By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published August 25, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
“Today my thoughts
Are swift and cool
As goldfish in
A lily pool.
Tomorrow, like as not,
Brown turtles blinking
Hard at me.
And I shall be
As dull as they
And blink back, too.
But oh, today!”
— Sister M. Philip, “Today”
I woke up several times during my first night in Italy far from my hometown of Madera, California. I had never been overseas. It was autumn 1997, and jet lag had convinced me that morning had come. The glow-in-the-dark numbers of my mother’s wind-up clock, however, disagreed with my skewed sense of time. My body eventually won the argument and I arose more than an hour before my 6:30 wake-up call.
I stayed with 10 other pilgrims at the Hotel Sirenetta (mermaid), which fittingly stood by the Tyrrhenian Sea, part of the Mediterranean. So I stepped into the lingering rain-sodden night to pray and walk along the seashore.
The harbor city of Ostia, which means “mouth,” sits at the mouth of the Tiber River and had been the most important port of the Roman empire until the capitol moved east to Constantinople. Now the pounding surf seemed to bring only litter to the rocky beach, and most of the shoreline had been claimed by resorts and restaurants.
After a light 7 a.m. breakfast of pastry, we crawled by bus through Rome's rush hour traffic amidst compacts, motorcycles and other buses. Beside the narrow roads, Italian competed with English for linguistic dominance on small billboards and ads, some of which were a voyeur's dream. Gas pumps sat on the sidewalk offering drive-by fill-ups.
We breached the Vatican an hour early for a 9:30 a.m. Wednesday audience with Pope John Paul II. On the way, our tour guide Sylvia Puppio had explained that to join the pope’s Swiss Guard one should be a “good-looking” bachelor who spoke English, German, Italian and Spanish. Alas, I sat two languages shy of the qualifications... among other things.
In St. Peter's Square, 140 stone saints atop the Roman colonnade had me surrounded, not to mention thousands of fellow pilgrims from around the globe. Tickets for a weekly papal audience are free, and courteous Swiss Guard and police directed the crowd, which in time filled the massive square.
On this site in A.D. 67 the apostle Peter (Kephas in Aramaic) had been crucified upside down as part of the Emperor Nero's Circo Vaticano (Vatican Arena) spectacles. Peter’s remains would be buried nearby, and in 326 the Emperor Constantine began work on a memorial church over his tomb. St. Peter's Basilica would be rebuilt in the 16th and 17th century, and has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world even today. I discovered that for myself that afternoon as my mind lost all sense of perspective in the presence of giant statues, pillars, and more.
A cousin later joked that Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18 not only were true spiritually, but literally as well — upon Peter a church had been built. At the time, I preferred to marvel at the sweet irony of how Jesus and all the martyrs had bested the Roman Empire even in the “defeat” of death.
That morning the pope’s open white car passed me before the audience, and I looked up at the tired, swollen eyes of a shepherd I had seen 13 years prior in Vancouver, British Columbia. Time had altered his face like a back alley mugger, but the light in his eyes hadn’t dulled. His strong presence would remain undimmed until the end of his earthly pilgrimage in 2005.
In a numbing diversity of tongues, visiting groups were announced, scripture read (Matthew 19:1-6), and the pope spoke upon the importance of an intact and loving marriage and family. Occasionally exuberant pilgrims would spontaneously break into song, cheer, or chant. The pope bore this with patience and a smile, like an indulgent grandfather.
I struggled to be patient myself as I tried to figure out what language was being spoken as I awaited words in English. But through it all I felt great peace and a gentle joy.
After a blessing around 11:30 a.m., I reluctantly rejoined Sylvia and my fellow California pilgrims for the more mundane matter of lunch. Yet I had already been well fed.
“The storm — the blast — the tempest shock,
Have beat upon these walls in vain;
She stands — a daughter of the rock --
The changeless God’s eternal fane.”
— Robert Stephen Hawker, “Morwennae Statio”
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 11/07/97 in The Madera Tribune
"Though blind men see no light, the sun doth shine.
Sweet cakes are sweet, though fevered tastes deny it.
Pearls precious are, though trodden on by swine;
Each truth is true, though all men do not try it."
