by Regina Aune
Joan Riegel, 85 years young and a long-time member of St. George Church in San Antonio, Texas, had always dreamed of going to the Vatican and seeing the holy sites in Italy. But she never knew if that dream would be fulfilled in her lifetime. To her great joy and happiness, that dream was fulfilled when she joined several members of St. George and Fr. Charles Khachan, MLM, on a pilgrimage to Italy from 19-29 March 2019. They spent several days in Rome visiting the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museum, and St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as the Major Roman Basilicas of St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, and St. Mary Major. Each of these places was memorable because of the splendor, beauty, craftsmanship, and enormous size of each. But the highlight of the time in Rome was the papal audience in St. Peter’s Square with the Holy Father, Pope Francis. The slight drizzle before the Holy Father’s arrival did nothing to dampen the anticipation and enthusiasm of the San Antonio pilgrims.
Each pilgrim probably has his or her own special moments and favorite sites to savor when reflecting on the pilgrimage. It would be impossible to recount all the places we visited and all the activities (and all the good Italian food and wine we shared) we participated in, but a few stand out. On our final day in Italy, we celebrated the Divine Liturgy at St. Mary Major—a fitting end to a memorable trip.
But our whole pilgrimage wasn’t spent in Rome. We followed the footsteps of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi. During our stay in Assisi, some of us made a brief leisurely excursion to Florence, the Renaissance City, where we roamed the piazza, enjoyed the Florentine food, admired the Baptistry Doors, and learned some of the city’s noble history and about some of Italy’s famous artists such as Michelangelo.
Moving south, we visited the house of Nazareth in the Basilica of Our Lady of Loreto, only two days before the Holy Father’s visit to Loreto. We continued our journey to San Giovanni Rotondo. We had the opportunity to pray at the basilica there and view the incorrupt body of St. Pio of Pietrelcina, better known simply as Padre Pio.
There are many monasteries in Italy and we visited several. Perhaps the most famous one we visited was the Abbey of Monte Cassino, founded in the 6thcentury by St. Benedict, and bombed and destroyed during World War II. Completely rebuilt, there are stunning views of the Italian countryside from its heights. Both St. Benedict’s and his twin sister, St. Scholastica’s, relics are housed in the abbey.
All too soon, we St. George pilgrims were on a plane bound for San Antonio. Each of our pilgrimages has been a time of friendship, fun, and prayer and this one was no different. Each pilgrimage is an opportunity to be grateful for the life each one of us has been given and the life we share together. It is a blessing to come home renewed in spirit and anxious to share what we have learned with those who could not come with us.