unchartered spiritual waters that would require some equally uncomfortable answers.
Assisi was stunning in its beauty, intimate in its quaintness – a place that cries for a return visit.
It was then on to Florence for a brief visit before traveling back to Rome, where visits to the Coliseum and other ancient ruins followed. Contrary to what many of my younger colleagues and friends believe, I did not actually cover the gladiators, but what a great feeling to walk in the footsteps of Julius Cesar.
Friends have often expressed that in their experiences there comes a spiritually-defining moment in every pilgrimage when God taps deep into the recesses of one’s heart. For the first few days I wondered if perhaps my own heart was too crusty for even God to penetrate.
Forty years a journalist will do that. Or so I thought, but God had other ideas.
For me, that moment came quickly and unexpectedly at the tomb of St. Peter. Early that morning, Father Jamin David, pastor at St. Margaret Church in Albany and the spiritual director for the pilgrimage, had celebrated Mass at the tomb of St. Peter, and following Mass I was able to spend a few moments in silent prayer.
Without warning, my eyes were awash in tears, a tsunami of emotions piercing my heart as I realized, just yards away was, to borrow a sports reference, “The Guy.” Here was the first Vicar of Christ, the man who walked with our Lord, the man who would deny our savior, as we all do in sin, only to repent and be cloaked in God’s mercy, a promise that the Lord offers to us all.
The Gospel reference, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church” reverberated through my psyche and prayer.
From that point, the pilgrimage was viewed through a different prism. Although the Vatican, especially the Sistine Chapel and the many surrounding churches were breathtaking, seeing the tomb of St. Peter brought to life the Gospel message and created many vexing moments in my own heart, questioning how was I living out that message in my own life, what type of example was I setting, was Christ proud of me or viewing me with disdain because of my own sins.
The Coliseum in Rome dates back 2,000 years and towers over the skyline in ancient Rome.
Praying at St. Peter’s tomb made me realize that our faith is not about stunningly beautiful frescos and churches on nearly every corner. Certainly, they enhance our own prayerful experiences and their beauty is to be admired and appreciated, but the message for me was that our faith is lived through our personal relationship with Christ. How do we love him, how do we try to emulate him in our words, thoughts and actions? And how do we not allow our cultural, societal and worldly distractions to disrupt our prayer life? By the way, I’m still working on that one.
And do I have the same love of God as that of St. Peter, who paid the ultimate price for being an apostle of Christ?
As the week passed, I also realized that God’s hand was in the timing of the pilgrimage. The church is enduring difficult times, and being a member of the Catholic media, although an amazing journey and greatly rewarding most of the time, has had its share of challenges lately.
Like so many other Catholics, my faith has clearly been tested. But being at the tomb of St. Peter, knowing whose presence I was in, reenergized the commitment I have to a church I love so much, warts and all.
More importantly, the experience renewed my own love of Christ, the one person I know I can trust, the one person who awaits us with welcoming arms, no matter our sin, no matter our transgressions.
Before the trip there was some anxiety about spending 10 days and nights with 60 people, the overwhelming majority I did not know. But equally as rewarding as the renewal of my faith life were the friendships that developed, the meals we shared, even the vino we sampled. You guys will forever hold a special place in my memories.
To top it off, one couple even got engaged while in Rome, casting an unexpected glow over the entire group and even offering hope to those of us still searching as we advance in years.
For now, St. Andrews can wait.