Visits holy sites; mother & son shake hands with the pope
By Michelle Tressel
Special to The Witness
CEDAR RAPIDS — A group of 17 parishioners, family and friends from St. Jude Parish, Cedar Rapids, found that Advent is a wonderful time to go on a pilgrimage … a pilgrimage to Italy. The pilgrims were able to relate to “prepare,” “joyful waiting” and “patience” in a much different way than we might have if we hadn’t gone on this trip. And these themes recurred throughout the pilgrimage, sometimes when we least expected it.
Months of planning and preparation went into this fourth parish trip. Communications with our travelers were on-going, so they would be well-prepared for the pilgrimage to Venice, Florence, Padua, Assisi, Rome and Montecassino Abbey. Several in-person meetings were held, so the pilgrims could meet each other prior to departure and learn of helpful travel tips. No matter if one was an experienced traveler or traveling overseas for the first time, this was a period of joyful waiting.
On the first Monday of Advent, while en route via charter bus to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, we learned the last leg of our flight, from Frankfurt, Germany, to Venice, Italy, was canceled due to a strike by the Lufthansa pilots. As we waited patiently at O’Hare for the extremely attentive Lufthansa staff to re-book us, the bonds between the pilgrims became stronger as they looked out for and assisted each other, told stories and laughed. We were pleased to learn we would arrive in Venice only two hours later than originally scheduled.
Once in Italy, we celebrated daily Mass in many places where we remembered, prayed with and felt an extraordinary connection to faithful and holy people who have gone before us: in the catacombs, at the altar of St. John XXIII in St. Peter’s Basilica, in St. Francis of Assisi Basilica, at the Basilica of San Marco (St. Mark) and in Montecassino Abbey, the birthplace of monasticism and the place where St. Benedict is buried.
Barry Reed reflected on how special it was to be the altar server for Mass in magnificent churches and humble chapels.
When we boarded our motor coach in the morning, we weren’t always prepared for the wonderful and often touching experiences that were ahead of us. On Dec. 7, our guide surprised us by taking us to the American Cemetery and Memorial near Florence where more than 4,300 American soldiers, who died in battle to liberate Italy in World War II, are buried. As we solemnly walked through the cemetery, we privately mourned the loss of lives, thanked God for our freedoms and prayed for peace in the world.
Not only is Italy known for pasta and wine but also for Venetian lace, hand-blown glass and leather products. We were captivated as we watched various artists use their God-given talents to create beautiful pieces of art in various media. After a tour of a small winery in Tuscany, we feasted on luscious cheeses, meats, vegetables and pasta and sampled a variety of wines in a simple farmhouse. One evening, we were entertained with song and dance by very talented musicians and singers while again being served delectable Italian dishes and wine.
Carol McGrath reflected on how her heart was filled with joy and happiness because she realized the community that was being formed would continue once we were back home.
While each experience of the pilgrimage was remarkable, the pilgrims agreed that the audience with Pope Francis was the most memorable. As we patiently waited for Pope Francis to arrive in the Paul VI Audience Hall, the atmosphere was that of “joyful waiting.” Debbie Miller said, “I felt a strong sense of the universal church at the audience with Pope Francis. I was standing near a priest from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and a seminarian from Neuss, Germany.” The exuberance of our pilgrims became even greater when we realized the pope would walk within a few feet of where we were standing. Patsy Roling was one of the people who touched the pope’s hand. He looked directly at her and smiled. Ellen Owens was moved by Pope Francis’ humility, which was evident as he greeted, blessed and hugged people on his way to the front platform. Lois Burr and her son, Alan Burr, shook hands with the pope. Lois was deeply moved because “little farm girls don’t get to do that.” In addition, the pope gave Lois a rosary. During the audience, Debbie also noted, “It was moving to hear the Scripture proclaimed and the pope’s teachings read in many languages: Italian, Spanish, French, German, English …We were all joined together because of our one faith.” At the end of the audience, the pope gave an apostolic blessing to those of us in attendance. He said this blessing extended to our beloved ones, especially the children and those who are sick. I was personally moved by the Holy Father’s blessing to those who are so dear to me.
When we returned safely to the United States on Dec. 9, we returned as people who were changed. We were touched by experiences that made “joyful waiting,” “patience” and “prepare” more tangible than before. These experiences deepened our faith and strengthened our bonds with each other and to the universal church.
Tressel is a parishioner at St. Jude in Cedar Rapids.
A group of 17 parishioners, their family and friends from St. Jude Parish in Cedar Rapids went on a pilgrimage to Italy in December. They are shown at Montecassino Abbey. The monastery, built in the sixth century, was founded by St. Benedict. (Contributed photo)