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A Moveable Feast: Enchanted by Siena

When I put Siena on our pilgrimage itinerary, it was mainly because I wanted to visit the church where St. Catherine of Siena’s head rests. (The rest of her body is at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, and I had already been there. I wanted to be able to say I had seen ALL of her.) Anyway, that was the motivation for making sure we had at least a half-day in the city of Siena, but, oh, once we got there, how I wished we had more time.

I loved Siena. It was so much more manageable than Florence — quieter, not as crowded, fewer panhandlers and potential pickpockets, more medieval. I could stay in Siena for a few days and just soak up Italian life from my seat at an outdoor cafe in Piazza del Campo. Read more

Italy 2014: Food-faith pilgrimage is filling up fast. Sign up today!

It’s hard to believe that in just about six months we’ll be departing for Rome on our 13-day food-faith pilgrimage, Italy: A Feast for Body and Soul. Since I last updated you, we’ve had an exciting development. In addition to a great group of people from throughout the New York-New Jersey region, with a few from more far-flung places, we will also have a priest traveling with us.   Read more

Italy alert: We are now under the one-year countdown to the most amazing pilgrimage

One year from now we will be just back from the most amazing pilgrimage, a 13-day food and faith tour of Italy that will take us from Montecatini, Florence, Siena, and Assisi to Rome, Naples, Salerno, Sorrento, and the Isle of Capri. There’s still plenty of time to save up some money and vacation days and join us for a wonderful weaving of spirituality, sightseeing, and one fabulous meal and hotel after another. You can find the full itinerary HERE. Read more

Come with me to Italy and feed your body and soul

Dear Fellow Adventurer,

For most of my adult life, I dreamed of going to Italy. I wanted to pray in St. Peter’s Basilica. I wanted to know the country of my grandfather’s birth. I wanted to eat the delicious food that had inspired so many family meals when I was growing up. Three years ago, when I stepped onto the streets of Rome for the first time, I cried from the sheer joy of being there, and I knew right then that I’d have to return some day soon. Italy had captured my heart! Read more

Rome Moment: Wrong Turn, Right Location

Throughout my Roman adventure, I found that the most moving moments were often the hidden ones, the moments when I met someone or ended up somewhere that I hadn’t planned or expected. So I thought I’d begin to share some of those moments that make for my most lasting memories of Rome.

On my second full day in Rome, I struck out on my own to try to squeeze in as much sightseeing as possible before the “Church Up Close” program began the next day. So after a delicious breakfast of cappuccino and cornetti, I went to Mass at the Gesu, the Jesuit church near my hotel, and visited the rooms of St. Ignatius. Then I made my way to the Vittorio Emmanuele Monument, the Imperial Way, the Colosseum, and, eventually, the Roman Forum. And although I could clearly see the Roman Forum from where I stood outside the Colosseum, getting inside the gates wasn’t so simple. I began walking up a hill, only to find an entry point closed with an arrow pointing me toward another hill, where I assumed I’d find the correct entry gate.

So, on this 90 degree afternoon when I was hot and hungry from wandering all over and skipping lunch, I began the long slow climb up Palatine Hill. And I climbed. And I climbed. And I wondered, Am I going in the right direction? But it was beautiful and there were some others making the same climb, so I trudged on, passing the beautiful cloistered monastery of San Sebastiano on the way up. Finally, I got to the top. A dead end. Wrong turn.

But there in front of me was the simple but stunning Chiesa di San Bonaventura al Palatino, as seen in the photo above. And it was open, despite the fact that it was siesta time. So I went in and found a little oasis in the desert. In that lonely, darkened church, a lone voice sang Gregorian chant, and as I knelt there, grateful for the mistake that led me to this place, I was reminded again that pilgrimage is not about checking off a list of destinations visited but a journey meant to take us to places we have never imagined.

There were so many moments like that on my Rome trip, moments I hope to share with you in the days ahead. And it makes me wonder, how many of those moments do I miss in my everyday pilgrimage through life here at home?

