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Local priest shares reflections from pilgrimage to Rome

‘The most moving experience of the whole

pilgrimage was walking down the nave

of the church up to where St. Paul is buried.’  -- Father Reggie Urban

Editor’s Note: In order to keep the flavor of Father Reggie Urban’s journal intact, we have chosen not to edit for SKR style this full, online version of his journal.

In commemoration of the Year of St. Paul, which concludes in June, the Register online is presenting the full text of Father Reggie Urban’s journal that he kept during his 12-day “Pilgrimage to St. Paul” to Rome in February.

Father Reggie’s Reflections on the Pilgrimage to St. Paul Outside the Walls in 2/09

•    It had been 20 years since I was to Rome. I made a 5 month sabbatical from January to June in 1989. I lived in the Albano Mountains near the little town of Nemi which is about 45 minutes southeast of Rome. I had also spent a week in Rome 25 years ago in 1983 while I was on vacation in Europe. Even though I spent those 5 months near Rome in 1989, going into the city at least once a week, this was a much deeper and more spiritual experience of the city. It was not a tour or trip- it was a “pilgrimage” which is defined as a long journey to a sacred place that is important to one’s faith. We prayed special prayers or read spiritual reflections at both religious and secular sites. Our main goal was to have a religious experience. I think we accomplished that!

•    Our group of 5, Abbot Marcel Rooney and Deacon John Johnson, both from the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Murray Heinrich and Dave Dowdle, both part of our men’s group, and I left for Rome on Monday, February 1st, and returned on Thursday, February 12th. We had a relatively safe and enjoyable flight on American Airlines, although coming back we had about a 5 hour delay in New York about the same time that the commuter plane crashed north of there that evening.

•    Abbot Marcel was our spiritual guide. Altogether as a student, teacher, and then abbot-primate(overall world-wide head) of the Benedictine order, he lived in Rome for 20 years. As a consequence, and because he loves art, architecture, and history, he knows Rome like the back of his hand. He is 70 years old and only 20-30% of his heart is working. Nevertheless it was hard to keep up with him in many ways: his physical pace; the wealth of information he shared with us; his love for the Catholic Church; and his emotional energy for the “Eternal City”. Abbot Marcel was able to take us “underneath” the city of Rome. He helped us understand better and appreciate more deeply the history and meaning of both the Roman and Christian cultures that are historically rooted there.

•    The weather in Rome was mild with temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees during the day, except for the last day when it even sleeted in the morning. It rained at least a little almost every day, but the rain did not dampen our spirits.

•    We celebrated Eucharist every day in the chapel of the convent where we stayed, except on February 10th when the 5 of us celebrated a very simple and meaningful Mass in a side chapel at St. Paul Outside the Walls.

•    We visited many churches. Each church has a special history and meaning. Abbot Marcel explained the history and meaning in wonderful detail, adding his own personal and sometimes humorous thoughts. For me personally, along with the 3 other major basilicas(St. Peter’s, St. Mary Major, and St. John Lateran) the best experience of a church was our time at St. Paul Outside the Walls, not only because it was our primary destination, but also because of its history, size, and beauty, and because it was on the feast of St. Scholastica, the twin sister of St. Benedict. The church is coincidentally taken care of by the Benedictines.

•    3 years ago a lot of archeological evidence surfaced to substantiate the fact that St. Paul is actually buried at St. Paul Outside the Walls. They found a marble coffin with Paul’s name on it, along with other graves radiating around the coffin. They have not opened the coffin yet, but it sounds like they will soon. It is hard to tell what will be inside since the seal has probably been broken, and water from the Tiber River flooded the whole area more than once.

•    For me the most moving experience of the whole pilgrimage was walking down the nave of the church up to where St. Paul is buried. Knowing that he is more than likely buried there and having made the whole trip primarily to go to St. Paul Outside the Walls put me in a very sensitive space the whole time we were there. While we were there we celebrated Mass in a side chapel. I could tell that all 5 of us were on the edge of our seats all during the Mass. It was over the Noon hour, and ½ ways through Mass the large bells of the basilica rang at 12 o’clock. It seemed like a sign from God that we were supposed to be there. After the Mass we had a wonderful lunch with the Benedictine monks who take care of the basilica. They prepared a 1st class Italian meal, mostly because Abbot Marcel was their abbot-primate and a personal friend of the current abbot.  After the meal Abbot Edmund took us to St. Paul’s tomb and explained the recent discovery in more detail.

•    Along with St. Paul Outside the Walls one of the most unique churches that we visited was San Clemente, named after our 4th pope, Clement the 1st. There are 4 layers to the church: the first layer evidences a 1st century BC Roman apartment; the 2nd layer consists of the 1st century AD house-church of St. Clement, the 4th pope alongside a 2nd century Mithraic temple. Mithraism was a religion practiced by Roman soldiers who drank blood as a sign of membership. The third layer is that of a 4th century church with frescoes; the 5th layer consists of an 11th century church choir along with a 17th century church that has a beautiful mosaic of the cross as a tree in the apse. One of the most unusual things about San Clemente is the water that still runs in the first layer. It is water from the mountains carried into Rome by a still-existing Roman aqueduct. The 3rd layer is the current church.

•    One of our best experiences in another of the 4 main basilicas was being able to enter the baptistery at St. John Lateran. The baptistery is separate from the church. It is an 8-sided building that accommodated at least 100 people who would be baptized. We arrived at the baptistery just as it was closing, so I went up to the guard, folded my hands, and begged him to let us in, which he did! The whole floor is inlaid with large pieces of different colored marble. It was there that we renewed our baptismal promises. It was a very moving experience, especially since we almost missed being able to go inside.