— Robert Southwell, "Of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar"
LANCIANO, Italy — By late Friday morning, this Maderan's tour bus rode into the city of Lanciano for a lunch break. That afternoon, we pilgrims would catch our flight at the Leonardo Da Vinci airport in Rome for Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Our tour guide Sylvia Puppio led the 11 Californians from the bus to the little Church of St. Legontian. We were to meet again near there an hour later to continue the last leg of our journey through Italy.
In the back of this church sat an alleged 1,200-year-old miracle of the Eucharist, where the bread and wine of Communion had reportedly become Jesus' flesh and blood in a visible fashion.
Except for Sylvia, all silently prayed for a time before leaving to eat or shop. Another group of European and Middle-Eastern pilgrims filled the pews as my fellow pilgrims left one-by-one.
As for myself, I wasn't overwhelmed at the sight before my eyes. As a Catholic, I had always believed and don't recall ever doubting that Jesus truly became physically present in the bread and wine of Communion at mass. For me, appearances could not change what the scriptures and early Christians so clearly attested (I.E. Mat. 26:26-28; John 6:51-58; 1 Cor. 10:16; 11:23-32).
Sylvia had warned us earlier that we weren't allowed to take photographs of the Eucharist out of reverence. But several pilgrims — including myself — couldn't resist taking at least one shot. I prayed first to ask God permission to take His picture even though this was discouraged. If He did mind, I asked that the photo wouldn't come out ... and when I returned I discovered that it hadn't.
"I stooped to see the wonder, when, behold!
Within the cup a Countenance divine
Looked upward at me through the trembling wine,
Suffused with tenderest love and grief untold."
— Frederick Tennyson, "An Incident"
In the eighth century Frentanese city of Anxanum, a Basilian monk who had been studying the science of the day began to doubt the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. How could Jesus be physically present when the apparent nature of the bread and wine didn’t change? While celebrating mass one day, he interiorly begged God to help him know for sure that Jesus was present in the bread and wine, he later claimed. After the two-fold consecration during mass, the outer edge of the large Communion host publicly appeared to transform into flesh, and the wine into blood. It seemed his prayers had been dramatically answered.
The blood, now kept in an old rock-crystal cup, coagulated into five irregular globules and has a yellowish earthy color. The light brown flesh, minus the bread center which wasted away, has sat in a silver Ostensorium since 1713.
A scientific investigation was conducted in 1970-'71, and partly in 1981, by Prof. Odoardo Linoli, a professor in anatomy and pathological histology and in chemistry and clinical microscopy. Prof. Ruggero Bertelli of the University of Siena assisted. Their conclusions were that the flesh and blood are real flesh and blood, belong to the human species, and have the same blood-type: AB.
The flesh consists of muscular tissue of the heart: the myocardium, endocardium, the vagus nerve, and the left ventricle of the heart. The blood contains proteins in the same normal proportions (percentage-wise) as the sero-proteic make-up of fresh human blood. They could not explain how this flesh and blood, which had been left exposed to atmospheric and biological agents for 12 centuries, could remain preserved and fresh, despite signs of age in the ancient tissue.
"And I heard Agnus, Agnus Dei,
Pleading for man with Love's own breath;
And Love drew near me,
And Love drew near me
And I drank Life through God’s own death."
— Alfred Noyes, "The Strong City"
Too soon the hour of prayer passed. I made sure this time to be at the designated meeting place a few minutes earlier than requested. I would not be late this time, and happily endured the tardy return of a few shopping pilgrims.
We travelled westward, and upon arriving in Rome at half-past three we were delayed by a necessary detour. The bus driver, who had driven in a relatively subdued fashion during our travels, began to drive more like the other drivers with a heavy pedal. We had to reach the Da Vinci airport in time or miss checking in for our 5:25 p.m. flight.
"Your journey here has ended," announced Sylvia as we passed a statue of Leonardo da Vinci holding a model of the primitive helicopter he thought up.
She wouldn’t have another tour group until Thursday, but she stayed at the airport to help us all check-in and lingered behind to watch her odd bunch of 'tourists' off. I couldn't think of anything to say at the last, so I said farewell with a silent bow which amused her.
All of the pilgrims felt a bit sad to leave Italy, but all were excited and eager to go on to Medjugorje.
