Parishioners from Hexham, North Shields and Morpeth experienced countless blessings, in September during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, when 50 of us travelled to Rome and Assisi, Italy.
Our pilgrimage was led by Fr Peter Stott and Fr Christopher Warren, both of whom so kindly provided formative guidance, while constantly helping to create an atmosphere of friendship that was both caring and fun.
With four nights in wondrous Rome, our experiences were too plentiful to mention entirely, but they included Mass in places of awe-inspiring significance such as Santa Maria in Traspontina; the Hungarian Chapel within St Peter’s Basilica, after which we passed by the tomb of Saint Pope John Paul II and prayed at the site of St Peter’s tomb; and the Venerable English College, where many of our own priests have been formed. The Mass at the English College, which we shared with pilgrims from Newcastle, was celebrated by our own Bishop Seamus Cunningham.
During our first full day in Rome we processed in an atmosphere of prayer and conversion along a dedicated walkway up the Via della Conciliazione and then passed through the Holy Door of Mercy in the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome. This procession replicated the distance which Christ carried his cross to Calvary and this, coupled with blazing sun and temperatures in excess of 32oC ensured that this was one of the most meaningful events of our pilgrimage, and a true highlight -- as was our public audience with Pope Francis on our final day in Rome, where we enjoyed seats so near the front and centre we had to keep pinching ourselves to make sure we were not dreaming.
While in Rome, we entered further Holy Doors of Mercy and visited the Basilicas of St Mary Major, St John Lateran, St Paul’s Outside the Walls and San Clemente.
Additionally, there were many other opportunities (for those intrepid travellers who still had enough energy) to visit sites such as the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and the infamous Roman Coliseum, not to mention shopping in local street markets, al fresco lunches, and endless gelatos and cappuccinos.
Upon leaving Rome, en route to Assisi, we stopped near Greccio for Mass at the beautiful, modern chapel in the grounds of the Franciscan Sanctuary which has been built next to St Francis’s original friary. We visited the Crib Chapel, which is where, in 1223, St Francis created the world’s first Nativity Crib. Climbing a few stairs we found ourselves in St Francis’s choir and chapel, as well as his refectory, and the amazingly well–preserved wooden dormitory. We offered our respects at the cells where St Francis slept (on bare stone) and where his monks slept in slightly better comfort, including one in which both Sts Bernardine and Bonaventure stayed.
Arriving in the pristine and highly atmospheric medieval city of Assisi, we enjoyed the last two days of our pilgrimage. Walking to San Rufino (where we stood next to the very font at which St Francis and St Clare were baptised) and the Basilicas of St Francis and St Clare, where our guide explained the world-famous frescos and much of the fascinating local history.
We visited the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, located in the valley below Assisi, which was built around the tiny Porziuncula, where St Francis and his monks lived, and where St Francis died.
Outside the walls of Assisi, we visited another deeply inspiring site, San Damiano, where St Francis first received his miraculous calling when the crucifix spoke to him and asked him to repair God’s Church. San Damiano is also where St Clare and her nuns were cloistered. The simple rooms of their monastery remain as they were in the 13th Century.
And finally, we visited the Hermitage (Carceri), St Francis’s retreat in the mountains near Assisi, where we found it easy to understand St Francis’s love of nature and his feeling of kinship with all creatures.
Really, these are just a few of the highpoints of our wonderful pilgrimage during this Year of Mercy. What a blessing it was!