When in Rome: A Pilgrim’s Experiences in the Land of St. Peter
I had the pleasure and the joy of traveling to Rome in May and the beginning of June 2013. It is not at all easy to describe the power that such an experience contains for the Catholic since this city is the home and the center of the Church, the capital city of the Supreme Pontiff and the light from which One Faith shines forth to all the world. It cemented in my mind the understanding that the value of a pilgrimage to see the land of St. Peter is immense, and that one will reap many benefits from visiting such a place.
The most memorable and awe-inspiring parts of the trip were easily the visits to the grand basilicas of St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, St. Paul outside the Walls, and St. Peter’s. The first one I entered was St. John Lateran, and before that moment I had never seen anything like it. It is impossible, I think, to gain any impression of the size of these buildings from pictures on a screen; one does not know truly the power and force with which they present themselves to the eyes and mind until he steps into them. St. John Lateran was, as I expected, massive although I did not expect it to be so overwhelming.
But it was, and I enjoyed walking through it and seeing the striking works of art present there, especially those works placed over the altars. The statues of St. Peter and St. Paul in the nave offered testimony of the apostolic pedigree of the Roman Church and encouraged devotion to its two most eminent patrons. One especially impressive moment occurred when I walked into the basilica one Sunday waiting for a Mass and there was another Mass being celebrated. There I saw a man wearing what I thought was a red zucchetto. I did not recognize him, but I could tell that I had arrived in the center of the Church’s world.
Another especially striking ecclesiastical edifice was St. Paul outside the Walls, which I visited and whose courtyard area I enjoyed greatly. A prominent statue of St. Paul with sword in hand stood in the center, and the rest of the courtyard was surrounded by a colonnade. The statue called to mind the valor with which the original witnesses to Christianity stood for its truth and sought to make the glory of Christ manifest in the world and in themselves (as St. Paul said, “I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me”). Inside, the portraits of Popes that lined the walls testified to the continuity of the Church and the papal office, and the building was ornately decorated.
Of course, the greatest of all of them is St. Peter’s, which I was able to see several times. I attended some early daily Masses during the week and climbed to the top of the dome. It is so much more impressive in person than it is in a picture. I greatly enjoyed the narrative running across the top of the walls against a background of gold, in which the Latin words recalled times from St. Peter’s life like Christ’s question to him: “Do you love Me?” and his response, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” The famous commission from Matthew 16 was written on the dome as if they were words coming down from heaven and shining from above. It would be difficult to enter into that building and not be profoundly moved by the realization that St. Peter in his successors is still with us and that his line has continued unbroken for thousands of years and will continue until the end of time.
So it was especially exciting to take a tour of the area underneath St. Peter’s where, according to tradition, St. Peter’s body is buried. We were able to see various burial places of others and eventually got somewhat close (although not too close) to where St. Peter is said to be buried. I also enjoyed visiting the chapel under St. Peter’s as well as the tombs of various Popes who are buried in the area underneath the basilica.
Climbing the dome of St. Peter’s was a very interesting experience—one must first climb the stairs up from the floor level to the roof (assuming one does not take the elevator) and then go from the roof to the top of the dome. This was a strenuous task, and I was glad when I was finished and up at the top. I was surprised to see how high I really was when I came from the roof into the inside of the dome looking down on the main altar since things and people looked very small from that height.
When I continued up the dome, the area in which I was climbing tilted to accommodate the architecture of the dome, so I had to lean a bit in order to fit through the stairway. Eventually I stepped out onto the top of the dome to have a view of Rome from that great height. I could see many monuments and buildings I was used to seeing from close up, and the view of the city in general and the river winding through it would be difficult to forget.
I got to attend an audience with Pope Francis on a Wednesday. It rained off and on, sometimes rather strongly—there was a picture with the Pope on his vehicle moving around and waving to people as the crowd was under a sea of umbrellas. I noticed that the Pope seemed rather wet. He came around the square through the crowds and I managed to take some pictures of him as he came by. I thought I caught him (I don’t know Italian) congratulating us on braving the weather to come to the audience. He spoke about the Church as the family of God and how we cannot have God without the Church.
One particularly special moment of the trip was that I met Raymond Cardinal Burke, a favorite cardinal of many conservative and traditional Catholics. It was a great joy to meet with His Eminence and a consolation especially in the political atmosphere in which Catholics find themselves today since His Eminence is such a strong voice for respecting the rights of the unborn and for advocating truth and justice in society and politics.
Since we went to the Florence area as part of the trip, I visited the seminary of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, a group which is centered on traditional liturgy, and attended Sunday Mass (in the old, pre-Vatican II form) at their chapel. It was a very well done and beautiful Mass—they are especially known for their good liturgy—and I had lunch and a tour of the seminary after. I got to see the common room, classrooms, the sacristy, and other areas; the balcony afforded an excellent view of the surrounding green countryside.
One unfortunate part was that when I was trying to take the train to the seminary, I did not realize that one had to open the doors rather than wait for them to open, so I ended up staying on the train for too long and had to get off at the next stop and take another train back, which took a little while to get to the station. Thankfully, the seminarian who was going to pick me up at the train station waited for me, but the circumstance was not exactly ideal.
That is not the only problem that I had in Italy. When I was in Rome visiting St. Peter’s, I dropped my bus-and-subway month-long pass on the left side of the square and didn’t realize it until I walked all the way to the right side to try to get in the basilica. I looked around a bit on the ground and couldn’t find it, so I just gave up and went inside. I came out 20 or 30 minutes later (it was late in the day and near closing time) and found it on the ground. I was very pleased that the wind did not take it far away. Later that day I tried to get back to where I was staying but didn’t know which bus to take, so I ended up taking a random bus (which was a very bad decision) and traveling to an equally random part of Rome very far away from where I wanted to be and seemingly on the outskirts of Rome.
I tried to communicate to the bus driver, but we didn’t have a common language, so I just told him the name of a landmark close to where I was staying, and he drove back toward a more central location, for which I was extremely grateful. I finally got to the main train station and didn’t know a convenient method of transportation to get from there to the place where I stayed, so I made a very long walk back. Still, at least I was there and could finally sleep.
But those difficulties did not make the trip any less exciting or enjoyable, and I had a wonderful visit to the great Catholic city. I loved how the culture was so imbued with Catholicism and how the history testified to the lineage of the Church. I will always remember and love the great works built to give honor to the Church, the Apostles, and most especially to God.
AuditVocemMeam lives in Massachusetts and is currently studying at Boston College. He has a deep devotion to the traditions of the Church, especially the traditional Mass and the vibrant Catholic intellectual heritage including Scholastic philosophy and theology. Some of his favorite writings include the Summa Theologiae, Ronald Knox’s translation of the Bible, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Winston Churchill’s speeches, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He also admires the different heroes from history, especially the French counter-revolutionaries of the Vendée. He also enjoys listening to classical music, especially Beethoven. AuditVocemMeam wants to go to graduate school for philosophy and eventually become a professor to teach about Aristotle and Aquinas, among others.