This is an interview with some pilgrims who discovered the Eternal City for the first time and expose their diverse sentiments felt on the few days spent there.
The Angelus: Were there any particular reasons which led you to go to Rome?
Pilgrim: For us, the visit of Rome was a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to St. Pius X. We had never been to Rome and wished to go to St. Peter’s and be able to kneel down at the tomb of St. Pius X.
I myself, as a Catholic, was anxious to visit Eternal Rome, yet was privately convinced that no place could compare to my experience of the beauty and history of Catholic France two summers previous.
The Angelus: And what were your first impressions as you landed?
Pilgrim: Our rough landing in the midst of a rainstorm was perhaps a fitting introduction to the Vatican City of today. We were to lodge across the street from St. Peter’s. So I imagined being greeted by the welcoming arms of its colonnade as seen so often in photos. Not realizing we were approaching from behind, how shocking was our first view of the Vatican—a tall, ancient, dirty, and very grim wall. “This is it?!” An incredibly long line of tourists were wrapped around this wall awaiting entrance to the museum. “How would we ever see anything in this city with such long lines?” When the taxi deposited us before a great iron gate in another formidable wall, behind which was to be our lodging for five days, I thought: “How could Father Iscara fall in love with the ‘beauty’ of this place?”
For me, the first impact was different. At the view of Rome, I felt that the Catholicism which I experienced in the United States was deepened because I could see visually and experience by being there the faith that goes back much longer in time. The faith was made more real because you see that the roots were deeper than what you know here.
The Angelus: What was the second impression once the first had died down?
Pilgrim: After this initial intimidating experience of endless walls, iron gates, and lost luggage, we had a chance to walk around. We did see the colonnades of St. Peter’s early the next morning, and they were welcoming. The doors were open, and there was no crowd. We entered and beheld Michelangelo’s Pieta. All dark thoughts melted away.
Walking the narrow cobble-stone streets between the high walls one wondered, “Where do all these people live?” Then, here and there, an open gate revealed beautiful hidden courtyard gardens. “So this is where they live; there is beauty here.” What a contrast to the narrow, littered streets and noisy crowds these walls served to shut out.
Once inside, marble was everywhere; so many varied patterns and colors, one would have expected them to war with one another, and yet the architecture, the colors, the works of art, the paintings were in perfect harmony and proportion. This was surprising since so much was added and changed down through the centuries.
The Angelus: In your estimation, what defines Rome?
Pilgrim: A mixture of old civilization and Christianity built upon it. A city of churches. The conquest of Christianity over the pagan city-state. And yet how they coexist. Pagan temples were transformed into basilicas, as in the case of the Pantheon dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs.
One happens upon an open door on a crowded street. It is the side entrance to a magnificent parish church. One walks a little further and comes upon a Roman ruin—perhaps Trajan’s Arch or the Forum. It is much like stepping into and out of the pages of a history book of the earliest civilizations to the present time. It is amazing how all this history still draws the human heart. The many visitors come to see the ruins; but in doing so, they are exposed to more. The Coliseum is where the Christian martyrs were eaten by wild beasts. St. Peter, and possibly St. Paul, was incarcerated in the ancient Mamertine prison. Peter walked the Appian Way. Mass was offered in the Catacombs.
The Angelus: Would you say that Rome defines the Church?
Pilgrim: “Where Peter is, there is the Church.” Rome embodies the faith in its 480 plus churches and in its every part. It was hard for us to make a distinction between Vatican City and the City of Rome itself. The walls of Vatican City seemed to envelop the whole of Rome. The bones of St. Peter are buried there under the high altar of St. Peter’s. Going to Rome is going home. Yes, Father Iscara, we were falling helplessly in love with Rome.
The Angelus: What impressed you most regarding the Roman art?
Pilgrim: The Pieta was very moving for me, but too far away to fully appreciate. Now I want to devour books that explain the details of this work of art. Unfortunately, many tourist groups were there for cultural purposes alone, and being alien to Catholicism, needed a tour guide to explain who Our Lady was and who the Son she was holding.
How impressive are the mosaics that cover in beauty so many of the walls of the churches of Rome. They rival those of Ravenna, especially some in the oldest Roman churches of St. Praxedes and St. Lawrence which we visited. The elaborate paintings depict the history and the period of the church—like the meeting of Attila the Hun and Pope Leo I or the Battle of Constantine on Milvian Bridge.
