Sunday, July 24, 2011

ITALY (cont.)

Up at 7:00 am to head for Foggia. We took a “high speed train” that left Rome at 10:50 a.m. It cruised along at about 40 mph. Three hours later we arrived at Foggia where we took a bus to San Giovanni Rotondo – the home of St. Padre Pio as he is fondly called. In Foggia we met a nun from the Philippines who needed help with her luggage, and in getting on and off the bus. We were happy to assist her…. Although at that point, I could have used some help myself.

When we arrived at our destination, Dee telephoned the nun she had talked to when she reserved a room at the convent. There was no answer. A shopkeeper said they must be at siesta. Siesta indeed! Dee wanted to take a taxi to the convent. No taxis. The shopkeeper said they were on siesta also. But not to despair. He saw a friend of his and got him to drive us to the convent. We got there and rang and rang and rang. Nobody came to the door. I continued ringing while Dee called on the phone. No answer.

Then a car stopped and a woman got out and came to see if she could help us. In the car with her was the nun we had met when we transferred from the train to the bus. We explained our situation, and she called the hotel that had been recommended to us, and learned that they had a room for us. Only when the hotel is full do the nuns open the convent. Suddenly we saw a nun in full habit hustling down the hilly street toward us. Then we saw a second nun trotting as fast as she could behind the first nun. The streets were narrow and steep. The nuns explained that there had been a cancellation and they had a room for us at the hotel. Hallelujah!! The nuns insisted on hiking back up the hill while we were more than happy to get in the car with our angel lady.

At the hotel we registered, tossed our bags into the room, and headed for St. Pio’s tomb. By now it was around 2 pm and few tourists were around. In the huge, new church there was no tomb. We walked around and around, up and down, and finally we were in the presence of St. Pio. His tomb is located in a very modern, stylistic chapel nestled behind the main Church. His body is no longer on display, but one can view and touch the cloth covering his casket.

Before leaving the holy place, I arranged for a Mass to be celebrated for Fr. Gordon J. MacRae ( I also wrote a letter to St. Pio asking his help to free Fr. Gordon. The monks there will keep him in their prayers. On both sides of the hallway leading away from St. Pio’s chapel are scenes of St. Pio’s life on one side and St. Francis’ life on the other side: both monks, both Franciscans, both stigmatists. We marveled at the vivid scenes, took photos and finally left to attend the 4:30 Mass in the big Church.

As we walked toward the Church for Mass, suddenly we noticed an old friar walking in front of us. He was slightly bent over and his grey hair and grey beard were reminiscent of St. Pio. I commented that maybe it was St. Pio. Nothing would have surprised me. One felt in the presence of great spirituality. A holy man had walked these hills day after day. His spirit is here. We walked faster. I had to see his face. I was almost convinced that it was indeed St. Pio. Alas, it was not, but for a fleeting moment, there was hope.

There is a huge hospital located at the highest point in the city, called Home for the Relief of Suffering. This hospital, founded by Padre Pio in 1940 and completed in 1956, is known for its technology and is considered one of the best in Europe. The hospital dominates San Giovanni Rotondo.

Early the next morning we began the trip back to Rome. I thought when I left Peru I would never again be in a bus or car riding white-knuckled around mountains with steep, steep drop-offs. Yet, here I was hanging onto the seat in front of me as our huge bus took the sharp curves. There was very little traffic. In fact, the bus ride was considerably faster than the “high speed trains.” With my penchant for worrying, I hoped the brakes were in good working order.

And then there was Assisi. Ah, what a place. We took a train from Rome to Perugia, and another train from Perugia to Foligno, and finally another bus to Assisi. Ah, the beautiful Assisi where one immediately feels the spirituality and St. Francis’ presence is everywhere. I felt at home here. Our hostess had arranged for a seasoned tour guide who lives in Assisi to show us as much as possible in 24 hours. He met us at the station, and we began our tour in the valley.

The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli is the first structure we saw. This gorgeous basilica was built to protect the Portiuncola Chapel, the tiny chapel St. Francis fled to when he left his family. He restored the chapel and founded the Franciscan Order. Because so many pilgrims visited this hallowed chapel, the basilica was built to accommodate them. The Portiuncola is a jewel in the basilica. We walked inside and saw where St. Francis lived and preached; we offered prayers; admired the art work, the frescoes, and were overwhelmed by the sanctity of this exquisite chapel. No photos are allowed in the basilica, so we walked through very slowly trying to take in all the history that surrounded us. We descended to the lower Church to visit St. Francis’ tomb.

As we stepped outside the Basilica, we saw a life-size statue of St. Francis. His hands are out-stretched and they hold a large basket. To our amazement there were white doves in the basket. Our guide said, “Yes, they are real.” Since the days of St. Francis, white doves have been coming here. Remember that St. Francis talked to birds and other animals about God. He saved white doves from being sold and probably killed. This is their haven. The doves were gorgeous. They were eating, and occasionally they looked at us and then continued with the business of eating. They were totally unafraid of people. They knew they were safe there. It was an extraordinary sight.

As we entered the rose garden via the sacristy, we saw the beautiful roses that do not have thorns. It seems that St. Francis rolled naked in the bramble thorns one night because he felt tempted to abandon his holy life. He wanted to overcome the temptation. As soon as his body came into contact with the thorns, the thorns disappeared and to this day, those roses are completely without thorns. Our guide said people have tried to plant those roses elsewhere, but they will only bloom in that particular rose garden. Wow, our St. Francis was amazing, n’est-ce-pas?

Later we visited St. Francis’ cell and walked up and down stairs, and ducked our heads beneath low thresholds. We walked in the garden with its one-mile length for exercise for the friars, and we stood at the site where the monks celebrate Christmas Eve Mass as St. Francis celebrated it. St. Francis was the originator of the Creche and popular devotion to the Holy Family scene that we've come to associate with a Catholic celebration of Christmas. He used live animals and people for his manger scene. How I would love to have witnessed that!