Chance encounters turn Rome into home

When I arrived in Rome, I expected to be awed by the sheer spectacle of the scenery. How can you walk though the Roman Forum or stand in the Colosseum or pray in St. Peter’s Basilica and not be bowled over by the magnitude of where you are and all that came before you? And then there is the beauty around every corner – the churches that house the Caravaggios and Berninis and Michelangelos as if they are just ordinary works of art in any neighborhood church. Rome really is a feast for the senses, even before you get to the fabulous food.

But more than the art and the food and the buildings, Rome will be seared into my memory because of the smaller moments of grace that seemed to come one after another as I made my way around the Eternal City. God really is in the details, especially when those details take the form of human encounters that make a place or a meal or a church come alive with a real spirit of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood.

During my recent 10-day visit to Rome, it was the chance encounters that made the overly scheduled trip the success that it was. Like the night two colleagues and I — after a busy day at the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum — set out in search of a specific restaurant. We walked for more than a half hour only to find it closed. Then we went in the opposite direction to find yet another restaurant we’d heard about. We couldn’t find that one at all, and so we “settled” for La Pilotta, a small restaurant with a view of the dome of St. Peter’s. There at a long table in the center of the restaurant was a group of men, who were talking and laughing and eating. A good sign. Locals, we thought. We sat down and ordered pasta cooked to perfection and a house wine better than anything I’ve had at home. As we ate, the men at the next table began to sing at the top of their lungs, first in Italian and then in Polish.

They were seminarians from Belarus, there with their bishop and pastor. They were so filled with joy, and they sang extra loud once they heard our applause. We were sad to see them go as we shook hands and tried to communicate in parsed together Italian and English.

The next morning, I stood in Piazza San Pietro with thousands of other pilgrims waiting to get into the papal audience. I was lucky enough to get a special ticket, and ended up in the front row, next to a Jesuit priest and his sister. Since I was hours early, I got out my Magnificat and began to read the Scriptures for that day. A few minutes later the priest asked if I’d like to join him in Morning Prayer. And so we prayed amid the joyful noise all around us, and it was another grace-filled moment.

A little bit later, as Pope Benedict welcomed different groups in attendance, the camera panned to a group of young men. When the pope said their name, they stood up and started singing a familiar song. I looked at the jumbo video screen and saw the seminarians from the night before, our seminarians. Alone in a throng of thousands, in a city where I couldn’t speak the language, I felt at home and in close connection to those seminarians, making me realize that what I had thought was aimless wandering the previous night was really the road I needed to take to meet those particular people in that particular restaurant.

Yes, I saw the pope and reveled in the joy of the thousands of pilgrims who cheered and sang and prayed, but what will stand out most from that morning will be that time of shared prayer, that moment when strangers become friends, and that instant when a song resonating across the Pope Paul VI Hall made me feel as though I was part of a very large family. Which, of course, I am. A family of Catholics who cannot be separated by language or continents.

Rome: Arrivederci, Day 10

After attending 8 a.m. Mass in the side chapel of Chiesa Nuova, in front of the body of St. Philip Neri, I decided to bring this journey to a close by going full circle — back to where I began on my very first day: Campo di’Fiori. Make sure you get to this bustling market if you visit Rome. And bring cash so you can haggle and buy. Here are some scenes from the market this morning…

A little store with dried sausage hanging from the door. This one is especially for Dennis, amore mio, who would love this little market. I’ll bring you here when we visit.

This imposing and mournful statue dominates the square. It’s a monument to the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burned alive as a heretic in 1600. Not one of the Church’s shining moments.

Lots of chili peppers:

Preparing the vegetables for market:

Wish I could take that garlic ring home with me:

Another shot for Dennis, meat and cheese right in the piazza. What more could you want?

Roman zucchinis. I did not get my stuffed or fried zucchini blossoms because they were out of season, as were the carciofi (artichokes). So now I have to come back at least two more times in order to hit both of those seasons.

A square within the square, bustling with coffee drinkers this morning.

Arrivederci, Roma. Now I understand the song.

