Italian Pilgrimage


This Pilgrimage was appealing to me because I have already taken Spiritual Formation Classes on St. Catherine (and the other Women Doctors of the Church) and St. Francis and St. Clare.  I read three books that were assigned by the Pilgrimage leaders, a devotional book using St. Clare’s work, and a book on St. Ignatius (which I read on the plane but didn’t quite finish yet). 

I choose the book on St. Ignatius after writing to my Uncle Denny who is a Jesuit brother for advice about pilgrimages and asked if there was anything special, I could do or bring back for him.  He sent a long letter, but the short version was to have in mind a grace for the pilgrimage, perhaps something regarding my ministry with women in Pittsburgh or praying for the women who are the recipients of the kits.  He recommended I visit the church of the Gesu in Rome if it was possible in the plans we already had and to pray for him there.  He also asked for me to pray for the homeless (his lifelong passion) at Assisi.  The best advice in his letter was to allow myself to be open and free to the Spirit in prayer and to be open to finding God wherever I travel.  I tucked this letter and a couple of prayer cards into an envelope in my journal that I had prepared for the trip.  The journal was with me everywhere and even when I wasn’t writing in it, I knew his words and quotes from the other books were with me to guide my prayers and devotions.  I was able to visit and pray for his requests.  My own grace was to pray for clarity in my calling.  I prayed for all the holy women in my life with gratitude.  And I offered prayers for the requests I received through social media.

I have a few blurry poppy pictures from the train but these seemed like a much better example of what I was seeing just about everywhere in Italy. They reminded me that my intentions were always with me on this trip.

Monday, May 16 – 17: Travel

Unexpectedly long travel days. Our first flight was delayed, causing us to miss our flight to Florence.  St. Francis would say that gave us an opportunity to experience being human, even though it was a miserable wait at the airport it is a joy to realize how human we all are.  After a long wait, we got our new flight into Pisa (not Florence as originally planned).  We got meal vouchers which we used to buy snacks at the airport, so I got to eat a pretzel in Germany, which was an unexpected delight.  After landing in Pisa, we took the airport tram and saw the top of the leaning tower of Pisa.  Then we took a train to Florence and got to take in the scenary and each other’s company.  I loved seeing red poppies grow wild along the tracks and in the fields.  Every pilgrimage includes an unexpected detour and while it was incontinent and we missed our pasta making class, there were so many added blessings to the detour too. 

I’m sure there are better ways to experience pretzels in Germany… but this was the fun part of being stuck at the airport

Wednesday, May 18: Day Trip to Siena, San Gimignano, and Pisa

Siena: We only had time for one church, but the tour guide directed us to the one that did not contain St. Catherine’s head.  We still had a very special experience there.  I lit a candle where the Virgin of the Vow is venerated for all the holy women in my life.  I posted it on Instagram and one of the college students commented hearts under the post.  I was thrilled to see her respond.  It wasn’t long ago that I explained to her that people light candles to set intentions and to pray.  I hope it was meaningful to her that I had lit a candle and prayed for her.  

According to Catherine, when we are planted in self knowledge (humility with God’s love), we are planted in the truth of how God looks at us — God is so madly in love with what God has created someone might thing that God is drunk. She believed that God loved her deeply and wanted everyone to know that love.

San Gimignano: We were able to taste a meat and cheese tray and have some wine.  The meats included wild boar with wine and wild boar with pistachios.  The cheese was goat cheese.  The wine was from a vineyard with the same last name as one of the pilgrims on this #ladysaint adventure.  This made choosing wine at lunch much easier.  While Laura and Rebecca were busy planning this pilgrimage, God was also planning a pilgrimage and she knew we would need a glass of wine.  While we didn’t have time to do anything but the tasting and lunch, we had a view of a well from the Middle Ages and we thought about all the women who had visited that spot to gather water.  As we exited the town, we noticed a sign for the Via Francigena (which we read about pre-pilgrimage) and a waterspout to refill our bottles.  The tap water in Italy tastes amazing. 

The well is like gravity, pulling people together. It reminds me of all the women who drew water from the well together and especially the samaritan woman whom Jesus spoke to about living water.

Pisa: The leaning tower is a church bell tower.  Who knew? Not any of us.  The church was interesting, but we didn’t have time to dig into any details.  I believe it was St. Ranieri whose body was in the church, but I’m not entirely sure.  I found his prayer card in English near the body so I’m making some assumptions.  Also, in the church there were statues of breastfeeding women under the pulpit.  I took a picture of the sign under the pulpit to read later, but alas no details about the breastfeeding woman.  She had two babies, so I didn’t think it was Mary and Jesus.  It was difficult to sense what the spirituality would be in this place as many people were there to take photos and not necessarily to pray.  It felt very touristy.  Again, the spiritual nurture was not in the praying but in the talking with the other #ladysaints on the pilgrimage outside of the Cathedral and on the walk to and from the tour bus.


