Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, Father Joe O’Connor, and the Catholic Sun led a Lenten pilgrimage to Italy March 11 to 21, 2019. Here, the group stands before the Arch of Constantine in Rome. (Sun photo | Katherine Long)
Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, Father Joe O’Connor, and the Catholic Sun led a Lenten pilgrimage to Italy March 11 to 21, a journey of faith and history that transformed 28 pilgrims. After returning home, pilgrims were invited to share with readers of the Sun the graces they received during the pilgrimage. Here are some of their reflections.
A pilgrimage is a journey to seek the Lord and gain new insights and understanding about our faith. It’s also a journey to see ourselves as we are, to make changes, and to come back renewed. I had just returned from my pilgrimage to the Holy Land, following the footsteps of Jesus to his final destination in Jerusalem. I was at Joppa where St. Paul, a Roman citizen, would sail from to go to Rome to face the Emperor. So to be able to continue my journey to Italy following St. Peter and St. Paul was exciting. Seeing where our Church was established in the heart of the most evil empire was awesome. In Rome especially, one sees our churches intermingled with the fallen ruins of old Rome. The holy gothic churches we visited make your eyes look up to God and to see the beautiful frescos and mosaics depicting not only the life of Jesus and Mary, but also those of the saints. One can appreciate the blood of so many early Christians when we learned about Vatican Hill being a Roman cemetery and that St. Peter’s was built over the catacombs and St. Peter’s grave. So our group of pilgrims, tired but strong, helped each other as we walked, prayed our rosaries on the bus, and attended Masses led by Bishop Cunningham at these holy sites. We even had a house Mass! To be able to receive the Eucharist at the tomb of Pope St. John Paul II, at Assisi, at Siena, and at St. Mark’s in Venice was so moving. This pilgrimage had to change us in some way to feel a closer connection to God. — Gloria Sinclair, Vestal
After a two-year health crisis, to be able to stand in front of St. Peter’s Basilica was awesome. I was overwhelmed by the beauty and the feeling of being close to God. I could not have enjoyed this pilgrimage without the help of my fellow pilgrims, who made sure that I was able to walk up, down, and around to see and enjoy the beauty of everything. I’ll always remember their kindness. — Ginny Lostumbo, Liverpool
My favorite part of the pilgrimage was St. Peter’s Basilica. After seeing the giant columns I thought of the bible passage that says the earth is God’s footstool (this is in Isaiah 66:1). And the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica made me think of the gates of heaven. I also appreciated seeing the sites of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s martyrdoms. I felt connected to their sufferings as members of the body of Christ. Lastly, Bishop Cunningham, Father Joe, and Brendan [Foley, seminarian and pilgrim] celebrated Mass in such a humble way, as true servants of Christ. — Christopher Errante, Johnson City
What an absolute joy it was to make this journey and to feel a sense of renewal in Faith, which is a precious gift to us. It was a blessing to attend Mass each day in sacred surroundings.
On my return home, many asked if there was any particular sacred place that was my favorite, but I must say, as each day unfolded, I felt as though each sacred space revealed its special treasure, whether it was in the footsteps of the martyrs, Peter and Paul or the martyrs of the catacombs. It was breathtaking to view the beautiful cathedrals so lovingly dedicated to God, and to be enveloped in blessed moments while visiting the tombs of Francis, Clare, Catherine of Siena, and Anthony. On a retreat I made recently, the retreat director cited St. Thomas Aquinas on the great love of the saints: “All the saints intended that whatever they did or suffered for God’s sake should be of value not only to themselves but to the whole Church.” How blessed are we to share in the merits of the saints longing to help us on the road to heaven.
