It’s been almost three weeks since I returned from Italy, and I still haven’t managed to write any posts about the experience or trade my Euro for U.S. currency. That changes today. Well, the writing part does, at least. I’m holding onto the Euro as seed money for the next pilgrimage. I’ll try to serve up several Moveable Feast posts in days to come about various cities and favorite moments from our fabulous pilgrimage. To get us started, here’s my latest Life Lines column…
It’s interesting how, even when we’re far from our loved ones and friends, we often find ways to create family right where we are, without blood connections, without a shared history. Whether we’re students living in a college dormitory, workers temporarily assigned to a far-off location, or pilgrims traveling in a strange land, we tend to seek out community, a place where we feel accepted and protected, or at least a little less alone.
When I led a 13-day pilgrimage to Italy recently, our group of 37 pilgrims, one full-time English-speaking Italian tour guide and one Italian-speaking fearless bus driver became a family of sorts. Although we started as strangers – with only a few personal connections among the group – as the days and weeks progressed, you could see signs of family emerging.
As group leader, I was in a parent role of sorts, separated a bit from the rest of the group but at a perfect distance to watch relationships as they developed. I remember the quiet joy I felt one night, about halfway through our pilgrimage, when we sat in a restaurant in a remote part of Rome. We almost didn’t make it to dinner that night since our driver could barely fit our bus through the narrow roads, and then a brief rainstorm scrapped plans to eat dinner outside under a vine-covered portico. I worried about the group’s mood, but a few minutes later, I watched these former strangers gathered around their tables (photo at top), heads bent together, glasses raised in a toast, laughter echoing throughout the rustic Italian dining room. We had become a family.
Of course, family isn’t all sunshine and happiness. There were moments of frustration, like when yours truly was exasperated over another inopportune bathroom break. (I told you I was like a parent. And a sometimes-impatient parent at that!) There were moments of worry, like when a man in our group fell on the cobblestone street just beyond St. Peter’s Basilica and when a few others had to remain back at the hotel because of leg problems or sheer exhaustion. But as with our families back at home, joy and love overcame everything else. By the end of our journey, we knew these new friends would watch out for us, care for us, and make sure no one was left behind or lost.
And that’s really at the heart of the pilgrim journey: community, family. Yes, we go on these journeys – whether overseas or closer to home – to grow in faith, but we also go to meet others who share that faith, people who will walk with us, both literally and figuratively, as we travel our spiritual path.
As we prayed together in Siena, Assisi, Rome, and Salerno, our faith forged a bond, one that will tie us to each other forever because of the powerful experiences we shared — being only a few feet from Pope Francis when he rode by in the popemobile at the papal audience, attending Mass celebrated by Cardinal Dolan at St. Peter’s Basilica early one morning, kneeling before the tomb of St. Clare in Assisi, standing in the tiny cave where St. Francis once prayed.
As we broke bread on our last afternoon in Massa Lubrense, the town where my grandfather was born more than 100 years ago, the sun beat down with a summer-like intensity, the Isle of Capri was so close it seemed as if we might touch it, and the long tables were piled with family style platters of southern Italian specialties. Just before leaving, our tour group witnessed my “reunion” with Pietro DeTurris, a man who may or may not be a long-lost relative. The family tree seems to point to a connection, but the line of ancestry really didn’t matter at that point. There, under a Sorrentine sky, my real family, my pilgrim family, and my ancestral family merged, and I felt whole and at home.