Thursday, May 19: Florence

Morning Mass with the sisters in whose convent we were staying:  I got downstairs a little earlier than the start of mass so I waited in the garden (mostly roses) and listened to them sing before mass.  Mass was in Italian.  There were three lay people besides me at mass with six sisters.  I couldn’t understand everything, but I could still tell the priest made a joke during the homily and smiled at himself.  During the passing of the peace, the sister beside me looked me in the eye with her hand over her heart.  It felt like she was hugging me. 

Duomo:  I didn’t realize what this was before we arrived, and the tour guide explained what we would be doing outside of the church, so I didn’t have a good visual on what we would be doing.  I told the tour guide and the group I was nervous about heights and small spaces.  The tour guide assured me that there would be two places where I could turn around if I changed my mind.  We entered a staircase (and not really the church) and started to climb.  The staircase was stone and not at all as small as I feared.  The first stop was a large landing without a view, but there were statues stored there that the guide talked about.  I felt good about going on.  But then we entered the balcony (if you can call it that).  It was really narrow and didn’t feel as secure as the staircase to me and I panicked.  I mostly clung to the wall to get through.  When we got back into the staircase the guide explained this was the last place to turn around and go back down.  I was in tears.  The woman in charge of this landing offered for me to sit down, I followed until I realized she meant on a folding chair on the balcony.  No thanks.  I need to get down.  I was really losing my shit.  She asked if it was my heart or my spirit.  Spirit.  I was okay to move.  But to my dismay the way down included going out onto the catwalk again.  Another member of our group was having trouble with her knee and led the way back down.  I couldn’t look out to see the door they pointed to on the balcony to leave through.  It was embarrassing.  But I made it down and pulled it together before the rest of the group finished.  After seeing their pictures, I knew I made the right choice, as the staircase narrowed and became crocked as it went over the rounded part of the dome.  And the top would have been death by panic for me.  On the way out of the church I noticed ambulances lined up and was thankful I didn’t need one of those.  I spent the rest of the day processing what happened and trying to be distracted from processing what happened. 

In the middle of the night, I couldn’t sleep and journaled on the bathroom floor.  Then I posted the experience on my social media and waited for a friend to like it and then texted her to process what happened more.  So, yes, part of posting is also fishing for the right person to be awake and reach out to them for help. We all do that sometimes. And, part of posting is sharing a vulnerable part of the pilgrimage so that I remember how I felt and that I was not alone (and I’m never alone). I am so honored by those who commented on the post. As scary as it is to be vulnerable in a public way, there is always someone else who knows the feeling too, and now we are not alone.

Here is the middle of the night post: 

Sometimes the hard work of pilgrimage happens on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night. I had big feelings to process today. I feel like I need to share them before they consume too much more of me.  

Here is the deal: I didn’t climb to the top of the Duomo.  

Trauma does not make me stronger.  

Doing things just outside of my comfort zone could make me stronger, maybe. 

I pushed myself to do something hard by attempting to suppress fear about heights and tight spaces. But I had to honor my feelings. It was difficult not to climb. But I knew that going through with the climb to the top and traumatizing myself was not worth it. Going to the top meant ignoring my feelings for the sake of doing something pilgrimage-y was only going to hurt me and ruin the rest of this trip.  I do not have to traumatize myself to become holy. God does not want me to. I do not want me to. St. Catherine did hard things to become holy. She did traumatizing, hurtful things to become holy and later regretted it. There is something spiritually tempting about surviving only on the Eucharist. I think I understood Catherine more today than ever before. I had a choice to do the perceived holy thing (climbing to the top) or to do the truly holy work of honoring my feelings, my body, and my soul. Catherine reminded me that her pursuit of perceived holiness was not wise – she advised against it only after it was too late to save herself. I am thankful for her witness.  Today I chose to love myself. It was a hard choice, but it would have been impossible without Catherine.

I’m sure there are other women who cry on the bathroom floor too.

I think this was the start of processing how much I want to be like other pastors that I see on social media.  It was a gift to be able to talk with pastors who feel the same way.  It was surprising and reassuring to see that we are all fans of each other and can admit that we only post the good stuff, and that ministry is not nearly as wonderful as it seems.  When I tell myself that I’m not pilgrimaging enough or not pastoring enough, I will remember that the clergy I compare myself to feel the same way.  And even better, we all are #fangirls of each other.  

