I must confess that I was becoming blasé about the Jubilee when I set off for Rome in mid-September. The occasion has been planned and publicized for so long. I've read the documents and entire, inspiring volumes relating to the Holy Year; it almost seemed I had had enough of the Jubilee before it even got started.
But, when a chance came to return to the city with the most sumptuous Catholic heritage (and my former home) — and to write about what I found for readers of the Register who may be mulling a 2000 Roman pilgrimage — I didn't wait to pack my bags once again.
It was the right move.
My first night, which I spent in Venice on assignment for another publication, I turned on the television. There stood Pope John Paul II before St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. He blessed the brilliantly restored facade, just finished, before a host of white fireworks rose like angels above the building. The Laudamus and Gloria rose from an orchestra and choir somewhere off-camera.
I learned that this was an unofficial beginning to the year that will celebrate the 2,000 years since the birth of the Savior. For me, this was like an early Christmas. Now I couldn't wait to get to Rome.
A few days later I stood in Piazza San Pietro, looking up at the basilica that was now more beautiful than I had dreamed, after a lengthy, painstaking renewal of the stone and the bells. In some ways this is my favorite piazza in the world. “Square” is an unfortunate translation, for it is anything but square.
The elegant piazza that Gianlorenzo Bernini designed to grace the entry to St. Peter's actually is formed with two huge semicircles of columns that provide welcoming arms for pilgrims as they finally reach Mother Church. At the top of the 284 columns and 88 pillars stand 140 statues of saints. Although it makes for an imposing scene, the saints make it merry. In Italian Baroque fashion they seem to all be gesturing directly to the pilgrim and saying, in unison: “Welcome home!”
A Pilgrimage, Not a Vacation
Catholics considering a trip to Rome next year should remember that the Holy Father has made it clear that local designated celebrations can provide the same spiritual benefits as a Roman pilgrimage. In other words, you don't have to cross the Atlantic to share in the graces of the celebration; your home diocese will likely have plenty going on right where you live.
On the other hand, if your schedule and budget permit, Rome is an enormous Catholic treasure-trove. Nowhere else in the world can you encounter the mystical body of Christ in all its splendor, history and dynamism quite like you can here. The exterior dimensions of the Church come alive in a way other places can only hint at — and, if you're watching and praying, this can translate into an incredibly powerful spiritual experience.
How long to stay? The Italian expression “Non basta una vita” (A lifetime isn't enough) is apropos. After 30 years of devotion to the city, I still see hundreds of new paintings, sculptures, and, on my recent visit, churches that have emerged from the gloom of locked doors to open for the Jubilee. I would say, especially since prayer and contemplation will accompany this trip, a week would be the minimum to experience St. Peter's and the major basilicas, as well as some of the major churches in Rome.
Since there's no way to know just how crowded the major sites will be at any given time, independent pilgrims, who may find the lines too long, can easily skip around to hit the less-crowded. There's so much to see in such a small radius around the Vatican.
For example, around the Pantheon, the Fountain of Trevi and Piazza Navona, there is a fine church on almost every street, thanks to the patrimony of the Baroque era. Also, Italy's artistic treasures are so plentiful that even the smallest church will offer a subject for contemplation and an altar for private prayer. Churches with Masses in English include San Silvestro (near Piazza Colonna) and for Americans, Santa Susanna.
Just be aware that Rome tends to be a particularly chaotic modern European city; the noisy mix of cars, buses and motorscooters (many with riders on cell phones) can be intimidating. Even though the use of private vehicles is to be restricted next year, cutting down on the volume of traffic, the more you can walk, the better.
Get the Card
Crowd-control plans that are under way now, monitored through computerized systems at command central, call for buses to be parked in specified areas at some distance from the city. Buses are able to enter the city only to discharge or pick up passengers at hotels or sites. The Padre Pio celebration of the past year was handled very well; 300,000 came and went without driving the Romans crazy, as they had anticipated. During 2000, an average daily influx of 150,000 is calculated, with 30 million as a year's total.
Do yourself a favor and pay about $40 to get a “pilgrim's card” which provides reservations at events of your choice for three days, which might include a Mass or another celebration plus free transit in Rome anywhere, including airport transfer. The easiest way to get the card is to visit the official Web site of the Vatican's Central Committee for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000: www.jubil2000.org.
If you don't have access to the Internet, call 011-39-066-962-2207.
When to Go
As with any pilgrimage, sharing the journey with other Christian pilgrims can add another dimension to the experience of visiting Rome. There is no shortage of church and school groups putting together group packages. On the downside, group travel limits your options and generally increases the time you'll spend waiting. On the upside, you can forget about having to make reservations and carry luggage.
Whether you decide to go with a group or on your own, the time to make arrangements is right now. Naturally, Christmas and Easter 2000 will be particularly packed with visitors — and that means sightseeing tourists as well as Christian pilgrims — but rises and falls in traffic the rest of the year will be unpredictable. Your surest bet is to make your arrangements as soon as you know you want to go, no matter when in the year that falls.
I personally enjoy Rome in January after Epiphany, and in February, when airfares are usually lower, the tourists fewer, and Romans, not having to cope with so many languages and customs, are in a better mood. However, the area can be quite cold in the winter. Consider whether or not this would be an important factor for you.
Rome is nice in June, though school vacations always promise more student and parent tourists. July and August are often very hot. Fall can be ideal, though this year it was a very long summer.
The bottom line, heading into the 12 months of the Jubilee year, is that, as you make plans for your 2000 Roman pilgrimage, you need to remember that the area is still in the process of becoming a “new” old place. When I was there a couple of weeks ago, many statues and piazzas were still half boarded up. Work continues. All is supposed to be finished by Christmas, but who knows?
Plan early, travel light (because you'll almost certainly want to load up on religious articles and tour mementos), relax and enjoy yourself. After all, it may be another thousand years before Rome again goes this far to put on its best face for Catholic pilgrims.
Barbara Coeyman Hults, a travel guidebook writer, lives in New York.