Rome: Subiaco day trip, Day 9

Today was my last full day in Rome. Well, that’s not really true since we left Rome and spent the day in Subiaco, about 90 minutes southeast of Rome. Spectacular scenery. That’s the view (above) from the Monastery of St. Benedict.

So here’s a quick run down of how things went. We started with Mass at the university in Rome. Then we took a bus to Subiaco where we went to the monastery that is built on top of the cave of St. Benedict. This is the actual cave where St. Benedict, father of western monasticism, spent three years living as a hermit. Amazing. That’s the monastery below. It’s filled with beautiful frescoes, including the only fresco of St. Francis of Assisi painted while he was alive. (They know that because he did not have the stigmata or a halo in the painting, so they date it to 1223, which is when the monastery’s records show St. Francis making a visit there.) That was a really great moment during the trip. To know I was walking where both St. Benedict and St. Francis once walked? Wow.

After St. Benedict’s Monastery, we went down the hill a bit to the Monastery of St. Scholastica, which is one of the original monasteries that St. Benedict founded and the only one that is still a working monastery. But before we went on a tour, we had lunch at the monastery restaurant. Amazing.

A Meal in Five Acts…

Act 1: Antipasto (quite a plate, no?)

Act 2: Primo (pasta alla’Amatriciana)

Act 3: Segundo (some sort of pork loin with rosemary potatoes)

Act 4: Dessert (cheesecake with raspberry sauce, I think)

Act 5: Espresso

After that giant meal we went to the monastery. Over the door is the heart of Benedictine thought: Pray and work, Ora et Labora.

OSV’s Sarah Hayes with me at the monastery:

And a few more monastery shots from the various courtyards and cloisters:

Finally, back in Rome, we cannot even imagine eating another meal.

Gelato: It’s what’s for dinner.

Rome: Here and There, Days 6, 7, 8

I promise that at some point soon I’ll give you some reflections on this Roman adventure, but for now you’ll just have to put up with photos and brief observations. This has really been the trip of a lifetime. I am astounded by the moments of grace that come one after another — as if out of the blue — every day of this trip. It has been the most amazing blessing. To top it off the Church Up Close program has been beyond anything I could have hoped for. I wish every Catholic — and non-Catholic — could sit it on these sessions. They would never think the same way about the Church again. The sessions are informative, honest, inspiring. You name it. So here’s a bit of what I’ve been doing the past three days:

The Church Up Close program provides us with lunch, in this case at an amazing little restaurant just around the corner from Santa Croce University. Here’s the antipasto from the first day. Need I say more?

During a break between classes, I ventured up to Piazza del Popolo to have my picture taken between the “twin churches.” I have an original etching of these churches hanging in my dining room back home, so it was especially cool to stand in this spot.

The next morning at 6:45 a.m. a colleague and I walked over to St. Peter’s for morning Mass. This is the time to go to St. Peter’s. You’ll have the place to yourself. I was able to stand in front of the Pieta with no one else around:

I was also able to touch the foot of St. Peter without standing in line (so many pilgrims have done this they’ve worn his toes right off):

At this time of day, Mass is being celebrated in every chapel in the basilica. We joined one where the Nigerian priest was offering Mass in Italian all alone. Spectacular experience. I followed that up with confession. Two sacraments in St. Peter’s. Not a bad way to start the day.

On the way out of the piazza, we spotted a horse having a little breakfast. We stopped for cappuccino and cornetti at a nearby shop and, yes, I drank my coffee standing at the bar like a true Italian (as was on my wish list).

After a full day of classes, nine of us headed across the Tiber to Trastevere, a funky little Roman neighborhood with my favorite church of all time (outside of St. Peter’s): Santa Maria in Trastevere. Here’s St. Peter’s at sunset from the Ponte Sisto bridge:

Here’s Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Christendom. Just beautiful. We attended sung vespers with the Community of Sant’ Egidio. I sat there and cried like a baby before they even started singing. Most powerful moment of the trip. (More to come on that later.)

