By Barb Arland-Fye
A wave of claustrophobia passed through me as I stared inside the cold, stone cell where St. Paul was imprisoned before his martyrdom in Tre Fontane, just outside of Rome. Our Catholic Messenger pilgrims viewed the cell, located in the lower level of a church in Tre Fontane Abbey. I visualized myself in Paul’s place.
Faith moves mountains, the old saying goes, but until seeing this cell it hadn’t occurred to me that the mountains to be moved might be the ones in my own mind, such as fear. In his blessing of our pilgrimage some 24 hours earlier as we prepared to depart from Davenport, Bishop Martin Amos gave some parting words of wisdom about a pilgrimage. It’s not a vacation, he said. It’s a spiritual journey. Expect challenges or trials along the way. For me, one of the challenges was a vivid imagination. Walking where persecuted Christians had trod, I felt anxious imaging the cruelty they endured for the faith.
Our guide at Tre Fontane, which included a tour of a Marian Shrine, was Sister Emanuela Edwards of the Missionaries of Divine Revelation. She wore a green habit because Mary is said to have been wearing a green mantle when she appeared to an Italian Protestant and his three children in 1947, near the place where St. Paul was martyred.
Sr. Emanuela also served as our guide in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, where we walked through our first holy door on the pilgrimage. The architecture, paintings, statuary and mosaics amazed me, as did seeing St. Paul’s tomb. But it was an observation that Sr. Emanuela made which left an indelible impression on me. “A pilgrimage happens in your heart. You can’t pay a ticket for that.”
Her message is unfolding now, as I begin processing everything that happened on the eight-day pilgrimage. We attended a papal audience, the Canonization Mass of Mother Teresa and walked through the four basilicas in Rome with holy doors. We climbed the Holy Staircase that Jesus is said to have climbed when summoned to appear before Pontius Pilate (the staircase is believed to have been moved in the fourth century from Jerusalem to Rome). We toured the Catacombs of St. Callistus, walked in procession with our spiritual leader Father Marty Goetz to St. Peter’s Basilica, visited Assisi and other places.
Fr. Marty, pastor of parishes in Des Moines County, gave compelling homilies during each daily Mass. At the Church of Divine Mercy, he tossed out his prepared homily to share his own story of receiving God’s mercy after running away, temporarily, from God. “In your pilgrimage,” Fr. Marty encouraged us, “open your hearts to receive the gift of God’s mercy.”
After leading all of us in procession into St. Peter’s Basilica with the Year of Mercy cross, it occurred to Fr. Marty that “the Lord asks us to carry our cross, but we’re not alone. He carries the cross with us, he walks with us.” That’s mercy. “Once we receive the gift of mercy, we have to extend it to others.”
Each of us had opportunities to receive mercy and to extend it to others on the pilgrimage. One pilgrim who received a helping hand when it became difficult to walk thanked all of us for showing compassion. I had an opportunity to ask for and receive mercy from a young teen sitting in front of me during the Canonization Mass. I realized that her umbrella that shaded her from the sun’s heat was not an obstacle to keep me from appreciating the Mass. I was the obstacle. This pilgrimage, this spiritual journey, opened my heart to who I want to become.
(Barb Arland-Fye, Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.)