"Thou art the Way.
Hadst Thou been nothing but the goal,
I cannot say
If Thou hadst ever met my soul...
I'll not reproach
The road that winds, my feet that err.
Art Thou, Time, Way, and Wayfarer."
— Alice Meynell, "'I Am the Way'"
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 10/30/97 in The Madera Tribune
"Come, forsake your city street!
Come to God’s own fields and meet October.
Not the lean, unkempt and brown
Counterfeit that haunts the town..."
— T.A. Daly, “October”
OSTIA, Italy — Not long after 7 a.m. on Oct. 9, this Maderan and the other pilgrims bade farewell to the mermaids of Hotel Sirenetta beside the Tyrrhenian Sea, and set an easterly course to the opposite coast.
Beyond Rome, the autumn morning paraded before us Italy’s rolling vineyards, castles, homes and villas. Walled towns tightly crowned their chosen hill as though a flood, or attack, were imminent.
Upon the passing fields I could almost see the beggar form of St. Francis of Assisi, a man like Jesus in spirit and in flesh. Surely he glimpsed heaven’s shadow when, as I, he looked down upon a twisting valley filled with a river of clouds.
Warning beeps sounded in the bus after 9 a.m. The driver stopped and found that the compressor belt had snapped, so we went on to the next “restoration” area to await a mechanic summoned by our cellular-phone-toting guide, Sylvia Puppio.
The convenience store there offered fine cheeses, sausages, liquor and more, but I satisfied myself with a bit of packaged toast from the hotel. I would fast on bread and water this day as a sacrifice on behalf of the petitions I brought to the cave of St. Michael in Monte San Angelo.
The store also sold “Papa Dolce” in a white, cardboard box bearing the pope’s photo. Does the pope endorse cookies? If only I read Italian.
“What hast thou felt to-day?
The pinions of the Angel-guide
That standeth at thy side
In rapturous ardours beat,
Glowing, from head to feet,
In ecstasy divine? Nay,
This only have I felt,
Christ’s hand in mine.”
— Robert Hugh Benson, “After a Retreat”
The mechanic arrived within half an hour, and the pilgrims traveled on for two more hours to the Rosary hotel-restaurant for lunch in the little fishing town of Termoli. As I entered, I noticed the familiar “Voice of Padre Pio” magazine, except in Italian, laying on a table by the front door.
The travel since the rest stop had been an unexpected trial for me as memories and temptations plagued me, as they had the night before, making prayer difficult. At the restaurant, I stood alone upon the balcony overlooking the Adriatic Sea and struggled with myself not to choose sin in my heart. Then, in light of my gentle surroundings, sin suddenly seemed alien and senseless. I refused anew to compromise, and slowly peace returned.
Most of the menu featured delicate dishes of fishes, but to the kindly waiters’ dismay I would only eat bread. At first they concluded this poor American couldn’t get enough of the good Italian bread. So they brought out olive oil for my bread, after explaining that “burro” (butter) would make me fat. But despite my repeated attempts to explain I was fasting, they innocently continued to serve me each course of the lovely meal.
My abstinence disturbed them, but they hit upon a solution. At the end of the meal, the beaming waiters sweetly presented me with a large, round loaf of Italian bread. I’d never been so pleasantly embarrassed in my life. Their solicitude didn’t extend only to me, and I think all of the pilgrims left the Rosary smiling.
Our unexpected breakdown rearranged our itinerary. Skipping Lanciano for now, we journeyed south past San Giovanni Rotondo to arrive at Monte San Angelo, the Gargano Mountains’ highest peak, in the late afternoon. From a distance, the peak’s tight clusters of houses resembled a monastery or fortification.
Up the narrow, winding road our bus climbed until we reached the top. The bus wasn’t allowed on the narrower roads, and St. Michael’s Basilica wasn’t far by foot.
“Not woman-faced and sweet, as look
The angels in the picture-book;
But terrible in majesty,
More than an army passing by.”
— Katherine Tynan, “Michael the Archangel”
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 10/29/97 in The Madera Tribune
"If I am right, Thy grace impart
Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, oh, teach my heart
To find the better way!"