The dome of St. Peter’s and its massive statues are impressive. The Bernini columns are quite powerful, although I do not care much for the twisted columns of the Baldaquino. I am more drawn to simple Romanesque statues and early Christian and Gothic art.
The Angelus: Is it right to say that the monumental Rome was the work of the Popes?
Pilgrim: Rome is the Catholic Church; it is Christianity. How much the Popes invested in the street arches on the corners as well as in the different shrines for the sake of teaching the faith. The beauty of the churches is all for God, for the Mass; they spared nothing to procure the best art and sculpture for the Mass. It took years to do it, and the most gifted artists were employed. They had been working in other cities and then came to Rome and accomplished such wonders without present-day technology. Learning the dates of the different edifices was fascinating; some buildings took centuries to complete and yet displayed such harmony.
Among the major basilicas, I prefer St. Mary Major, a smaller building, yet ornate and handsome with its circular mosaics. St. Paul Outside the Walls was a delight as it was not crowded among other buildings and did not require maintenance like much older buildings.
One notices the differences between the churches of France and Rome. The French churches are defined by an elevated Gothic style and their beauty includes magnificent stained-glass windows. The Roman churches, on the other hand, have little stained-glass. Instead their walls are covered with beautiful frescoes. (My 7th and 8th grade students have just completed miniature frescoes in art class. They have learned to appreciate how hard it must have been to paint a detailed picture on wet plaster before it dries.) It is the difference between the Gothic and the Romanesque style. Rome has no need of more light and heat as does France.
The Angelus: Would you say that the Popes’ presence is felt in every corner of the City?
Pilgrim: The Popes are buried everywhere. Everywhere the pilgrim turns, there is another tomb of a pope with amazing marble or bronze sculptures ornamenting the sarcophagi.
One feels an overwhelming presence of the history connected with the popes. St. Theresa of Lisieux came here to have an audience with the pope concerning her vocation. St. Francis of Assisi exchanged clothes with a beggar and sat before these doors of St. Peter’s, and later came again to seek approval for his Friars Minor. St. Philip Neri and St. Ignatius of Loyola walked the dirty streets of Rome. And there are so many papal relics here—St. Peter’s Chair, the bronze St. Peter on his throne whose foot has been worn thin by pilgrims’ veneration. St. Peter himself lies beneath the main altar in the very place where he suffered his martyrdom. Indeed, all of St. Peter’s Basilica marks the spot. What a gift to be able to experience the timelessness of the Eternal City and look upon all these wonders and pray in the very heart of Holy Mother Church.
The Angelus: Did you regret not seeing the Pope?
Pilgrim: As we passed Swiss Guards dressed in traditional garb and stationed at every corner, we wondered where the Pope actually was. I did very much want to see Pope Francis—living proof of the apostolicity and indefectibility of the Church and Papacy that has already survived 2,000 years and will survive even him. But this was not to be; yet I would not have traded seeing the Pope for what we did see that day. I would just have to content myself with looking at the hundreds of waving bobble-head “Pope Franks” next to the bobble-head “John Paul the Greats” at all the souvenir stands—perhaps a sadly accurate portrayal of the present papacy. We prayed for him. Were he to draw closer to Eternal Rome, we would be drawn closer to him.
The Angelus: Which were the relics of saints you most enjoyed?
Pilgrim: The manger in St. Mary Major. The sign at H. Cross of Jerusalem, the Inscription of the Cross, relics of the nails and thorns, the finger of St. Thomas. The table top of St. Peter at St. John Lateran (with bust of two saints, St. Peter and St. Paul). There were also the Holy Stairs which we climbed on our knees. And then we saw the instruments of torture, like the arrows of St. Sebastian. And there was also the pillar of Our Lord at St. Praxedes.
The Angelus: Which places did you relish most?
Pilgrim: We made the long 3-mile walk along the Appian Way to the catacombs, the same road on which Our Risen Lord met Peter as he was attempting an escape from Rome during the persecutions. We passed the Quo Vadis Chapel which marks the spot of this miraculous meeting. How many saints had walked this road feeling these cobblestones under their feet? It was impressive to learn why the catacombs were chosen as burial grounds. Crypts in multiple levels could be carved out of volcanic ash quickly and at the expense of little sweat. And there were the actual reliefs and simple paintings of the Good Shepherd that I had seen so often in books. These date back to the earliest Christian times.