We had another busy day of classes today and then I tried to squeeze in lots of things I really wanted to do. I made it to the Capuchin Crypt, which is decorated with the bones of 4,000 monks. Unfortunately, they are very strict about the no photo policy. You’ll have to trust me on this one. It’s beautiful in a scary and bizarre sort of way. In front of the skeletons it says this: “What you are, we once were. What we are, you will be.” A little light food for thought.

I stopped at the Spanish Steps on the way back. A popular place on a Saturday evening in Rome:

I liked Caravaggio’s paintings before this trip. Now I love them. The are are three at San Luigi di Francesi, not far from my hotel. Just for the record, in the past 24 hours, I have seen numerous Caravaggios, Michelangelo’s Moses, Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy and more. All in free and fabulous churches. I love this city.

Gotta love a street called “Propaganda Way.”

I planned to make it an early night and picked up gelato for dinner. But, one of my “classmates” called and asked if I would be joining some others for dinner at a restaurant run by French-speaking African nuns who wear traditional dress. So, off I went. Nice dinner, followed by an even nicer little ritual: The entire restaurant sang the Ave Maria in Italian with the Sisters.

Rome: Che bella citta. Here I am with tonight’s group of journalists. More to come…

Rome: The Vatican, Days Four and Five

I arrived at Piazza San Pietro. Finally. It’s been a long journey, and I don’t mean just the trip from New York to Rome. It’s been a decades-long journey, maybe a lifelong journey, and the culmination of a dream. The visit to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Scavi underneath it, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museum and all that went with it was so fantastic I don’t think I could possibly capture it in a quick blog post. I will have to digest all this and break it down into separate blog posts later, but for now, here are some photos to give you a glimpse of what’s been going on here. Today I have a full day of classes with some aimless meandering and fabulous food mixed in. Sounds perfect to me after the full and tiring two days we’ve had.

That’s me trying to have my picture taken with the Swiss Guard at the Bronze door of St. Peter’s He was not amused. (My tour guide took the photo when I went to pick up my special ticket for the audience.)

This is Castel Sant’Angelo, which was originally Hadrian’s mausoleum and later became a fortress where the pope could escape to via secret tunnel when the Holy See was under siege. Now it’s a museum. The Ponte Sant’Angelo is amazing with its fabulous angels, each holding one of the instruments used to torture and kill Jesus Christ. Like the one below with St. Peter’s in the background.

Art students and others sit on Ponte Sant’Angelo and sketch the angels. The light at it hits the angels makes the whole scene especially breathtaking.

No photos of the Sistine Chapel or much of St. Peter’s because I either wasn’t allowed to take photos or could not because my camera is not good enough. Let’s see if I can give you at least one shot from inside, the Pieta. St. Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel are, as you would expect, unbelievably beautiful and inspiring and overwhelming. I’ll do a separate post at a later date on those.

Part of our day also included meetings with Vatican officials. Here’s a photo from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In a courtyard there a family brought some turtles and dumped them into the fountain. It was a really sweet moment. That certainly doesn’t look like the Inquisition.

After a long day, I went to dinner with two friends from the program. That’s Sarah Hayes, OSV’s presentation editor on the left, and Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, author and EWTN TV host on the right. Great meal in a place we found by accident when two other places were closed and MIA. Another great story from that night, which I’ll post about later.

Bonus for eating near the Vatican? We got to go back through Piazza San Pietro at night. Here it is.

Yesterday included the papal audience, for which I had front row seats. It was pretty amazing, to say the least. Here’s the best photo I could get with the lame-o camera:

Later, after a tour of the Scavi — no photos allowed there but a post to follow later — I rambled back over the Tiber and found the Trevi Fountain, which seems to appear out of nowhere when you turn a little street corner. I threw in two coins so I can try to get back here some day.

After an evening class on canonical stuff far too heavy to discuss on this blog, I went with some friends to Tre Scalina, a restaurant on the Piazza Navona, where I had this delicious but somewhat scary looking meal. Don’t worry, Olivia, I didn’t eat that thing sitting on top that looks like it could be a house pet. I followed that with a tartufo, a black truffle ice cream sort of concoction that I was told to order by the priest I met on the shuttle bus to JFK. Squisito! Now I’m off to class. Ciao.