From November 10th to the 12th this year I assisted with a pilgrimage of Benedictine oblates to important sites in and around the Eternal City. Thirty-five men and women from Australia to the Netherlands to the United States, and places in between, had signed up (and paid) for the short but important visit to a number of the most frequented churches, monasteries and secular monuments in the vicinity of Rome.
The pilgrimage group I was with had been part of the larger International Congress of Benedictine Oblates, some two-hundred fifty in number, who had gathered for a week at a Catholic conference center, called Fraterna Domus, outside of Rome, just prior to the pilgrimage. I was not part of the Oblate Congress, so I cannot report on that, but I heard that the participants found it a very worthwhile event. The Congress is held every four years and the next one scheduled to occur in 2021.
The Oblate Congress used to be open to only a certain number from each country or monastery, but now is open to all oblates. Three oblates of Christ in the Desert attended the Congress as well as the pilgrimage, so also our Brother Philip Thomas.
I arrived at the Fraterna Domus conference center the last night of the Oblate Congress, on Thursday, November 9th, in order to be ready for the pilgrimage that began on Friday morning, November 10th. I met with the pilgrimage group after supper on Thursday and we retired that night with “sweet dreams” of the pilgrimage to begin in the morning.
The English-language pilgrimage of Benedictine oblates was managed by the “Opera Romana Pellegrinaggio,” (ORP), that is, the “Roman Pilgrimage Work,” an agency under the Holy See (the Vatican), whose purpose is to help in organizing pilgrimages to shrines and other points of religious, cultural and ecumenical interest in Italy. The ORP helps too in planning pilgrimages farther afield, such as to Lourdes and Fatima and assists in welcoming pilgrims to the Eternal City.
The Vatican agency includes hiring the buses and drivers used to transport pilgrims and hiring suitable guides. They also arrange for meals at restaurants for any dining during the tours. These meals are similar to monastic fare, with everyone receiving the same meal. The first dish is usually pasta, then a main course of meat, vegetables and salad, followed by dessert. Wine, water and bread were also part of the meals, as well as coffee in some places. Dietary needs are also respected and some of our pilgrims received appropriate food for individual needs.
The bus for our weekend was somewhat inferior, with no bathroom and a poorly repaired window that shook some on bumpy roads and made pilgrims, including me, somewhat nervous. The guides were quite good on the other hand, and spoke English well and seemed enthused about their work.
I understand that official guides such as ours must pass a test and be licensed in Italy to conduct tours. Our Saturday guide was an Italian lay third-order Franciscan man and on Saturday an Italian Catholic laywoman. An assistant, also employed by the ORP, was with us each day and on Sunday, at Montecassino Abbey, we had an official guide right at the monastery and not an ORP guide.
The first day of pilgrimage, Friday, November 10th, included the Vatican Museums, the Sistine chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica. Lunch was at a restaurant near the Vatican and in the afternoon we went to see the Roman Forum, but from the outside, from viewpoints that show plenty of the once bustling center of Roman politics.
That day we also saw the Coliseum from the outside, afterwards the church of Saint Benedict in Piscinula (see one of my previous postings about this important church for Benedictines), and then the nearby minor Basilica of Santa Cecilia, where Benedictine nuns reside. The latter two churches are in Trastevere, one of Rome’s most pleasant neighborhoods..
We returned to the conference center, about an hour from Rome, after our Santa Cecilia visit. At Fraterna Domus we celebrated Mass as a group, had supper and retired. I think most found it a very enriching but exhausting day.
On day two, Saturday, November 11th, we returned to Rome by bus and visited the major Basilicas of Saint Mary Major, Saint John Lateran and Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The latter is also a Benedictine abbey. There we had Mass at the end of the day before returning to Fraterna Domus.
The guide on Saturday was particularly concerned in connecting the sites to the wider Church and what that all means for a life of faith and prayer. I was impressed by her approach and obvious love of the places we visited. She is a native Roman and knows the Basilicas well, since childhood.
Sunday morning we went to the Abbey of Montecassino, where Saint Benedict and his twin sister Saint Scholastica are buried. Needless to say, this was the highlight of the pilgrimage for the oblates and us monks as well.
At Montecassino, set high on a hill, we participated in Sunday Mass with the monks and had a tour of the historic abbey, which was rebuilt after the bombings of World War II that nearly completely destroyed the abbey. The tombs of Saints Benedict and Scholastica were spared destruction, though still required some restoration work after the war.
After our tour we went to the town of Cassino to enjoy lunch together then visited some sites where Allied soldiers were captured by the Germans. Afterwards we came back to Fraterna Domus center.
Sunday evening was the conclusion of the 2017 oblate pilgrimage and on Monday Brother Philip and I returned to Rome and Sant’Ambrogio where I live, after a visit to the monasteries of Santa Scholastica and Sacro Speco (Holy Cave of Saint Benedict) at Subiaco.
The visit to Subiaco was made possible by a kind participant in the oblate retreat who was sponsoring a small group of friends, also oblates, to see Subiaco. Bother Philip and I were invited along, honored and delighted by the unforeseen opportunity presented to us.
The visit and tour were splendid. Subiaco is one of the most beautiful shrines in Europe, in my humble opinion. There are two monasteries there. One is where the larger group of monks live, called Santa Scholastica, and the other site, the Sacro Speco, has a smaller group of monks, just up the hill from Santa Scholastica. Sacro Speco is where Saint Benedict lived as a hermit before writing the Holy Rule, now called “of Saint Benedict.”
We were back in Rome by about 7:00 pm, grateful for all we had seen and done over the previous four days.