eat. PRAY. love. Holy Week in Italy

3 Apr

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(Originally published 4/12)

PRAY! I knew being in Italy for Easter Week was going to be spectacular; however, what I actually experienced surpassed every expectation.  Being a very Catholic country, I knew I was going to be visiting numerous chapels, basilicas and churches.  In Rome alone, there are over 900 Catholic Churches!  And I thought Madrid had a lot with 500! As a devout Catholic, I knew this was going to be one Holy Week and Easter that I would never forget.    My Italian church experience began on Palm Sunday in Venice.  After winding through narrow street after narrow street following hard to read signs directing us to San Marcos Basilica,  the streets opened up into a huge piazza(plaza) with the Basilica as the centerpiece.   It was so refreshing to be out in open air and see the gorgeous Basilica welcoming the thousands of tourists. Because we were going to Mass, we didn’t have to wait in the visiting line, instead we went in the line for the door that read “prayers only”.  It made me feel more like a local and less like a tourist to be going to Mass in this breathtaking city and church.  As people from the earlier Mass filed out, we were astounded at what they were carrying :Palms, of course, as it was Palm Sunday, however,  it was an entire a palm tree branch taller than many of the  short Italians carrying them!  I knew I was in for a treat.  When we finally filled in, the outstanding architecture stole my breath away.  The Mass was just starting and the choir in perfect harmony carried through the tall stone structure.  Even though Mass was said in Italian, I was able to easily follow along.  There is something special about being able to hear Mass said in different languages, it really makes me realize how universal the Catholic Church is and gives me a new appreciation for what is happening during the service.  

On Good Friday we were in Cinque Terre, a National park boasting the only untouched Italian Riviera.  The hiking and breathtaking mountain views were enough to make me fall in love with this small Italian town.  However, while we were eating dinner that night, we heard someone talking/singing/chanting.  Suddenly our waitress ran to the door, shut off all the lights, and stood outside to watch.  Curious, we joined the crowds to observe what was going on.  As I looked up the hill leading to the local church, I saw a large procession with people carrying a huge cross followed by Jesus and Mary depicted with swords piercing her heart in pain of her son’s death, making me feel an overwhelming sense of grief.  After watching for a while, my friend and I decided to join the procession of the Stations of the Cross through the town. It was such a moving site to see all the locals remember the terrible death of Jesus.  Further, it was amazing how faith can unify cultures.  We couldn’t really understand what was being said, but we were able to join the locals in prayer. No one gave us weird looks for jumping in or for not being able to recite the prayers, we were welcomed into this very local event with open arms.

Our next stop was Rome, as you can imagine this was the highlight of my spiritual experience.  One of the coolest parts of my trip was going to Easter Mass in St. Peters Square at the Vatican.  The amount of people filing into St Peters square at this hour was unreal, but there was such tranquility about it.  Any other situation with such a high volume of people would have been mayhem.  When we filed I was astounded by the shear vastness of the key shaped square. A huge open area surrounds by buildings with 140 saint statues carved by the famous Bernini standing on top looking down over the crowd.  St. Peters Basilica with its famous window in which the Pope appears to give his blessing captures the eyes and hearts of those in its presence. This incredible Basilica designed by Michelangelo and Bramante sits on top of St. Peters grave.  Before this Basilica was built, another Basilica stood in the exact same spot that was built when Constantine, the first Roman emperor to become Christian, built the Basilica here.  The Altar was especially beautiful as it was decorated for Easter with thousands of blooming flowers in various colors.  As people continued filling in, the square was quickly filling up with people from all around the world.   We could see all of the different countries present because it is tradition to bring your home countries flag to wave before Mass to show where you have journeyed from.   As I sat in my chair underneath the blue brisk sky, I couldn’t wait for Mass to start. With 30 minutes left, the procession to the Alter with the countless Swiss Army Guards( the Vatican’s official Army) began with trumpets, drums, and bells.   My anticipation was rising! I couldn’t believe I was standing in the Vatican on Easter about to hear the Holy Father say Mass. With only a few minutes before it was to start, the sky turned dark and it started to sprinkle.  Oh no!  What were we going to do?  However, miraculously, as soon as the service started, the clouds parted.  How perfect!  The joy of Easter Mass was represented perfectly by the Joy the sun brought everyone in the square.  The rain was a quick reminder for me of the sadness of Christ’s passion but the sun then showed me the joy of His resurrection.  Mass was said in Latin, so naturally it was hard to follow, but we were all given booklets with the English translation.  Despite not knowing the Latin language, it was quite the experience to hear Mass said EXACTLY how it was when the church started.  Those precise words were used when Mass had to be said in secret during the early days of Christianity!  The shear idea of being able to share that with the first Christians brings joy to my heart.   The choir echoing through the vast square, the look of awe and joy on many of the audience’s faces, and sun shining down made it a perfect moment.   After Mass, the Pope went up to his famous window to say the Easter Blessing in at least 25 different languages.  Once again, I was amazed at how many people from all over the world had made the pilgrimage to the Holy City to celebrate Christ’s resurrection as each nationality cheered when the Pope spoke in their native tongue!   Because the Vatican was incredibly crowded after Easter Mass, we decided we were going to come back later in the week to actually tour the Basilica and visit the Museums