The Angelus: Could you say that the trip to Rome helped you to grow spiritually?
Pilgrim: The Mass has much more meaning. Now having visited the Seven Basilicas, we know what it means in our missals when it states that the station is at St. John Lateran, etc. It was interesting to see the homes of some of these saints: St. Praxedes, Sts. John and Paul, St. Agnes in the Piazza Navona. One realizes that they were everyday people.
We also visited and venerated most of the saints mentioned in the Roman Canon of the Mass: Sts. John and Paul, St. Lawrence, St. James and Philip, St. Cecilia, Agnes, Lucy… During the school year, when presenting the Saint of the Day from the Roman calendar, I can say: “I was there, I know where this happened,” and perhaps show them a picture.
The Angelus: Was not taking pictures a difficulty for you?
Pilgrim: We Americans take more pictures than French people, perhaps even too many, and sometimes even when a sign asks us not to. (Rome belongs to all of us!) Maybe it is because in America we are so bereft of truly beautiful art, Christian culture, and Catholic history. It is our way of capturing a piece of it and taking it home with us to share with family, friends, and students. A photo is more personal and a step closer to the reality than a postcard or a picture in a book. When others see them, they are inspired to go to Rome too. Likewise it is a tool for evangelizing. What Protestant is not grateful to the Catholic Church for preserving all the relics of the early Christians, the artwork and architecture? Pictures of incorrupt bodies, gruesome though some may be, make good topics for conversation. Especially concerning our veneration of the Saints and the subject of miracles. We saw so many of them, like St. Cecilia in Rome and St. Lucy in Venice.
The Angelus: What were your most moving Roman moments?
Pilgrim: For me, it was certainly discovering the scavi di San Pietro—the excavations of St. Peter, initiated by Pius XII which led to the discovery of the exact tomb and finally the bones of St. Peter. It was especially welcome as I was able to get an entrance within a few hours while usually people have to reserve them six months in advance.
As for me, I was very moved by our early Mass at a side altar in St. Peter’s. We waited at the huge sacristy till Father emerged, along with other priests and altar boys to say Mass at the different altars. Our dear Society priest was able to say the old Mass at an altar in St. Peter’s! God is good. And to participate intimately with Father and serving Mass at St. Peter’s, any altar boy would like that! We were also very lucky that, during all our stay in Rome and Italy, we had the joy to hear Mass every day in a proper church. It was a novena of Masses to thank all those who had made it possible for us to be there. My Dad always said: People make pilgrimages to foreign shrines, what you should do is to take care of going to Mass.
The Angelus: Did you have some negative memories of Rome?
Pilgrim: For many tourists, the churches seemed more like museums than places of worship, yet they seemed to honor the silence. I was edified by how many confessionals were being used and how many Masses were being said in the early morning in the many churches.
Probably one of the most frightening things was a small scale model of the One World church in the Gesu! it was frightening: all religions there together—nauseating. It was something we had heard about it, but to find it in the back of a church where holy Jesuits are buried is something else. It was a vast circle seamlessly showing the buildings of all religions: the mosques of Moslems, the synagogues of Jews, the Shintoist temples along with the Catholic Church. The message was clear: all paths lead, not to Rome, but to God. “We are all saved.”
The Angelus: Would you share some of the tips you learned for any pilgrim wishing to visit Rome, or for your next Roman trip?
Pilgrim: We did enjoy a great location for our hotel, near the entrance to the Vatican Museums. It is a religious house with accommodations for pilgrims, highly recommended, and we had use of their chapel for Mass.
One thing I realized was that the Vatican Museum tour becomes quite congested as one approaches the Sistine Chapel, which is the highlight of the tour. The signs to it led one on an hour-long path, pushed by waves of tourists, through a modern art gallery we would have happily avoided. If you visit Rome during the summer when it is overly crowded (as Florence is), you had better purchase your Vatican Museum tickets on-line in order to avoid the endless queue.
It did help to have the Angelus Press guide book because in every corner of every church is an often missed relic of a saint.
Another tip: if you take pictures, definitely take the time to write down the church you are in and even what you are taking a picture of. The dullest pencil is sharper than the sharpest mind.
If we could do it again, we would try to appreciate the things we were able to visit and not regret the things we could not. We dreamed that we could see all 900 churches within the short span of four days! This first meeting with the Eternal City is just the beginning of an education; we have only just touched the barque. It is an experience that will take time to draw profit from and fully appreciate.