— Alexander Pope, "Universal Prayer"
ROME, Italy — Just beyond the walls of the Vatican, this Maderan discovered himself in rough-and-tumble company at the restaurant Giardinaccio, a name which our guide Sylvia Puppio explained meant "ugly garden." In truth, the fine establishment didn’t live up to its name, and the hardy company I just referred to were really 11 westerners that the Catholic actor John Wayne would have been proud to call pilgrims.
We pilgrims had scarcely adjusted to the fact that all beverages, even water, cost in Italy, when the head waiter miscalculated our tabs. Mild chaos erupted among the pilgrims, one of whom quickly drew her trusty six-gun ... er ... six-digit calculator. I hid behind my beard as my tougher brethren worked out the correct totals.
While leaving I was touched, emotionally and literally, by an older Italian man who upon seeing my old-fashioned, silver crucifix said something to Sylvia and kissed the corpus on the cross. His symbolic gesture of love didn't move young Sylvia, who firmly refused to do the same despite the man’s urgings.
"A marble poem; an aesthetic dream
Of sculptured beauty, fit to be the theme
Of angel fancies; a Madonna-prayer
Uttered in stone. Round columns light as air..."
— Eleanor C. Donnelly, "Ladye Chapel at Eden Hall"
Enter the Vatican Museums and you’ll officiate at the marriage of beauty to history. A friendly coup d'etat by my fellow pilgrims had changed our afternoon itinerary from a tour of the Roman Forum and Colosseum to a more fitting tour of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica. Ever so grateful will I be for their action, which cost us little.
Never have I walked through such lovely museums where the very walls and ceiling, adorned with frescoes and such, were historic works of art. A witty, middle-aged woman was the captain on our three-hour tour of beauty.
The overwhelming pinnacle of our abridged museum tour was the Sistine Chapel, the groundplan of which measures 40.23 by 13.41 meters — the same dimensions as Solomon's Temple. Most of the chapel's famous frescoes had been cleaned with funding from Japan's Nippon Television Network Corporation.
In the bottom right corner of the "Last Judgment" fresco, the fiery mouth of hell could now be brightly seen where before only murk lay. Frowning there stands a white-haired man with donkey ears and a snake wrapped around him biting the man's own nether world. The man represents the mythological, damned King Minos, but the face belongs to a Vatican cardinal who had often criticized Michelangelo's fresco.
Upon seeing his likeness, the cardinal complained to the pope that Michelangelo had shown him in Hell. The pope responded that hell was out of his papal jurisdiction (Mat. 16:18-19; Isa. 22:19-22), so he couldn’t help the cardinal if he was there. The image remained.
Beyond the chapel stood the largest church in the world, St. Peter's Basilica, which dwarfs the imagination as well as the body with giant celestial statues and more.
Inside sits the Michelangelo's Pieta, a sculpture of Mary cradling the slain Jesus like a child. Admirers kept attributing the statue to other better known artists, so in anger young Michelangelo stole into the basilica by night with chisel and hammer to sign his name — the only time he signed one of his works.
I can't do justice to the basilica’s breathtaking beauty with my feeble words or borrowed eloquence ...
“Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain has bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.”
— Thomas Moore, “Oft in the Stilly Night”
Early that Wednesday evening we returned to the Hotel Sirenetta, and I rushed to the nearby church in hopes of ending the day with a mass. I caught only the tail end, and soon roamed the streets of Ostia in search of dinner.
I had exchanged some dollars for lira near the Vatican Museums, but my ignorance of Italian remained a dining obstacle. I resisted the urge to eat at a classy McDonald's restaurant, and I somewhat accidentally bought a sausage pita from a street vendor by a pier in the Tyrrhenian Sea. I learned not to ask what something is if the vendor doesn't speak much English.
All through that evening I kept running into young, amorous couples exchanging long embraces and kisses. The memories and frustration which a young man alone tends to struggle with in such times led me to retire to my hotel room, where I found peace in prayer and in writing postcards to friends and family.
"Dark Angel, with thine aching lust!
Of two defeats, of two despairs:
Less dread, a change to drifting dust,
Than thine eternity of cares.
Do what thou wilt, thou shalt not so,
Dark Angel! triumph over me:
Lonely, unto the Lone I go;
Divine, to the Divinity."
