I emphasize again that our pilgrimage to Italy was not a sight-seeing tour. It was, as I have said, a journey of faith; it was not about what we saw and did, but about the spiritual character of where we were and how we prayed there. Still, I have now seen things with my own eyes that I never thought I would, sacred places and things which we were incredibly privileged to be able to see–the most important, of course, being the Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth of Christ, which is seldom on display to the public. At each place we visited I had to pinch myself when I realized that by the grace of God I was seeing or touching or kneeling before something that had caused saints and kings to embark on pilgrimages–or even more frequently, something saints and kings of long ago had longed to see but could not.
Never did I feel this point hit home more clearly than at Loreto, where we stopped on our way to Assisi, on the same day that we visited the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano. The town of Loreto was built up around one home–I could almost say the home, for it is certainly the most important household in history: the tiny house of Mary in Nazareth, miraculously transported to the safety of a quiet Italian village. Imagine, if you can, what it was like to kneel on the floor of that tiny house, to lay my hand upon its brick walls and think: Here, the heavenly messenger Gabriel cried out that one great ‘Hail, Mary!’ that echoes in the prayers of all the faithful through the ages. Mary and Joseph labored with love here as they took care of the Son of God. Jesus Christ slept, played, worked, and grew from childhood to manhood within these walls. Glory be to God, I can’t believe I’m really here…
Outside of the church of Loreto, I came across a sign where there were listed all the saints and blesseds that had ever visited Loreto. My eyes grew wider and wider as they went down the list: Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Don Bosco, Robert Bellarmine, Francis Xavier, Edmund Campion, Isaac Jogues. The list went on for pages and pages. Just think, I told myself, All these saints came here to Loreto, and you’ve been given the grace to come here too…to walk the ground their feet have trod in pilgrimage. I felt suddenly very small and insignificant, as if I were in the presence of all these heroic men and women. There were memorable stories, too, about saints visiting the places we visited; for instance, it is incredibly humbling to learn that, after traveling all the way to the Cave of St. Michael, St. Francis felt himself unworthy to enter and so only knelt down and kissed the stones and carved a tau cross there.
Then, of course, there were the amazing Eucharistic miracles at Lanciano and Siena; the basilicas and cathedrals we visited; the tombs and relics of many saints, including St. Paul, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare (beautiful and incorrupt), Sts. Benedict and Scholastica, Padre Pio, and countless popes in the Vatican, including John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II; the crib of Jesus from Bethlehem; the most moving and beautiful Pieta, the Sistine Chapel, and the incredible St. Peter’s Basilica; the catacombs of the early Christian martyrs; the Portiuncula where St. Francis began the Franciscans. I’ve touched my rosary to more sacred places and things than I can remember all at once. I’m simply blown away when I think of everything I encountered.
Some of these rare and precious things came crossing our path when we least expected them. There was the glove and crucifix of Padre Pio, for instance; those unexpected sacred objects were in the little parcel of the Franciscan priest with whom we spoke at Padre Pio’s shrine, and he took them out to bless us with them. Among the surprise blessings, the greatest crossed our path on the last day of our stay in Rome. Our tour guide, Antonello–who was quite a character, a proud and knowledgeable Roman who really deserves a post of his own–had taken us to see all the grandest churches of Rome outside the Vatican. In the last church, he mentioned the relics of Holy Cross in connection with something else; our group expressed regret that the relics themselves were not on our schedule. Antonello, after a few phone calls, made an exception and surprised our group by announcing, to our great joy, that he had been able to organize for us to visit the relics. Shortly afterward, in a small and quiet room paved with marble, we knelt before the reliquaries that contained the wood of the cross, the crown of thorns, nails, and the wooden tablet Pilate erected above Christ, which read: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
For all these great blessings, for all these holy sights, privileges and experiences, I am most grateful. Taken in the context of a spiritual journey, they comprise the essence of our pilgrimage. It was an inestimable blessing, a strengthening of our faith. Yet, when I remember all these precious encounters, I must bear in mind that they were wonderful, but not necessary. Every single day, you see, God offers us a gift greater than all the churches and relics in Europe.
When the priest who accompanied us on our pilgrimage gently took the glove and crucifix of Padre Pio into his hands to allow us to kiss them, my brother commented on how lucky Father Joseph was to be able to hold them.
Father Joseph instantly replied: “I hold Jesus in my hands every day at Mass.”