The conversations where we were honest about social media and our ministry helped provide some clarity of my own calling that I wanted from this pilgrimage. God really spoke through all of the #ladysaints especially, the living ones.

We all used some sort of social media to document this pilgrimage and even though we were together some of our posts look very different. Some are almost identical too. It is helpful for me to preserve some of those posts here so that I remember that while social media captures great memories, it doesn’t capture all of them. And certainly, there were holy moments on this trip that will only live as long as our inmost thoughts. This is something I will be processing for a long time.

The day we were in Florence was also the Presbytery meeting. Presbytery is also the word for where the clergy sat during worship. Underneath the Cathedral are the ruins of the more ancient church.

Ponte Vecchio Bridge:  I was really hoping to see this!  I copied notes from Sr. Kathleen Flood in my journal about how the bridge (like the crucifix) connects us to God.  There are three steps to relationship with the divine, according to Catherine. 1. Meet Jesus as an acquaintance at the foot of the cross (or the start of the bridge) and this relationship feels a little insecure or like a servant and a master. 2. We get to know him more and get to the wound in the side and get nourishment there. This is friendship and getting to learn about ourselves. 3. Jesus’ mouth (the holy kiss). We understand how much we are loved by the one sent to redeem us. We can be ourselves–don’t worry about mistakes because you are loved.

As Sr. Kathleen described what the bridge was like for Catherine, she mentioned coffee, shops, places to rest and get nourishment.  Sadly, I found none of that.  The bridge shops are only expensive gold jewelry now.  Have we gilded the crucifix?  Have we lost something of the body of Christ by covering it in gold and jewels?  When will the living God break through the decorative chains and burst into our world in flesh and blood again?

I took the 4 women doctors class on zoom because the pandemic and I remember thinking that I would never be able to see this bridge. But here I am, much sooner than I would have ever thought possible. And it was so beautiful! No wonder it inspired Catherine to talk about our relationship with God.

Friday, May 20 – 21: Assisi   

Assisi is holy magic.  It is as peaceful as advertised, with birds chirping along with the church bells.  Unexpectedly, but not surprisingly, it is a place of deep and abiding joy.  

I taught music at OLSH before becoming a pastor. So many faculty, staff, students, sisters, alumni, have been to Assisi that have described it so well that being there felt like a homecoming. I hope I get to return to Assisi again. I wrote this quote from Blessed Angela the founder of the Felician Sisters in my journal, “May Jesus bless you and help you at every moment, may He give you strength and perseverance, may He enlighten you so that you will carry on with zeal and prudence.”

Social media reflection: Spent the day in Assisi taking in as much of it as I could. It is peaceful and quiet here and a different kind of beautiful than Sienna. Throughout the day I prayed for various people. When it was time for mass at St. Clare’s I recognized the order of the liturgy and the beauty of the movements but not the words. So, while I was there, I prayed a visual prayer. I walked through the student entrance of OLSH down the dark hall toward my classroom and heard a sweet voice say “don’t be afraid” just before I flipped the switch to see the sister who took her morning walks in the dark. I set my bag down and went to the main office then to my second-floor home room and remembered the time we had hot chocolate and donuts because everyone was on time for an entire week (or almost) then I peeked into the room across the hall to say hello to a teacher friend before heading back to the music room. I passed other teachers in the halls. And when I arrived in the music room I visualized as many classes as I could. I sat at the piano and saw your faces around me. I reminded a few of you to spit out your gum. I prayed the prayer to start music appreciation. I wrote library passes. I answered emails from your parents. I went to show choir in the auditorium and stayed after school for bus duty. I had dinner with the band parents and watched as you marched onto the field for the first time. As the congregation sang, I remembered singing with you in mass and crying with you too. I hope you remember you are my favorite (but don’t tell anyone else). 💜 Goodnight from Assisi beloved.

