A pilgrimage full of blessings
The Pittsburgh Catholic's journey of faith in Italy
By William Cone
The reasons for going on the Pittsburgh Catholic's pilgrimage to Italy were many and varied among the more than 160 people who participated Oct. 7-17.
Some went to celebrate an anniversary or another family milestone. Most were motivated by a desire to draw closer to God and the church. A few were just expecting to have fun and see some incredible sights.
But they all came back with a feeling that they had experienced something special with Bishop David Zubik, their spiritual director on the journey.
Susan Smith, a CCD teacher at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Butler, said the journey was an awesome experience.
"I think it was a life-changing experience, I really do. It shows me the need for more spirituality in our world, and it's up to us. It's got to change one person at a time. We've got to reverse the trend," she said.
The pilgrimage included five nights in Rome, two in Assisi, one in Florence and another night in Rome before flying back home. A group of more than 30 pilgrims chose to extend their trip with another night in Florence, lunch in Bologna, Mass and two nights in Padua, and a tour of Venice before flying home Oct. 19.
Their busy schedule, with lots of walking and stair-climbing, amounted to intense exercise for the travelers.
Smith said Bishop Zubik recently came to her parish, "and when I was going through the line and shook his hand, I said, 'I'm going to Rome with you.' And he looked at me and said, 'Get good walking shoes.'"
John Flaherty, who is diocesan secretary for parish life and served as a bus captain on the pilgrimage, said, "For as many people as we had, the fact that nobody got seriously ill, nobody got injured and nobody got lost" was a blessing.
The following are highlights of the pilgrimage:
Oct. 8: After arriving in Rome, the four busloads of travelers visited the famed Spanish Steps, the ancient Pantheon and popular Trevi Fountain. They celebrated Mass in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, where St. Paul's remains are venerated.
The homilies at the pilgrimage Masses were delivered by Bishop Zubik or one of the priests serving as chaplains on the trip: Fathers Jack Batykefer, Kim Schreck, Nicholas Vaskov and Brian Welding.
Oct. 9: A day for ancient Rome, including the Coliseum, Roman Forum, Capitoline Hill and a tour of the catacombs of St. Calistus, near the ancient Appian Way. Afterward, the Pittsburgh group celebrated Mass at a church dedicated to St. Tarcisius, a young martyr who is patron saint of altar servers. His relics are contained in a box in the new church, which was dedicated in May this year and is maintained by a Salesian religious community.
Oct. 10: The pilgrims' first encounter with Pope Benedict XVI at the Wednesday audience in St. Peter's Square, with an estimated 20,000 in attendance.
The afternoon featured Mass in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and visits to the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the pope's cathedral, and the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. They saw the Scala Santa, or Holy Stairs (believed to be walked upon by Jesus), which hundreds ascend every day on their knees while praying, and the Sancta Sanctorum, the private chapel of the popes during the Middle Ages.
Oct. 11: The Pittsburghers participated in the opening Mass of the Year of Faith, recalling the 1962 opening of the Second Vatican Council. The pilgrims later toured the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica, where Michelangelo's "Pieta," the tomb of Blessed Pope John Paul II and the body of Blessed Pope John XXIII are displayed.
Oct. 12: The day began with an early morning Mass in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Hungarians in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica. Concelebrating the Mass were priests who are concluding their studies in Rome, including Fathers Tom Kunz, Fred Gruber and Michael Sedor. Some travelers chose a short trip to visit ancient gardens in Tivoli; others took a guided tour of Pompeii and Naples. Still others decided to meander on their own or rest up for the remainder of the pilgrimage.
In keeping with the spirit of pilgrimage, the group took almost every opportunity to pray the Liturgy of the Hours on their bus, led by a priest or Bishop Zubik.
Oct. 13: On the way to Assisi, the pilgrims stopped at the hilltop town of Orvieto, which is reached by a funicular, a tram that moves visitors up and down the mountain. They celebrated Mass in the Cathedral of Orvieto, and Bishop Zubik and the Pittsburgh Catholic hosted a surprise luncheon at a nearby restaurant.
Following another bus ride, the contingent from Pittsburgh arrived in Assisi at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels), which houses the Porziuncola "little portion" church of St. Francis.
Oct. 14: With an elevation of 1,300 feet, incredible vistas are everywhere in Assisi. The group visited the Basilica of St. Francis, which is perched on the side of Mount Subasio. The large church features frescoes by Italian artist Giotto, chapels of various sizes and the tomb of St. Francis, which attracts throngs of people who come to see, touch and pray.
Rita Flaherty, who works as diocesan assistance coordinator and served as a bus captain, said, "Assisi for me was the more contemplative, reflective place to be after being in Rome."
Also visited was the Basilica of St. Clare, dedicated to the saint who desired to imitate Francis. The pilgrims traveled a short distance to the Church of San Damiano (St. Damian), which is where Francis heard Christ on the crucifix speak to him: "Francis, repair my church." The Pittsburghers then returned to the lower church of the Basilica of St. Francis (the altar is directly above the saint's tomb) for Sunday Mass.
Oct. 15: The group left early for the Church of St. Catherine in Siena, where the saint's head has been venerated since 1383. The Pittsburghers celebrated Mass in the church. They then aimed their buses toward the region of Tuscany, stopping for lunch in a 13th-century castle (Castello di Meleto), originally owned by Benedictine monks, which serves as a hotel/spa and catering facility, along with being a working vineyard.
"It was so much to absorb. So much history, significance and meaning, and you needed moments like that, moments in Assisi and Tuscany, to try to kind of let it filter through and settle in and really absorb it, because you were bombarded with so much," John Flaherty said. "And those moments were critical in the whole process."
Next was Florence and a farewell gala for the pilgrims in a palace that belonged to the powerful Borghese family.
The final day of activities for the pilgrims featured a walk to the Accademia Galleria in Florence's San Marco district where Michelangelo's masterpiece depiction of the biblical hero "David" is on display. The pilgrims then headed for Mass at the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (St. Mary of the Flower), which is the cathedral of Florence.
During each of the pilgrimage Masses, Bishop Zubik called up couples who were marking wedding anniversaries on the trip for a special blessing. At the final Mass, he blessed them all, along with any religious articles the pilgrims had bought after their earlier encounters with Pope Benedict.
John and Roseann Farkasovsky, members of Madonna del Castello Parish in Swissvale who received the bishop's blessing during the Mass in Siena, said it was extra-special since Roseann's middle name is Catherine and her confirmation name is Teresa, whose feast day (St. Teresa of Jesus) was celebrated that day.
"So it was all these happy coincidences coming together, and it made me want to learn more about the saints that I've kind of known about all my life," Roseann said.
Most of the group then boarded buses for a ride to a hotel near Rome's Leonardo da Vinci International Airport.
At the Philadelphia airport on the way home Oct. 17, Bishop Zubik summed up his thoughts on the pilgrimage:
"There were so many high points. Clearly, one can only stand in awe of our Holy Father and how privileged we were to be there for both the public audience on one day and the very next day to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council.
"But then to be able to go to so many places where our ancestors in the faith have laid the foundation for our own church: to be in the catacombs, to be in the four major basilicas of Rome, to stop in churches that were both very large and very small, yet to be able to celebrate our faith.
"So by and large, the whole experience of being with these wonderful people was really the high point for me."
To view a blog that was written during the trip, which contains many details about the pilgrims' adventures, go to the diocesan website (www.diopitt.org) and click on "Italy Pilgrimage Blog."