A Spiritual Adventure in Italy

Olivia Hoppu’s article about the youth pilgrimage to Rome, Perugia, Assisi and Siena was first published in Finnish in Fides 9/2013.

“Each of us as a living stone is needed for the growth and the beauty of God’s holy temple. Let us ask the Lord to help us take an ever more active part in the church’s life and mission, guided by the Holy Spirit and Jesus as our cornerstone.”

Those were some of the great words Pope Francis said during his audience on the 26th of June; the first audience I, a 17 year old Catholic girl from Finland, have ever attended.

I was very fortunate this summer to be able to go on a pilgrimage to Italy, which was arranged by Father Marco Pasinato from St. Henry’s parish. Many youths from all over Finland took part in it. Not only was it my first pilgrimage ever, but also my first trip abroad without any family members. It was definitely a fantastic experience.

The pilgrimage took place during the last week of June in Rome, Perugia, Assisi and Siena. Father Marco, seminarian Federico, and Sister Barbara were responsible for the 29 of us youths who were eager to discover Italy in one way or another. We stayed with Italian families both in Rome and in Perugia. The families I stayed with were both very friendly and welcoming. The family in Rome could speak some English and the family in Perugia spoke French, so my friends and I managed to communicate with them using either English or French, some Italian and hand motions.

Rome used to be just a historical city I had learned about at school, but while walking up and down its cobbled streets and looking at all the beauty in awe, I learned that Rome was a genuine place bursting with history, religion and tourists. On our first day in Rome, after a very filling lunch, we took the metro to the Piazza di Spagna and walked on to the church of San Andrea al Quirinale. There is the grave of St. Stanislaus Kostka, who died at the age of 18 and is a young Jesuit saint. Pope John Paul II portrays him as an example of strength and courage to youths. Unfortunately the church was closed, so we moved on to the Trevi Fountain, which was gorgeous, and the Pantheon, which had religious paintings and statues on every wall. After that we visited a Bridgettine convent, where a Finnish Bridgettine sister Marja-Liisa showed us around and told us about St. Bridget, the saint’s daughter Catherine and Blessed Maria Elisabeth Hesselblad. We had mass and a tasty dinner provided by the sisters. We ended the day with a walk through the Piazza Navona, which is a grand square with a stunning church, two water fountains and an Egyptian obelisk.

Our second day in Rome was also full of history. In the morning we visited the Priscilla Catacombs, which were very interesting. Our guide told us about people from different backgrounds who were buried there, what the engraved symbols near the tombs meant and showed us several wall paintings including the first picture to ever portray the Virgin Mary. After yet another very filling lunch, we took the metro to the Coliseum. As I walked towards the entrance of the metro station which opened up to the ancient amphitheatre, I could not help but think: “It’s real! The Coliseum is actually real, not just a picture in a history book!” Before we could enter the Coliseum, we had to wait for our guide Francesco to arrive. He was an elderly, funny man, who told us many interesting things about the Roman and Christian history involving the Coliseum. For example, he told us that it was built by the Jews, which was something I did not know. The Coliseum was very impressive and walking within its ruins made me try to imagine what it had looked like in its prime.

The Roman Forum was our next destination, where we saw some of the most ancient monuments on Earth. Everything was so impressively timeworn and it was simply overwhelming to see all the ruins and listen to all the things Francesco and Father Marco were telling us. Then we had some free time, so a group of us went on a quest to buy some cheap, delicious Italian ice cream. After that Father Marco took us to the Circus Maximus, a beautiful flowery field, which used to be where the Romans had chariot races. The arena held around 250 000 spectators and most of Rome’s martyrs were killed there. We said a few prayers and read some psalms there while the sun was setting. It was a shame that such a beautiful place had such a grim history. To end the day on a happy note we had our first and last pizzas during the whole trip for dinner.
The third day of our pilgrimage started very early at St. Peter’s Square. It was exciting to look around and see all the hundreds of people who were just as excited as we were to see the Pope. Not to mention seeing the beautiful Vatican looming ahead of us only a few hundred metres away. We were extremely blessed to be sitting right at the front of the square, around 10 rows away from where Pope Francis sat and held his audience. Although it was not very pleasant sitting in the burning heat for over four hours, I enjoyed the audience and listened while Federico and Father Marco translated what the Pope was saying. After the audience, we had a tour inside the Vatican and even got to see St. Peter’s grave from downstairs, since usually people can only look down at the grave from the basilica than at eyelevel. Then we went down the stairs to the crypt, also known as the Vatican Grottoes, where many popes including John Paul II were buried. We also visited the Basilica of St. John Lateran and then had a small prayer session with a large group of the youths who go to the parish church our host families go to. Two of the Italian youths told us how God had changed their lives. Benjamin, one Congolese young man from our group, also shared a few words about how lucky he felt to be in Italy and how Pope Francis’ words had touched him. We spent the evening eating a tasty buffet meal provided by our host families and a group of us, guided by Federico, went to see the Vatican and Rome at night.

