A pilgrim’s tale of Italy

By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
The Pilgrimage to Italy, which included Assisi, Florence, Venice and Rome, had all of the earmarks of the esteemed tradition of setting out as pilgrims on a spiritual journey. The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy was the inspiration for us, the 27 pilgrims, most from the Diocese of Jackson, who undertook this adventure to the Holy Shrines across Italy.
The beloved churches and chapels along the way were always the focus of each day’s destination where the celebration of the Eucharist established our identities as more than tourists, but truly pilgrims. The Mass was an experience of communion with many of the faithful who have journeyed before us for nearly two thousand years in some cases.  At each site our families and spiritual families were always in our hearts and minds around the altar of the Lord.
Upon landing in Rome we traveled by bus to Assisi where we ambled through that beautiful hillside town whence Saint Francis burst forth to rebuild God’s Church.  We celebrated Mass in a small chapel in the Franciscan Monastery, an intimate sacred space that set us on the path of pilgrimage. Although there is never enough time to savor such an awe inspiring town and countryside, we were spiritually marked and set out for Florence.
En route, we began another great pattern, that is to sit at table with one another and savor our first Italian feast in the Tuscan countryside. Many delicious meals followed throughout the journey. The next day we awoke in Florence, the cultural epicenter of the Renaissance, a marketplace of architecture, marble sculptures and floors, frescoes, paintings and a wonderful maze of winding streets and alleys. The spirit of renewal, sacred and secular, that embraced the Mediterranean world in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, enveloped us in our day-long visit. We celebrated the Eucharist in a side chapel in the Cathedral (Duomo) of Saint Mary of the Flower, one of many churches built in her honor throughout Italy.
Continuing north we journeyed to Venice where we spent a full day in this most unique city.  Although we did not celebrate Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Mark we had the opportunity to appreciate it’s majesty from within and without, as well as the tradition that holds that the remains of Saint Mark were sequestered out of Egypt and properly housed in their rightful sacred location. Later in the day we celebrated Mass in the Church of Saint John the Baptist, just off the piazza, because there was a celebration of Confirmation in Saint Mark’s Cathedral.
We had reached our outer limits geographically and by Sunday noon we were in the eternal city to enter into the heart of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. Mary Major, the Cathedral of St. John Lateran, and St. Peter’s Basilica are designated as the four churches at which one enters through the Holy Door of Mercy.
Complimented by a visit to the Catacombs, we passed through the first Holy Door at St. Paul’s where we also celebrated the Sunday Eucharist, so mindful that which St. Paul “received from the Lord” he handed on to the church. In total we spend four days in Rome, from Sunday through Wednesday, before returning home on Thursday. If I were to write down everything we experienced and viewed, it would take ten columns. Each religious site and historical landmark built upon the previous like a dazzling work of art that can be viewed from many perspectives.
From Saint Paul’s we next entered the Holy Door of Saint Mary Major and celebrated Mass in one of her resplendent side chapels. Here we took our group photo which will be a special keepsake for each of the pilgrims. The Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the mother church of all Christendom, certainly the Catholic world, was the the third Holy Door of Mercy on the pilgrimage.
It has a glorious history that goes back to the Emperor Constantine, and now sits majestically with doors open to all pilgrims and tourists from around the world, the Cathedral of the Holy Father in Rome. Our final Holy Door of Mercy for our pilgrimage was Saint Peter’s Basilica.
We did not celebrate Mass in the largest church in the Christian world, but we patiently wound our way through the corridors leading into the Sistine Chapel and finally into the interior of this basilica which could house any of the other three churches within its cavernous space. It  is home to the remains of St. Peter whose tomb sits below the center of Michaelangelo’s Dome under the Main Altar.
The crowning moment of our pilgrimage was the Wednesday audience with Pope Frances in St. Peter’s Square with more than 50,000 pilgrims who came to celebrate our faith in Jesus Christ with the Successor of St. Peter. Once again the day was balmy with a temp of 70 degrees and bright morning sunshine.
I was robed in cassock and therefore whisked to the seats for bishops that are just off the platform from where the pope delivers his message. I was feeling a bit guilty that my fellow pilgrims could not accompany me, but they had great seats which allowed them to take close up and personal photos of Pope Francis as he passed by in the pope mobile.
Naturally, the pope’s message was an inspiring reflection on the passage from Luke’s Gospel on the woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair.
This was translated in summary into six languages for the benefit of all of the pilgrims. The audience then concluded with the singing of the Lord’s prayer in Latin and the papal blessing. The audience lasted about one hour and afterwards, the bishops had the opportunity to approach the Pope in single file and shake his hand and greet him.
Obviously, this was a blessed encounter once again, but just as edifying was the experience of walking through the square afterwards looking for my group, (which I never found) and encountering pilgrims from just about every country in Europe. Blessings, prayers, photos – including selfies – and 45 minutes later I landed on the sidewalk outside the square to find a taxi. It was a fitting culmination to the week long pilgrimage.
I know that I speak for all of the other 26 pilgrims who undertook this spiritual adventure when I say that we were blessed in many ways, from the profound to the practical. All modes of transportation happened without a hitch.
The motor coaches were clean and comfortable; the flights were smooth and cozy enough for sardines, the weather was perfect, our guide was gracious, knowledgeable and patient, and the bus diver was skilled in navigating traffic throughout Italy and especially in Rome.
The fog of traveling over seven time zones is beginning to lift as I write this column, and we all pray that the joy of God’s Mercy will not lift anytime soon.