In my journal I wrote the prayer I started music appreciation classes with: Open my eyes to see what is beautiful, my mind to know what is true, and my heart to love what is good for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Early in the morning we went to the Basilica of St. Francis and experienced mass at his tomb.  It was special but not somber; it was joyful.  I got the impression that the people worshiping in this space did so often, like it was a typical mass for them.  Maybe that was true for them or maybe that was just the spirit of worship when pilgrims gather.  Towards the end of mass people started appearing on the stairs and as the entrance/exit filled, I got a little nervous.  The safety and security and peaceful joy of the place was being threatened by a growing and noisy crowd.  Most of those in the crowd were clearly tourists and a few even took selfies while mass was happening (and there were signs indicating no pictures were allowed in the space at all.  This was typical of the churches in Assisi which is probably why it felt different than the touristy churches elsewhere on the trip).  Luckily a firm but kind volunteer handled the picture takers and talkers.  (Also typical in Assisi is that there were volunteers on hand wearing vests).  After mass, we were able to walk all the way around Francis’ tomb.  Again, it was nice to be there before it was too crowded.  And again, volunteers were there to make sure the people circling the tomb were going one way, which kept things orderly and peaceful.  

Generally speaking, Assisi is peaceful but also quiet.  The people who are here seem more like pilgrims than tourists.  Sienna was full of touristy people taking photos and I didn’t realize how distracting that was until we arrived at Assisi, and it wasn’t happening.  There was still as many or more people in Assisi, but the experience was completely different. 

A blessing attributed to St. Clare: Always be lovers of God and your souls and the souls of your Sisters, and always be eager to observe what you have promised the Lord. #ladysaints I am so thankful to be with other clergy women discerning what God has called them to be and to do.

At first the gift shops seemed odd in Assisi, but then we realized that many of them supported the upkeep of the historical churches, and town.  The revenue was necessary to make it possible for us to visit.  We tried to be selective about the shops we visited (some were clearly for-profit trinkets).  I purchased items from the shop at the Basilica and from a third-generation artist.  His faith, love for the town, and sense of family tradition was beaming out of him as he talked to us.  He gave us watercolor book marks as a gift for stopping to talk to him. And that was before we bought anything. Each of us bought something small and meaningful and he packed them up carefully. My postcard sized painting made it home in my backpack without any damage.

Another social media post in Assisi: I spotted this door knocker in Assisi. It’s fabric. Likely this is a temporary and practical solution for opening this door. And yet, it was done beautifully. It reminded me of my @dfg_pghchapter team and how they choose beautiful fabrics for very practical washable menstrual pads. Practical. Beautiful. With intention and great love.

The roses are lovely too. Assisi is beautiful.

The only disappointment in Assisi was the lack of St. Clare merchandise and books.  While St. Francis was everywhere and all the books were published in multiple languages, there were only a few St. Clare icons and prayer cards to choose from and all the books about St. Clare were on a small shelf and were only in Italian.  Of course, this lead our #ladysaint group to talk about women in ministry not getting the same attention as men and how we should open a shop in Assisi called #ladysaints and all take turns running the shop.  Representation matters.

On August 15th, 1255, Pope Alexander IV canonized St. Clare, celebrating her as a pure source and a new fountain of living water, for the refreshment and comfort of souls (BC11). Visiting her church, attending mass, seeing her in repose, and doing all of these things with friends was refreshing indeed.

A fun moment in Assisi was watching the sisters that we stayed with enjoy the balcony views too.  Also, one Sister oversaw breakfast and made sure to supervise us while using the new coffee machine.  It was obvious to all of us that it wasn’t complicated but that she delighted in having the machine.  She also was enjoying her smart phone at breakfast too.  All of us have holy and secular delights in our days.

From St. Francis’ Canticle of Brother Sun “Praised be You, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially sir brother sun, who is the day and through whom you give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor; and bears a likeness of You, Most High One. Praise be you, my Lord, through sister moon and stars, in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.”

And… oddly enough, I slept through the night in Assisi for the first time in years.  Was I exhausted or was Assisi filled with holy magic?  Probably both.  But it was a most enjoyable miracle, even if it only lasted one night.  

The flowers in this picture remind me of how St. Clare took St. Francis rule and lived it among her sisters in beautiful community. Murray Bodo, OFM has this to say about St. Clare, “St. Clare writes a rule of life compared to intricate Benedict, wordy Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis’ words are simple, threadbare like the Gospel. She strokes his original weave, runs practiced fingers over his pattern, his twelve bare chapters. She turns again to her diurnal needlework, braids her sisters’ colored threads – yellows, red and greens – around his brown. She tightens the folds, hems, double-stitches what can fray. Like Host and Chalice that weights her alter cloth, she needle-points the cloistered center of her Rule: “The holy poverty we’ve promised God and Blessed Francis, neither receiving nor possessing property, except land enough for monastic integrity, seclusion, and a garden for he needs of the sisters.”