•    We made 2 journeys outside the city of Rome. Our first was to Monte Cassino where St. Benedict and his twin sister St. Scholastica lived. If anything was a “disappointment”, it was going to Monte Cassino. Monte Cassino is the monastery that St. Benedict established south of Rome. Abbot Marcel thought that we would have a good hour there, but as it turned out the monks closed everything down for lunch and siesta at 12:30 PM instead of 1 PM, the normal time in most of Italy. We were able to see the church and crypt where the monks of Monte Cassino believe St. Benedict and St. Scholastica are buried, but we were not able to see St. Benedict’s cell/room where he actually lived. Along with the tombs of Saints Benedict and Scholastica, Benedict’s cell was the only thing that survived the bombing of the monastery by the Allied Forces in 1944. Abbot Marcel told us that these 2 saints are probably not buried at Monte Cassino, even though the monks there claim they are! Instead, it seems to be more certain that they are buried in France, having been taken there when the Lombards invaded Italy in the late 500’s, not long after Benedict and Scholastica died. Supposedly their bodies were put in a wagon underneath a pile of hay. By the time they arrived in France parts of the bodies were exchanged. This wasn’t discovered until later by way of DNA. The right parts were then put to the right bodies! The Benedictine monks in France probably have both bodies.

•    The second trip outside of Rome was to Florence which is considered the art capital of Italy. We went there by a fast train that traveled 100-150 miles @ hour. The cathedral, which is called the Duomo, with its famous baptistery is awesome. Completely covered with green and white and rose colored marble, it is a site to behold. Another great site in Florence is the statue of David by Michelangelo which is in the Academy Art Museum. The 5 of us walked around the statue at least 5 times a piece. It seems strange to walk around a sculpture of a naked man’s body, but you don’t even notice that he is naked. You are so awed by the fact that it looks like he could just step off the pedestal upon which Michelangelo placed him! Finally, we spent about 3 hours seeing famous art in the Uffizi Museum, one of the 5 top art museums in the world.

•    Everywhere the food, especially the pasta, was incredible. I made sure I ate pasta every day, sometimes twice a day! The coffee, wine, and gelato/ice-cream were wonderful as well. It was great to see the Italians eat. They talked, laughed, and waved their hands as if they were in heaven because they were!

•    We also visited the civic sites: the Roman Forum; the Circus Maximus; many fountains by Bernini; etc. In their own way they were as impressive as the churches. For me the most impressive of the civic sites were the Baths of Diocletian. A huge structure, it is said to have accommodated 3,000 people taking baths! Like many of the Roman buildings, it has been converted into a church. Christians took the marble and gilded bronze from Roman buildings and put them onto and into their places of worship. In the end Christianity won the battle with the Roman Empire, even though it wasn’t until after the Edict of Milan in 313 AD when large churches could be legally constructed.

•    Another thing that struck me again about Rome is how the new is built upon or beside the old. Apartment buildings, stores, and restaurants blend in with buildings and statues that are thousands of years old. It is an amazing city. In the middle of it all is a Catholic Church here and there and everywhere, sometimes hardly noticeable except for a cross on top. There are 465+ Catholic churches in Rome!

•    The streets of Rome are paved with tufa, a very hard rock which is taken from the mountains surrounding Rome. It is cut into 4-5 inch squares and laid side by side with nothing poured between them. The ancient Romans used tufa for their roads and streets as well.

•    You hear a lot about people being robbed on the buses and subways in Rome. It’s true! Someone took Murray’s umbrella. They tried to take more. I even got into the act. I took Dave’s umbrella and didn’t tell him until that evening!

•    The cars in general are very small due to the narrow streets. If they want a parking spot, they just get out of their car, pick up and move a few cars, and park theirs in between! Drivers are very respectful of pedestrians. Only a few seem to actually be in a hurry.

•    We stayed with the Sisters of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. They were very hospitable. Each of us had our own 12’ x 12’ room with a 12’ ceiling and an individual shower. Many of the sisters spoke German, so I got along really well with them since German is my “native” tongue.

•    The convent where we stayed was very strategically located. Just up the street from St. Mary Major where St. Jerome is buried, we were very near an internet “bar” and a laundromat.

•    We did get to have “coffee with a cardinal”, Cardinal Law who is the arch-priest of St. Mary Major. We found him to be very hospitable. He has been a close friend of Abbot Marcel since their time together in Springfield, Missouri.

•    We were able to be at St. Peter’s on Sunday, February 8th, for the Angelus with Pope Benedict. Just before the Angelus a man came up to me and said he was a representative from Vatican Radio. He looked pretty official. He asked me to read the English text of what the pope was going to say. I was about to do that when Abbot Marcel discouraged me- he told me he was a hoax, but I didn’t think so, since I saw the actual text, and he had what looked like official ID. I missed my one and only chance to be on Vatican Radio!

•    We had a second wonderful experience with another Benedictine community. Again Abbot Marcel was the key to open another door! We were treated like kings by the monks who take care of the church of St. Frances of Rome which is right next to the Roman Forum. The monks of this community have what is thought to be the oldest painting of Mary.

•    Finally, the sisters helped us arrange for a van to take us to the airport. I could tell right away the driver knew where he was going, but about ½ there he made a turn off the main road and down into a garbage dump! I thought we were going to be robbed. Then he made a sharp left up onto another main road that quickly took us to the airport. Abbot Marcel said it was the fastest trip he had ever made to the airport in his 50 or so times of leaving Rome!

•    Let me conclude with the prayer that we prayed at St. Paul Outside the Walls. It is the same prayer that we prayed at Mass the Sunday before we left for Rome on the feast of St. Paul’s conversion(from the Sacramentary)

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