Going on pilgrimage to Italy to see religious and historic sites can be a helpful aid to participants in growing in their Catholic faith. Fr. Mike Hanifin, pastor of St. Joachim Church in Costa Mesa in the Diocese of Orange, California, has led many groups of pilgrims to Italy, and is well-read on the history of the Church and Italy. I asked him to share some thoughts about some of the sites in Italy most popular to visitors.
The painting of the Last Judgment by Michelangelo is one of the Sistine Chapel’s most prominent features. Are there any particular features of this great work of art you’d point out to pilgrims as being special or unique?
Recently the Sistine Chapel and its paintings were renovated, and it is spectacular. I had a private tour of it in December 2017. The Last Judgment did not catch my eye. It was the creation of man where the finger of God and Adam nearly touched as each stretched out their hand to each. It struck me that man has tried to touch the heavens since creation and not quite achieving this feat. The space between the divine and human fingers, of course was realized in Jesus Christ, both God and Man.
What other aspects of the Sistine Chapel do you find most moving?
I always imagined that the Sistine Chapel would have been larger given its use as the chamber in which cardinals gather to select the next pope. It is quite small, forcing the princes of the Church from the four corners of the earth to be in close proximity to one another in community and fraternity. I think that it is in the context that the Holy Spirit can move and function within each of us. The frescos of Michelangelo are indeed a masterpiece that lifts and inspires ordinary minds and how much more to those who are selecting the next successor of Saint Peter.
Tradition holds that the Scala Sancta/Holy Stairs were once climbed by Jesus Himself as He went into the Praetorium to see Pontius Pilate. It is a pious practice of pilgrims today to climb these stairs on their knees. Do you have any personal experiences at the Holy Stairs you’d like to share?
I walked the stairs on my knees, and boy did they hurt during and after that exercise. However, no matter how strenuous and challenging this exercise was to me, it was no match for what Jesus went through on entering the Praetorium or Antonio Palace to then be condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. As Saint Paul states in his Letter to the Colossians (1:24), “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ...”
What can Christians see and experience as they visit the Catacombs, the burial grounds of Christians in ancient Rome?
In May 2013 I visited the Catacombs of Priscilla. There are some early Christian symbols and paintings of Jesus Christ. It was amazing that early Christians gathered in such places as the Catacombs to celebrate liturgies. Christian meeting in Catacombs for Eucharistic worship helped them to escape the notice of Roman authorities that sought out Christians for persecution and execution.
The practice of placing relics in altars of modern churches developed from the practice of celebrating liturgies in the Catacombs. The early Christians were not just honoring the dead but the resurrection for those who have died with Christ and will also rise with Him to eternal life. This is the Christian hope and the Paschal Mystery.
Pilgrims can visit the Shrine of Padre Pio at San Giovanni Rotondo, about 240 miles from Rome. What are some lesser known things about Padre Pio you might share on a visit there?
A few years ago I read a biography titled, “In My Brother's Image: Twin Brothers Separated by Faith after the Holocaust.” It was a story of twin Hungarian brothers Miklos and his brother Gyuri Pogany who were baptized Catholics to avoid anti-Semitism in Hungary. Guyri became a priest and went to Rome to study and Miklos returned to Judaism and was sent to a concentration camp. Gyuri visited San Giovanni Rotondo and eventually became Padre Pio’s secretary.
Assisi is a little more than 100 miles from Rome. What are some of the highlights of a visit to Assisi, and what have you learned about St. Francis from visiting?
Saint Francis of Assisi is my favorite saint. I am attracted to him because of his humility, simplicity and joy. I was ordained Oct. 3 which was the day in 1226 that he died. I celebrated my first Mass on his feast day.
I founded the parish of Santa Clara de Asis (Saint Clare of Assisi) in Yorba Linda, California. In 2003, I led a pilgrimage to Italy and especially Assisi so that the parishioners could learn more about the parish’s patron saint. Saint Clare was known more for her sanctity and influence in her lifetime than Saint Francis of Assisi. It is a town known for its sense of peace, humility and joy. We attended Sunday Mass in the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi and prayed at the tomb of Saint Francis. We also went to one of my favorite churches associated with Saint Francis which was the Church of San Damiano where its crucifix spoke to Saint Francis telling him, “Francis, rebuild my church which you can see is falling down around you.” This event was the catalyst for the whole Franciscan Renewal of the 13th century.
Siena is about 145 miles from Rome. What are some of the highlights of a visit to Siena, and what can one learn about St. Catherine when you visit?
Twice a year Siena has a horse race around the town. That is quite famous in that area of Italy. I was taken aback by a visit to Saint Catherine of Siena’s home which is quite small in contrast to what we modern folks are accustomed to. Catherine of Siena lived from 1347-1380 and was a philosophy, mystic and theologian. She was declared a Doctor of the Church and was known to have been a stigmatic and possessed a mystical marriage to Jesus.
She had 23 brothers and sisters and I can imagine sleep at night might be a little challenging. Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Bridget of Sweden were known as Church reformers during the 14th century and worked to convince the Avignon Popes of the 14th century to return to Rome from Avignon, France, where they lived for 70 years.
I found it interesting that two 14th-century women played an important role in Church reform in an age of men. They were two powerful and influential leaders in the age they lived.
Siena is also known as the town of Saint Bernadine of Siena (1380-1444) who was known for his preaching and was known as the Apostle of Italy.
Any other thoughts?
You can tell that I have a love of history and especially Church history. I’m leading my next pilgrimage to Italy Sept. 19-30, 2019, and we’ll visit these sites and many others. Our pilgrimage will help us to gain an appreciation of the treasure we possess in our Catholic heritage.