— Lionel Johnson, "The Dark Angel"
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 10/27/97 in The Madera Tribune
"In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage."
— Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Canterbury Tales"
When asked, I only reluctantly shared the nature of my recent two-week trek around the Mediterranean. Even now, I hesitate to write about a personal journey which reflects so deeply my heart, mind, and soul.
Some thought they understood when I said I would be leaving Madera, California, to visit the Italian cities of Rome, Lanciano, and San Giovanni Rotondo. But visions of a European vacation fell flat when I mentioned I would be spending over half the "vacation" in the small land-locked Bosnian town of Medjugorje. Most would ask why, and usually I would eventually admit that my trip was in truth a religious pilgrimage. At that point, the conversations tended to ground to a halt.
I’m afraid being a "pilgrim" isn’t the only anachronism I am guilty of in this modern world, so intent on reinventing itself to death. To write of my pilgrimage I am forced to confess that although I'm a university educated journalist and a Bible-thumping, Spirit-filled Christian ... I am also a Roman Catholic.
Really this is no secret, but rarely has my creed boldly intruded into newsprint any more than my humanity, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. Yet truly all these characteristics make me what I am and surely must leave their impression on all I do.
However I lay bare my faith this week simply to more openly and honestly tell the tale of my pilgrimage. I hope to offer a brief insider's view of a unique experience. Read this rare entertainment with skepticism or faith, loathing or love, but please not with indifference.
"Fare not abroad, O Soul, to win
Man’s friendly smile or favoring nod;
Be still, be strong, and seek within
The Comradeship of God."
— Myles E. Connolly, "Quo Vadis?"
Why does a grown man venture to foreign lands, however holy they may be, when Heaven is as near as a prayer? Up until recently, similar thoughts contented me to remain in Madera, California, rather than roam vainly in search of signs or wonders. I had no need to search for God. He'd already found me.
What moved me to undertake my pilgrimage wasn't a change of heart or mind, but the simple conviction that I was being called to do this.
To test this calling I set seemingly insurmountable hurdles in the way, such as getting the time off from work. If a single obstacle remained I would not go. Yet surprisingly each hurdle was overcome with ease, and so I accepted this pilgrim’s call with a mixture of hope and excitement.
I wasn't sure why I was called, but I hoped for spiritual renewal away from my usual routine. I would have more time to pray and be challenged daily to reexamine and explore my faith and self.
I began the 29 hour journey from the Fresno airport at 1:10 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 6. At 5:10 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 7, a 757 jet carrying (among others) a small band of 11 pilgrims touched down in Rome to be quickly greeted by Sylvia Puppio, our young Roman tour guide.
To the chagrin of some fellow pilgrims, Sylvia bussed us to Hotel Sirenetta (Hotel Mermaid) in nearby Ostia outside of Rome. Some of the others had expected to be in walking distance of the Vatican City, but instead we were to stay across the street from the Tyrrhenian Sea, part of the Mediterranean.
With directions from Sylvia, I walked around the corner and down the street to a nearby church looking for confession. Once inside, I talked to an elder priest in my poor Spanish, since I knew no Italian.
When he figured out what I wanted he took me to a young dark-haired priest, who patiently heard my confession of my sins in Spanish. Only later did I discover he had only very recently been assigned to that church.
My timing, apparently, was impeccable. After confession, I found the custodian already locking up the little church.
On the way back to Hotel Sirenetta, I saw a shrine on an island in the middle of a side street. The shrine bore a mosaic of Mary holding the child Jesus. So I took the opportunity to stop and thank God for His mercy and kindness to me. I also offered up my skipped dinner, the result of neglecting to have my dollars converted to Italian "lira" at the airport.
Because there were 11 of us on this first leg of the pilgrimage, I ended up being the odd man out and had the "misfortune" of not having to share a hotel room during all my time in Italy. So I took advantage of this to go to sleep early that evening to combat my jet lag.
"The Shadow of the Rock!
Stay, Pilgrim! stay!
Night treads upon the heels of day;
There is no other resting-place this way.
The Rock is near.
The well is clear.
Rest in the Shadow of the Rock."
— Frederick W. Faber, "The Shadow of the Rock"