“There is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
We came from across the United States and Canada, some 58 pilgrims packing into the Eternal City for the historic beatification of John Paul II. We were all different in terms of our stages in life, our struggles, our nationality and heritage, as well of our occupations and incomes. However, as the beautiful verse from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians reminds us, we may come from different backgrounds, but we are all equal in God’s eyes and have one very important fact in common: As with the more than 1.5 million other pilgrims from around the world, we were all similar in our love for the Lord and our love for John Paul.
And, for a variety of reasons, it was important for us to travel halfway around the world to be in Rome on May 1.
I was privileged to serve as a co-host of the pilgrimage sponsored by Ave Maria Radio and Corporate Travel of Dearborn, Mich. Author, speaker and apologist Steve Ray and I lead trips on a regular basis, and many of our colleagues in Catholic evangelization expressed concern for our sanity in leading a group to Rome when millions were expected to fill the streets on top of the millions who live there and the regular tourist crowds for which the Eternal City is famous.
But we took the motto of John Paul II — “Be not afraid” — and headed off to Italy. And what a trip it was.
Since there were no tickets per se for the actual beatification and Mass, we informed our pilgrims they could either wait in long lines overnight to get a spot in St. Peter’s Square on Divine Mercy Sunday or they could join us at one of the locations where the city was providing a live viewing of the event via a news feed shown on large video screens.
Some opted to stay back at the hotel and watch the events unfold on live television. Some decided to go to the nearby Circus Maximus with me to watch the events on the video screens.
Some were ready and willing to face the challenge and the uphill battle of maneuvering their way along the Via della Conciliazione, the main street leading to St. Peter’s starting at the Tiber River, to get as close to the Vatican as possible. Securing a spot in St. Peter’s Square would mean braving the light rain that continued to fall the night before the beatification. It would mean standing for hours shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims attempting the same goal. It would mean forgoing bathroom facilities, unless you were willing to lose your place, and it would mean zero or little sleep or sleeping standing up.
None of the physical challenges fazed Jessie Houck from Akron, Ohio. She said the moment she heard the date of the beatification announced on Catholic radio she had her heart and mind set on being in St. Peter’s Square. Houck is discerning a vocation to the religious life and felt called to experience this historic moment in the Church firsthand. She began her pilgrimage within a pilgrimage about 5pm Rome time April 30. She managed to make it all the way into the square, near one of the fountains.
“The first few hours weren’t too bad. About 3 or 4 in the morning it started to get very uncomfortable, and I was extremely tired. It was prayer and sheer commitment that got me through,” she said. “I felt John Paul II telling me it was going to be okay. And when morning finally rolled around, and the events started to unfold, it was all worth it, especially when they unveiled his beautiful banner.”
Debbie Robles and her husband Robert from Newport Beach, Calif., headed out of their hotel around 5am on beatification day. Despite what was considered a late start in terms of vying for a coveted viewing spot, they managed to make it close enough to St. Peter’s Square, just at the end of the Via della Conciliazione. Debbie said at one point the crowds became almost unbearable. That’s when she closed her eyes and prayed for John Paul’s intercession. All of a sudden, she felt very peaceful, as if she was in a wide-open space. She felt it was a gift from God that enabled her to hang in there for the momentous occasion. Debbie added it was not only the beatification that was special, but the overall pilgrimage experience of being with other believers from around the country and the world.
She said, “It was so worth it to be in Rome for the beatification, not only to honor John Paul II, but to see all the different languages and countries represented gave me such a sense of the universal Church.”
For Felix Marquez from Alameda, Calif., it was his first time in Rome. He decided to attempt the St. Peter’s challenge to help the pilgrims from our group and received so much more in return, despite his aching feet and legs. The night was filled with hearing the testimonies of other Catholics from around the world.
“It was gift upon gift,” he said. “At one point during the night, I looked up and saw the contrast of the lights of St. Peter’s Basilica against the dark sky. I started to cry because I knew I was home.”
In addition to attending the beatification, the pilgrims toured other Christian sites and ancient Rome. They visited the beautiful Umbrian towns of Orvieto and Assisi. They heard powerful presentations from author and John Paul II biographer George Weigel. They learned about the Holy Face of Manoppello from noted Catholic journalist Paul Badde, the author of The Face of God: The Rediscovery of the Face of Jesus (Ignatius Press; find our recent review online at NCRegister.com).
It’s also evident in chatting with these wonderful fellow believers via email since their return home that we have all gained strength and food for our individual journeys of faith. After all, we all have our own crosses to bear in life, but a pilgrimage lets us know that we are not alone. Regardless of our particular situation, again as St. Paul reminds us, “we are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Teresa Tomeo is a veteran broadcast journalist and author who hosts The Catholic Connection
on EWTN Radio and co-hosts EWTN’s The Catholic View for Women with Janet Morana and Astrid Bennett-Gutierrez.