Because I had already gone to Easter Mass with the Pope in the Vatican, I was not expecting to be as moved spiritually when I returned.  However, I could not have been more wrong.   Walking up the steps to the entrance, I was in awe that I was standing exactly where the Pope said Easter Mass just a few days ago, directly below the Popes window.  As a gazed out across St. Peters square, the Easter Flowers that framed my view reminded me once again how spectacular Easter Mass had been.   When we entered the grand doors with hundreds of other tourists, I was amazed to find out that daily Mass was currently going on.  Most churches close their doors to tourists during Mass, so I felt a bit of disrespect as hundreds of people chatted casually and snapped photos during the service. Torn between my love for the Mass and my desire to see the entire Basilica, I split my time between the two.  First, I was drawn in by Michelangelo’s Pieta.   A statue he carved when he was only 24 of the Blessed Mother holding the body of her son.  This statue is especially important because Michelangelo decided that instead of depicting Mary in  grief and despair, as she had always been in past art work, he gave her a face full of peace.  This allows those who reflect upon this great piece of art to understand human suffering and teach them how to accept life’s challenges.   This is also the only Statue that Michelangelo signed.  However, he did not sign his name on the piece of cloth strung around Mary’s body until he was not receiving credit for this masterpiece! 

Good FridayAfter observing this masterpiece for some time, the beautiful sounds of Mass drew me back to the center of the church.  I wanted to just sit and participate however; the pews were blocked off to keep tourists from wondering up the aisle and disrupting the service. Longing to join in, I stood in the back just taking in the beautiful church listening to the service.   After a while, I went to visit the other small chapels lining the edge of the church.  Because I didn’t have a guide, I wasn’t exactly sure of what I seeing, but just the beauty was enough for me.  I found a chapel that had a sign that read “for prayers only” so I stepped in and kneeled amongst several other devout Christians who wanted to step away from the normal tourists and really connect with God.  This small act of prayer brought so much joy to my day as I continued wondering.  I came upon another chapel with the Tomb of St. Pius X.  You could actually see his real hand through the glass tomb.  This had significant meaning to me as my home parish is called St. Pius X Catholic Church.  

Again I was overwhelmed; however, I was once again drawn back to the Mass at the center of the church when I heard the beginning of the most important and beautiful part of the Mass:  the transformation of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood.   Surrounded by two Nuns as well as several other devout Catholics, we all kneeled in honor of Christ’s presence.   At this moment, I felt so much joy and happiness that I was moved to tears.  Never before had I witnessed something so beautiful.  I continued participating in Mass, with my joy increasing with every second.  Unfortunately, my friend came to find me to let me know that everyone was ready to go but we just couldn’t manage to pull ourselves away.  Reluctantly, I turned and headed towards the doors, but I just couldn’t leave yet. Everything I looked at in the Basilica brought me so much joy, the beautiful frescoes on the ceilings, the Holy Water Fountain, the sight of so many pilgrims. I could have spent hours in St. Peter’s Basilica praying, learning, and taking in the beauty, but our tight tourist schedule wouldn’t allow for that, so I finally took a deep breath and exited walking out into the sunny St. Peter’s Square.

  I knew the Vatican was going to be a great spiritual experience for me as a devout Catholic, but what I experienced was unreal.  It is unfortunate, due to Mass going on when we visited, that I was not able to visit more of the important areas of the basilica such as St. Peter’s Tomb, the grottoes which hold the tombs of all of the Popes, or the Statue of St. Peter whose foot is worn down from so many pilgrims kissing it upon their arrival. However, what I did see and experience was more than I ever expected. Visiting while Mass was going on, made the experience come to life for me! During my trip, I just got a small taste of the vast beauty of the Catholic Church in Italy. But it has just left me craving more.  Visiting the Vatican was the absolute best part of my entire trip.  I never dreamed it would have such an impact on me.  I hope can someday share this experience with my mom as she is the one who has taught me so much about my faith. 

Being in Italy during  Holy Week certainly allowed me to fulfill the PRAY aspect of my journey.  Coming up next: LOVE in which I describe the love I have developed for the Italian people and retell the countless times they welcomed us foreigners like we were family as well as the love I developed for my travel companions.

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