Though it was sad to leave Rome, it was nice to experience other parts of Italy too. We took the train to Perugia and spent the day walking around the old city. First we visited the small Tempio di San Michele Arcangelo, which used to be a pagan temple but is now a church dedicated to the archangel St. Michael. Then we visited an area where the bishops used to live, the beautiful Cathedral of San Lorenzo and a place called the Rocca Paolina, which used to be a town. The Pope at the time punished the town’s citizens for disobeying him by building a sort of house or church on top of their homes. We also learned about the different convents that used to be active in Perugia and about a large water fountain, the Fontana Maggiore, which has many sculptures of saints and other characters engraved on it. During the evening I had dinner with my new host family, my roommate Sara, Tessa and Russel; who were two other girls from our group, and their host parents. It was our host mother’s birthday, so we sang Happy Birthday to her both in English and Finnish.

We went to Assisi on the only day that it rained during our whole pilgrimage. It was the most emotional day for me, because the theme for that day was calling and I had a difficult time trying to figure out what would be the best thing for me to become when I am an adult. As a part of our theme, we visited a Franciscan convent where a nun told us about her calling. We also visited the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli, where St. Francis of Assisi understood his calling and started the Franciscan movement. Then we took a bus to the town centre and went to the Basilica of St. Francis, which was absolutely stunning from within. Everything was so beautiful in Italy, that it is difficult to compare what church, cathedral or basilica was the most beautiful. We saw St. Francis’ tomb and went to the Basilica di Santa Chiara, where we saw St. Clare’s tomb.

Our last whole day in Italy was the day we went to Siena. Siena was a very beautiful medieval city, which had its 17 different provinces’ flags waving in the breeze. I was particularly excited to go to Siena, because St. Catherine of Siena is one of my favourite saints. First we went to the Basilica di San Domenico, where we saw the unpleasant relic of St. Catherine’s head. Then we visited the Santuario-Casa di Santa Caterina, which was where she used to live and understood her calling. A nun told us about St. Catherine’s life and how she travelled to Avignon to get the Pope to return to Rome. I thought it was great that she was determined to do everything that she felt was right to do, despite what the clergy and her family thought. She was a strong woman, who changed the Catholic world.

After that we walked around Siena and saw numerous groups of men marching down the streets dressed in medieval costumes, carrying their flags and drumming rhythmically. For lunch we had a delicious buffet meal with all kinds of Italian foods and next we visited the Divina Bellezza. It consisted of the fantastically spectacular cathedral called the Duomo of Siena, a crypt, a chapel where St. Catherine was also baptised and a museum. There are no words to describe the beauty of the Duomo; it was definitely one of my favourite places in Italy. We climbed up many stairs to see the wonderful view of Siena, which was worth the climb.
We spent our last evening with our host families and other parishioners by celebrating a neocatechumenal mass. It was quite different from the usual mass. Before the readings someone from the parish explained what we were about to read and what they meant. After the reading from the holy Gospel three parishioners shared how the reading had touched them and what it meant in their lives. The atmosphere was very warm and joyful. During mass we sang songs, which were accompanied by guitar and drums. It was fun and a new experience for all of us youths.

On the day of our departure, we drove on a bus back to Rome and stayed at an Ursuline convent, where we had mass and Sister Barbara and another Ursuline sister told us about St. Ursula Ledóchowska. Then we had a nice lunch provided by the sisters and some free time afterwards in their garden, until it was time to go to the airport. I was both happy and sad to leave Italy, because I missed my family and knew that I would miss Italy too. It was an adventure of a lifetime with many new experiences. It increased my knowledge of the world I live in, strengthened the faith I have and awoke a yearning to discover and travel more. I am sure that God touched all of our hearts during our trip.
Olivia Hoppu