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"