Pilgrimages abroad are a wonderful opportunity to meet like-minded Catholics, writes Mark Caffrey
The Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia who are based in Limerick once again organised a young-adult pilgrimage to Rome at the conclusion of this summer. Our journey took us to the very heart of the Faith. Thematically based around St Augustine and his writings, our pilgrimage took us to the church of his own name which houses the relics of his mother Monica. Towards the end of our time in Italy, we made a brief excursion out to the ancient town of Ostia where a well-planned grid of streets was the last for St Monica to walk along before her death in the year 387 AD. Augustine, a great early Church Father, had much to offer us and his words on topics such as prayer and friendship were strikingly relevant to us today.
For myself and for many others who are motivated by their faith to undertake such a journey to Rome, it was certainly the Catacombs of San Callisto (St Callixtus) which deserved pride of place in my highlight reel. Located along the Appian Way and not far from Quo Vadis Church, the catacombs descend four levels down into the soil. Stepping foot on such hallowed ground where the martyrs were buried, such as that of the original tomb of St Cecilia, it was impossible to not hear the memory of Respighi’s second movement from the ‘Pines of Rome’ echo in oneself. The cries of his ‘Sanctus’ reverberating in one’s bones as one foot stepped out in front of the other. Name after name, symbol after symbol carved into stone filled me with inspiration as I pondered upon their heroic witness.
It was there at the conclusion of Mass in a subterranean chapel that as we sang the ‘Salve Regina’ I felt the greatest of reassurances in the future of Christ’s Church. It was there in the dim and in the cold that a group of 20 young people – all committed Catholics – led by religious brothers and sisters gathered to pray and to be nourished for the mission of evangelising our home country. Barely a blip on the radar a cynic or sceptic might say. Yet, towering above our heads earlier that day stood the Arch of Titus which commemorated the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple following the siege of 70 AD. The men who built such a monument and those like them who persecuted the first Christians would never have imagined that almost two millennia later their names and deeds would be forgotten or shrink next to the religion which they sought to suppress. Mother Church has a habit of overcoming such challengers! In the ancient city of a million inhabitants, it was a small but determined cohort who, in Providence, altered the course of history. The games of the Flavian Amphitheatre are long gone, the cries of the spectators have faded into silence. Meanwhile, the cries of the martyrs resound triumphantly through the centuries. To quote one stanza from Ellerton’s beloved hymn, “So be it, Lord, thy throne shall never, Like earth’s proud empires, pass away; Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever, Till all thy creatures own thy sway.”
Prayer had truly been at the core of our travels. Whether it was a rosary on a train ride into the city, vespers in a small chapel or a morning of contemplative silence every day was anchored in faith. Prayer was what underpinned our pilgrim journey and it was clearly much more than a mere holiday. For some it was their first exposure to the Liturgy of the Hours whilst others may have only ever prayed it by themselves. To hear it sung, most especially with the stirring ‘O Lumen Ecclesiae’ to St Dominic, was something else altogether. We either discovered for the first time or fell in love anew with this beautiful part of our inheritance as Catholics. The Office shall surely be a regular part of many of our occasions of prayer into the future. It has to be said that the timeless treasures of our Faith whether they be in print, stone or glass all came alive in this pilgrimage.
Enjoying lunch or dinner on long tables, the conversation jumped from one topic to another. It was a fantastic opportunity to get to know the back-stories of others. The personal testimony of those wearing habits was a powerful account of courageously following Christ and trusting in Him. With people from every province, it was great to mix with new people who weren’t from the smaller local or regional Catholic circles that we were used to. Those of us in university also benefited from the pilgrimage by using it as something of a networking opportunity and third-level students who are leaders within the committees of their Catholic student societies shared experience and tips with one another all of which were aimed at growing the Catholic community on campus. Young professionals and recent graduates also shared their invaluable experiences of sustaining their faith, cultivating a life of prayer, whilst being in the world of work. Polaroids won’t be the only thing being taken back home after this pilgrimage.