Sunday, May 22 -24: Rome

Rome is a busy city like NYC.  It is loud all through the night with people or with garbage and recycling pick up.  Because of the separation of trash and recyclables, there was a pickup almost every hour starting at 3am just after the last loud party ended.  It was hard for all of us to sleep in Rome.  This was also the most packed part of our trip, so I didn’t journal other than a couple of social media posts.  I was glad to experience all that we did but there were some things (mostly the Vatican) that I’ll never need to do again.  

Here are some of the activities: Breakfast at the Vatican Cafeteria followed by VIP Access Tour of the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica, Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill, Trevi Fountain (I tossed a coin in), Gesu (Jesuit Mother Church), Spanish steps (yes, we took Audrey Hepburn pictures), Pantheon, Santa Maria sopra Minerva (St. Catherine’s body), and Farwell dinner with a local family.

Vatican tour. We had an accidental red and blue theme. #ladysaints

Vatican: The tour was long, and we were on our feet or moving quickly through crowds which was unpleasant enough, but we were also bothered by the idea that all these treasures were stolen from indigenous people who were forced to be Christian or die during colonization or they were paid for by money, indulgences, tithes, offerings, etc., from people experiencing poverty and hardship.  In one room, our tour guide pointed out that all of the gold on the ceiling came from America.  He thought being Americans we would enjoy that fun fact, but in reality, that gold was probably stolen from Native Americans who were killed or forced into converting.  The family we had dinner with confirmed that many Roman people felt that the church had stolen artifacts or taken money from poor people.  We wondered, what would it look like for the Vatican (and really the Christian church) to pay reparations? Some first steps would involve telling the truth about the artifacts.  Maybe returning or paying for the artifacts.  And maybe investing in the community or country by providing humanitarian aid like well digging.  Anyway, that’s what pastors think about when they go to museums.  

St. Ignatius followed St. Francis and St. Clare, so I think it’s okay that the mirror reminded me of the other Saints. Catherine talked about looking into water at the bottom of the well to see ourselves reflected in God. St. Clare wrote theses words to Blessed Agnes of Prague (3rd letter) “Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory! Place your heart in the figure of he divine substance! And transform your whole being into the image of the Godhead Itself through contemplation! So that you too may feel what His friends feel as they taste the hidden sweetness which God Himself has reserved from the beginning for those who love him.”

Social media post from Gesu: This is a mirror in the back of the church of the Gesu (the mother church of the Jesuits). I love that it makes viewing the ceiling easier and the person looking in the mirror is gazing in the opposite direction of those gathered for prayer. It creates less awkwardness for everyone. While the mirror was my favorite part, the church was beautiful and peaceful. There were a few nice places to pray and reflect after a busy day in Rome. I lit a candle for my Uncle (and the other Jesuit brothers). I bought a post card from a brother that I had to gently wake to pay for it. I only took two other photos of the church, one of the outside (similar to the postcard) and the other just as I walked inside. The church smelled like incense and their covid worship procedures are posted on the wall. This building definitely holds a worshiping community. There were a few others in the church with us to visit and pray. It was holy space.

The Santa Maria sopra Minerva, where St. Catherine’s body is laid was difficult to get into. The front doors were open so people could peer into the church but not enter. The entrance was around the other side of the church in an ally covered in graffiti. We walked past teenagers smoking, listening to music, and making tic toc videos on our way into the church.

Social media post from Santa Maria sopra Minerva: It was inspiring to see St. Catherine this way and pray beside her. The church where she is resting is being restored and clearly needs restoration. I understand and in a different way why Francis rebuilt a church. This space felt special, and I hope that it is around for a long time to come.

Being one of only 4 women doctors of the church, I had hoped her resting place would be more grand or at least well cared for. The space just around her body was, but the rest needs work. The holy and the humble, the special and the ordinary, the sacred and profane or whatever other words can be used to describe the juxtaposition of all of these things felt sad, yet a fitting tribute to what it is like being a woman in ministry for her and for us today.

Wednesday, May 25:  Depart Rome for the United States

Well, most of us.  Unfortunately, two people tested positive for Covid and were not able to fly home.  They are still in Italy as I write this post.  Their symptoms are mild but this is still difficult.

I’ve only recorded a small portion of this experience, and will be contemplating it for a long time to come. I’ve been working on this post since I returned home with the goal of publishing for Sunday (my first day back to work). I hesitate because I’m sure I’ve forgotten something important to share and because publishing means the pilgrimage is really over. But it’s time to go back to the work of the holy ordinary here at home.

The best part of the trip was all of the #ladysaints I got to spend time with.
Being in relationship with these incredible women is holy indeed.  #ladysaints

1 thought on “Italian Pilgrimage

  1. Thank you…

    Liked by 1 person

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