Day 1: Rome 2016 – Basilicas and Catacombs

Thursday July 21, 2016

This day started out with stuffed croissants. And by stuffed I mean stuffed with Nutella. Then covered with powdered sugar. Very delish. I grabbed two. (#FunFact, did you know that the creator of Nutella was a very devout Catholic and devoted the success of Nutella (and likewise Ferrer Rocher) to the Blessed Virgin Mary?)

St. Mary Major

At 7:30AM we boarded buses to go to the Basilica of St. Mary Major to begin our tours of the major basilicas around Rome. As another cool #FunFact, Pope Francis visits St. Mary Major before every trip outside of Europe to entrust his voyage to the our Blessed Mother. It was also the same place he went to immediately after being elected as pope.

We had Daily Mass in one of the major side chapels with our bishop from our diocese. I think I share the same sentiment with a good handful of other pilgrims from my parish when I say that having Mass here at St. Mary Major with our bishop (in English!) was indeed special.

After Mass, we gained our tour guides. Because of our delegation of 200+ people, doing one massive tour is not practical. We split up into groups according to our flights, and each group had their own tour guides. Mine was named Teresa, and she was quite excellent in guiding us through St. Mary Major, the other basilicas, and other sights around Rome.

We took a side trip just outside of St. Mary Major to visit the church, St. Alphonsus Ligouri. This was kind of a big deal because it hosts the original icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. My grandmother has a particularly strong devotion to her.

St. John Lateran

From St. Mary Major, we headed slightly across town to the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

This is technically the first church (building) of Christendom after the emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the early centuries. It’s probably most notable for the huge statues of the 11 apostles and St. Paul. This basilica is also the seat of the diocese of Rome and Rome’s bishop also happens to be the pope.

St. Peter In Chains

After St. John Lateran, we headed over to another part of the ancient city of Rome to visit St. Peter In Chains. In Acts 12, it tells how an angel helped break Peter’s chains to set him free after being imprisoned in Rome. These chains were recovered and kept as a relic that is housed in this basilica.

Another cool feature of this basilica is the statue of Moses carved by Michaelangelo.
After St. Peter in Chains, we visited the outside of the Colosseum where Teresa gave us its history in brief. Conveniently, we took a water break at a Roman water fountain (the kind you drink out of and not the really nice marble ones). They have these scattered throughout the city. The water tastes great and was a much needed way to cool down as the weather was sunny and hot like Texas.

We took a lunch break in a restaurant nearby which was located in an old Roman cellar.

St. Paul Outside the Walls

After lunch, we jetted over to our last basilica for the day, St. Paul Outside the Walls. Yes, we went outside the still-standing ancient walls of Rome to the place where St. Paul’s body (but not head) is buried. For us Christians, he’s super important as the author of many letters of the New Testament. He was beheaded and buried.

Other things of note in this basilica is a relic of the chains of St. Paul when he was imprisoned. The basilica also has portraits of all 266 popes lining the upper walls of the interior.

The Catacombs

When we finished with St. Paul Outside The Walls, we headed over to one of the catacombs. Catacombs were burial sites outside the city. Very fascinating in how the early Christians were buried in the catacombs and how they also used these places for worship when Christianity was still illegal. Many of our early martyrs were buried in the catacombs. We went through a very informative hour tour where we got to walk through a brief section of the catacombs. Apparently there are miles and miles of catacombs underneath.

I couldn’t take pictures or video inside but that’s okay since it was kind of too dark anyway.

We returned back to our hotel, had dinner, had meetings as a big diocesan group and then as parish groups.

I finished off the night with an impromptu late night gelato run with a group that was heading out to grab some. We also invited our bishop and he agreed to tag along! So yes, I can say I’ve been out and about at 10PM at night looking for gelato with my bishop.

All in all, this was a crazy jam-packed day. I really had to try and remember that I’m not visiting all these places as a tourist but rather as a pilgrim. I really had to be intentional about these sacred places and remember to pray, especially for the intentions that I’m carrying with me (from some of you!).

Several things really stood out to me from today.

  • We had Mass at St. Mary Major! With our own bishop! That’s…major! But truly a blessing to be able to worship together in a such a place.
  • I really got to appreciate the tangible things of our Christian faith. Like the chains. The images and statues. Actual things that have great historical and religious significance. Visiting the basilicas and the catacombs made the Christian faith even more real for me.
  • Kind of tied to the above point is learning my heritage as a Christian. Rome has such a deeply embedded Christian history, and it was awesome to be able to learn some of it while visiting all these places today. It makes me appreciate all the more in being Christian today.

Day 1 done. Now time to look forward to not being a sissy. In Assisi.


Travel Day

Tuesday July 19, 2016
I’m writing this after the fact, and I’ll keep it short and sweet.

This was a long day of travel. If you can imagine what kind of coordination it takes to have 200+ people to fly on the same day, I’m sure you would agree that such a feat is simply amazing. Sure, we had multiple flight legs that split several ways, and we all had different arrival times, but that was part of the madness!

For me in particular, I was in a flight group that flew to Frankfurt, Germany. We had a nine hour flight on a Lufthansa A330-300. I sat next to a Nigerian Catholic priest who was in my local home area doing parish missions so I got to kind of talk to him about his work and his plans for World Youth Day in Kraków. 

With fourteen trips to Japan in the past year and a quarter, I knew that trying to get as much sleep as I can on the plane would be the most beneficial knowing that we’d land in Frankfurt at around 9AM. Did I? Nope. Not really. I attempted to sleep, but couldn’t pass into slumber because I have not mastered sleeping in Economy class as I’m a spoiled yet striving to not be entitled business (or first!) class traveler to Japan.

I did end up watching a few movies and some episodes of Big Bang Theory. For some reason my video monitor kept messing up as if someone was randomly touching particular parts of the screen. Sometimes it would stop whatever show or movie I was trying to watch. It was frustrating to deal with. However, despite the challenge, I was still able to complete watching Kung Fu Panda 3 and the new live-action Jungle Book.

We landed at Frankfurt at mid-morning. And my particular flight group had a six hour layover before our flight to Rome. That’s a long time to be at an airport. I mostly sat around conversing with my fellow pilgrims and grabbed sandwiches and pastries for lunch. An hour or two before our flight, I attempted at reading on my Kindle app on my iPad, and I almost dropped my iPad due to nearly passing out. It’s okay. I’m typing on it now.

Speaking of nearly passing out, I was able to practically pass out on the flight from Frankfurt to Rome. I don’t remember much from that flight as I was super tired. 

We finally arrived in Rome, grabbed our luggage, then boarded our charter bus to the hotel. However, the tour guide and driver decided to give us a brief driving tour around Rome so we got to preview some of the sites that we will be visiting this week.

Lastly, we arrived at our hotel. It’s actually a sort of apartment/residence style hotel so it’s a pretty generous accommodation during our stay here in Rome. I’m surprised it’s able to handle all of us plus other large groups of pilgrims.

Dinner was served. Showers taken. Bed prepared. And finally sleep. 

Ready to take on the adventures that await the next few days.