Twenty-two pilgrims develop sense of community on journey

By Tom Maguire | Associate editor

On her first trip abroad, Lorraine Murray was awed to touch the tomb of St. Anthony of Padua.

“Very sharp in my mind. … You can put your hand on it and say a prayer,” said Murray, of St. Patrick Church in Chittenango.

Murray joined 21 other pilgrims Sept. 26 to Oct. 2 in Italy. They were led by two priests who celebrated Mass every day on the trip: Father Charles S. Vavonese and Father Peter Tassini, Jr.

“That was very, very poignant,” Murray said of daily Mass, “in that it brought our group together and solidified the reasons why we’re there. So I felt like it was uplifting and very exciting. … I felt like the group was great and the priests were great. And they really tried to make things happen for us.”

Father Vavonese has always had a great devotion to St. Anthony. “Just to be there and pray at his tomb was an exceptional blessing for me,” he said.

‘A real unity’

A pilgrimage is not a tour or a vacation, he said.

Traveling to sacred sites, he said, is a “unique opportunity for spiritual healing and renewal. And that happens to different people in different ways.”

He added: “On a pilgrimage there’s a real unity that comes out, and it’s just a wonderful thing. People are looking after one another.”

The 22 pilgrims visited Rome, Florence, Padua, and Venice. Attendees were very diverse, Father Vavonese said: a physician; people from other occupations; and a number of senior citizens, most of them retired.

“I think when people go over, particularly, if this is their first,” Father Vavonese said, “they’re a little afraid.” He noted that it involves a whole new culture, language, and monetary system, and they’re worried about how the trip will turn out.

But toward the end, he said, after they have had the chance to experience one another and the spiritual shrines, the pilgrims show a real sense of community.

“They say, ‘I made it,’” Father Vavonese said. “‘This was fine, it was a wonderful adventure. I didn’t know a lot about it going into it, but it worked. I have wonderful memories to take home with me.’”

Father Vavonese has been to Italy about 10 times. “Each time you go,” he said, “you get a whole new sense of the beauty.” During his junior year in college, he studied in Rome. He said, “It never gets old. … Each time I go, I am always knocked off my feet when I see St. Peter’s [Basilica.]”

He noted that the builders of St. Peter’s put money together for the massive project, but, also, “they gave their time and talent for the sake and glory of God. You look at that and you say, How strong must their faith have been to build that, to have given all that. … You can’t imagine how strong their faith must have been and you just say: Wow, I stand in awe.”

One of the most powerful sites that the pilgrims visited was the grotto of St. Peter’s Basilica. “We were able to say Mass in the grotto over the actual tomb of St. Peter,” Father Vavonese said. “There was such a strong presence of the holy there. They [the pilgrims] truly felt moved and connected with the history of the Church.”

2 years, 2 pilgrimages

Tully resident Louise Prince, of Our Lady of Hope Church in Syracuse, attended the pilgrimage in Italy for the second year in a row. Last year, she went with Father John D. Manno’s group. “You can’t help but learn,” she said. “So much to learn about our faith and our Church.”

Asked about this year’s pilgrimage, she said, “It was a very full trip; we saw as much as possible in the limited time that we had.” The pilgrims did a lot of walking, to see as many places as they could.

Prince loved the chance to pray in beautiful ancient churches that contain relics of saints and martyrs — churches with “incredible history and meaning and artwork.”

Most impressive to her was St. Peter’s, which she called “our mother church.” She saw the basilica early in the morning, when the church is used for prayer and prayer only, and she heard people pray in all different languages  — it “really shows our universal church in all its beauty.” She also saw St. Peter’s as it glowed at night.

Prince spent some time individually visiting some Rome churches that contain the relics of heroic women saints. As examples she cited Sant’Agostino, which contains the remains of St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica; and Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which contains the remains of Saint Catherine of Siena.

Prince appreciated the opportunity “to pray where their relics were present and realize the incredible gifts they gave to our faith.”

Mary McNeil, of St. Margaret Church in Homer, saw the pilgrimage as “a wonderful journey of reflection and prayer. Relationships were born  — friendships took hold. My time there was spiritually moving at every turn. The opportunity to experience Rome through the eyes and heart of Father Vavonese was truly a gift!”

Murray, from Chittenango, summed up: “Very moving trip. It makes me want to go back and see more.”

‘Jewel in the Mediterranean’

Well, an opportunity is coming up next year. Father Vavonese’s family is from Sicily, and he has been there three times. He is planning another Sicily pilgrimage: a 10-day spiritual journey in September or October.

“It is just magnificent,” he said. “It’s a hidden jewel in the Mediterranean, and it has a whole unique sense of faith.”

Father Vavonese remembers visiting some of his great-uncles in Sicily. “It’s an amazing time when all of a sudden you realize you’re connected to more people than you thought,” he said.

He added: “My grandfather left Italy 50 years prior. So it was very moving for me. It’s connecting with your roots.”

“I think the biggest thing is to recognize that a pilgrimage is not a vacation,” Father Vavonese said. “You will get rest on the trip, but it is really a spiritual journey.”

As an example, he recalled one year when a pilgrim emerged from the Lourdes water — called “baths” — and began crying. “The woman … said, ‘All of the pain I have experienced in my life I can let go.’”

Editor’s note: Click here to see photos and read highlights from the pilgrimage to Ireland led by Bishop Cunningham and the Catholic Sun Oct. 9 to 19.

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