One does not make such a pilgrimage without their life being enriched and deepened and I give thanks to our pastor, Father Daniel O’Hara, and the people I minister to in Liverpool, who made my journey possible and to Bishop Cunningham, Father Joseph O’Connor, Brendan Foley, and Katherine Long who guided our journey with care and love. Grazie e Che Dio vi benedica tutti! — Sister Rose Marie Caravaglio, CSJ
During one of Father O’Connor’s homilies he told about reading a story to his preschool-aged nephew. After a few minutes the nephew became distracted by something going on in the next room and he took off to investigate. When his mother saw him she calmly asked the nephew, “Where are you supposed to be?” And the little boy quickly turned around and went back to listening to the story. Father ended his homily by reminding us all that we all become distracted and every now and then we need to ask ourselves, “Where am I supposed to be? Where am I supposed to be in my relationship with Jesus?” — Tina Dyer, Fulton
This was my first pilgrimage, and it went far beyond my expectations. I was hoping to gain a deeper understanding of our faith, the saints, and the history of our Catholic formation. Sharing this experience with members of our own diocese, who have the same religious beliefs and feelings, was deeply meaningful and inspirational to me. It was not just learning so much about the church history and the lives of the saints — visiting and seeing where they lived, where they were buried, and where the events took place had such a spiritual impact on me. To be able to participate in daily Mass, in all the various sites, with our own Bishop Cunningham and Father Joe presiding, and Brendan our seminarian, was also uplifting. I will always remember the Mass at St. Peter’s, as well as the Mass in the catacombs which gave me the feeling of the early Christians having to celebrate their faith in secret. — Kathy Errante, Johnson City
Following a very challenging 10 months of loss I sought and believe that, due to our time in Italy, I found inner peace to help me continue to cope. The daily Masses and rosaries along with the strength that I gained from my fellow pilgrims helped me to achieve this goal. I pray that the memories of our time in Italy will continue to be a source of strength and comfort to me and my fellow pilgrims. — Ellen Holst, Bernhards Bay
I have always wanted to travel to Italy. In fact, it’s always been number one on my travel bucket list. So when my good friend Ellen asked if I’d be interested in going on this pilgrimage, I honestly didn’t have to think very long. So with my husband’s blessing I committed to my first religious journey. To be honest, as the departure date approached, I felt a lot of trepidation. It was indeed an honor to travel with Bishop Cunningham, Father Joseph O’Connor, and seminarian Brendan Foley, and inspirational as well.
My Catholic Christian faith has always been strong. To be traveling with other people that share that same faith was easy because it was like traveling with instant best friends.
On this pilgrimage I was discerning my next “calling.” Initially I was slightly disappointed because I didn’t find any answers. Our days were so full of overwhelmingly beautiful, sacred, historic sites my brain was overcharged at the end of the day. Even during our daily Masses I found myself distracted at times because of where I was.
It’s impossible to overstate what a profoundly moving experience it was to pray inside the very church St. Francis restored, to pray before the cross that spoke to him, to pray at his tomb. Similarly, there are no words to describe what it felt like to visit the necropolis beneath St. Peter’s, to touch the tomb of St. Anthony, to walk the same streets as St. Catherine.
But the ordinary moments between those extraordinary experiences are the memories that have remained the brightest in my mind since our return home: A pilgrim helping another pilgrim navigate a tricky set of stairs. The pure joy on a pilgrim’s face as he took in a magnificent church. The closeness we all felt (literally and spiritually) as we celebrated a “house Mass” in our hotel and prayed for our Muslim brothers and sisters halfway across the world in New Zealand. The speed with which all of the nurses in our group jumped from their seats to assist a sick passenger on our flight home.
Before we began our journey, we talked about the difference between a pilgrimage and a vacation. Both may include exotic locales and time away from the home or office, but a pilgrimage is so much more than just a trip. It’s a special kind of journey, a trek of faith that stretches you and changes you and calls you to be your best self. It was a privilege to be on that journey with my fellow pilgrims. — Katherine Long, Syracuse
It’s tough to find the right words to describe my gratitude for the experiences I had while on our pilgrimage. Of course I was anticipating seeing the magnificent sites along our journey, to finally see in person so many holy places that I had only before imagined or seen in pictures — but ultimately for me, the lasting impact comes from the joy I had of carrying with me the intimate prayer intentions from family and friends back at home. It made me feel very close to our Lord, especially at Mass, and gave a special purpose to me each day for how I could be so blessed to share as part of this pilgrimage. As a community from our diocese, we knew each of us came with many hopes and prayers for ourselves and for our loved ones who could not be with us. Offering the day’s steps and moments in prayer for those intentions quickly formed a strong sense of community among us.
You also couldn’t help but have meaningful spiritual conversations with one another, or learn about the prayers people were carrying with them without learning their stories along the way. Truly in the short time of being together we experienced what it was like to be Church: to pray with and for each other, and to literally walk alongside one another, while nearly everything we saw and experienced turned our minds and hearts “toward the things above” as St. Paul might say (Colossians 3). I know Jesus certainly drew me closer to himself along the way. The new friends/intercessors I gained, getting acquainted in new ways with old Saint friends (Peter, Paul, Francis, Clare, and Catherine), and sharing quiet moments in prayer and friendship with Father O’Connor and Bishop Cunningham sum up the graces I am so grateful for and still unpacking here at home. Thanks be to God! — Brendan Foley, Johnson City