Our flight to Rome, Italy via Dubai was at 12:20AM of October 17, 2009. We left my sister’s condo at around 8pm of October 16 because we were instructed to be there by 9:30pm.
With one luggage and one carry on each, we arrived early in Terminal 1 of Ninoy Aquino International Airport. My sister, who had attended the pre-departure briefing, already recognized our co-pilgrims in the benches waiting for the counters to open. We used the free time to exchange Euros. I usually just withdraw from my ATM, but my mother and sister were making me apprehensive because they were getting Euros already, so I followed suit.
At 9:30pm, the counters opened. Two counters were provided solely for us pilgrims. We were 68 in all but divided into two groups. Actually, one group (our group) was for Ephesus Travel and Tours Group while the second group was organized by a Fil-Canadian who just “hitched” with Ephesus. That group had a lot of Fil-Canadian participants and their friends in the Philippines, which included Boots Anson Roa and Ret. General Abaya. Anyway, I thought with two counters exclusively for us, we’d be finished earlier but it took so long to finish. It took us more than an hour to do so that when we got to the pre-departure, we only had a little over one hour waiting time – which was good actually.
Boarding Emirates, I learned that the whole group was seated in Zone C or that area immediately after Business Class, so I looked around to check the persons I shall be with for the next fifteen days. People of assorted ages, the youngest around my age (ok, my younger sister’s age!).
After dinner was served, I checked out the in-flight entertainment. We had individual LCDs in front of us. I clicked on the new releases and was happy the latest Harry Potter topped the list. I started to watch it, but sleep got the better of me, I only saw maybe ten minutes of the movie. It was nine hours from Manila to Dubai so when I woke up more than four hours after, I set to watch Harry Potter again but I was not in the mood for witches and Voldemort, so I changed channels and watched Sandra Bullock’s “The Proposal”. It’s been so long since I watched western movies (wink), so I did not hear about it but this romantic comedy really entertained me and somehow got my mind off how uncomfortable I was feeling being seated for a long time already. After the movie, I browsed through the music channels and listened to Madonna, Michael Jackson, Mamma Mia OST… then I tried opening the World Music category and happily listened to Kpop and Jpop, special mention Rain and Jang Nara. It was still around two hours of flying time, so I went back to sleep with the music on.
At last, the plane landed in Dubai. Once there, we immediately went to locate our gate number. We did not have to check in again because we already did that in Manila and were already given boarding passes for the Dubai-Rome leg. We had almost four hours of lay over in the airport. After seeing our gate, my mother, my sister and I headed to the comfort room to refresh ourselves and change our clothes. Hubby did the same and wandered around to find a smoking area.
We went around the duty free shops in the airport and I noted how most of the employees there were Filipinos. After the window shopping, all of us ate at Burger King and I said our order in Tagalog since the lady was a Filipino. In fact, it felt like we were in Manila, they were speaking Tagalog among themselves.
It was no fun looking at goods we will not be buying so we just returned to our gate to wait until boarding. It was good that there were seats in the pre-departure area which allowed us to rest our legs also, similar to those beach benches but in steel. My mom and my hubby drifted to sleep while my sister and I took advantage of the free wifi and went online.
It was a six hour flight to Rome. Once I settled, I again attempted to continue Harry Potter, but ended up watching a Kmovie starring Kwon Sang Won — I can’t remember the title anymore, gosh (Blue something…)! It was a nice movie though and like a typical kmovie, both leads died in the end, hahaha. The rest of the flight, I drowsed on and off after a few trips to the bathroom. When food was served, hubby and I noticed that rice was already absent in the menu, and as we ate the bread and the rest of the food, we braced ourselves for a riceless two weeks.
At last, after the long journey, we finally landed in Rome. Immediately upon arrival, my mom and my sister posed for a picture, saying that after twenty seven years, we made it back there. I was so tired to make a pose.
It was shortly before two in the afternoon, Rome time. I finally got to meet our pilgrim-ates formally at this point. Mostly mother-daughter, sisters, husband-wife, friends tandem. A lot of doctors we had with us, and lawyers (three from us already), CPAs. When we boarded our bus and started towards the city, it was so empty and quiet. The guide said it was because it was a weekend (Saturday). The stillness which greeted me was the only faint memory I remembered when we were there nearly three decades ago.
Straight from the airport, off we went to start our tour and it was none other than the world famous Colosseum. It was my preconceived notion that the Colosseum was probably located in a vacant space, away from the city, where the gladiators fought. I was wrong, it stood with all its beauty right in the center of the city, along with all the other buildings there. It was hard to picture the gladiators lurking in the area, hahaha. It’s right beside a thoroughfare.
After the visit to the Colosseum, we boarded our tourist bus to move on to the Trevi Fountain. The streets of Rome were deserted because the authorities closed several streets due to an ongoing protest/rally against their President that day so our driver, Alessandro, had to go around several times to figure out where to drop us off. The shortest way to the Trevi was closed so we were dropped farther away. We walked all the way to the Trevi fountain in the cold weather. The streets were so narrow and our guide, Maria Cristina, warned us to mind our wallets because there were bound to be pickpockets in that area as it was heavily populated with tourists. We walked more than thirty minutes and for me, that was F.A.R. We even passed by their Presidential House on the way there.
At the Trevi fountain, it was so hard to take photos of myself because there were so many, many, many people there, all taking pictures too. It is said that if you throw a coin in the fountain, you can go back to Rome one day. My mom said we didn’t throw coins the last time, but we got back anyway, hahaha. Even then, we searched our wallets for coins. We did not have Euro coins yet, so we threw five peso coins, lol. Let’s see if we can go back again. We were given more than thirty minutes to explore the area, but with the area thick with tourists, we wandered a few meters away from the fountain after we had our pictures. Some of our companions were already eating Gelati and I so wanted one but, it was so cold and my nose was threatening to drip and I was afraid I’d get tonsilitis and ruin my trip, I dare not try it. We instead got in the shops and bought souvenir items.
From Trevi fountain, we walked some more to the direction of the Pantheon. I just brushed my tiredness by observing the different cobbled steps along the way. It was again a long walk, I was getting afraid I’d get blisters that early in the trip.
As with Trevi fountain, the Pantheon was full of people as well. Stepping inside, it was very dark, although there were candles everywhere. There were no lights; only natural light provided by the sun through its open dome above. There was a mass when we arrived there, so we were tiptoeing inside while Maria Cristina told us interesting facts of the Pantheon. Was it in Angels and Demons that the Pantheon was shown? I never got to see the movie.
I was so glad when Maria Cristina told us that it was time to go to our hotel for our much needed rest. We had to walk far again to get to the bus. The streets of Rome are narrow and parking is only at designated places so after more than thirty minutes of walking, I happily collapsed in the bus.
We were all silent in the bus – understandably, all of us were tired already. Our hotel was located out of the city proper. It’s not a hotel actually, but a pilgrim house, just so we could experience living in one (it’s a pilgrimage, after all!). Domus Urbis was a family run pilgrim house. It has all the amenities of a hotel, only that there weren’t that too many employees. I was shocked to see our porters in the restaurant serving us dinner later! For Philippine standards, Domus Urbis is already luxurious. Our rooms were more than decent and very clean.
Immediately upon arriving, we proceeded to the restaurant. It was almost eight o’clock in the evening and I was totally out of energy. We sat and munched some bread and butter already laid down on the table. A few minutes later, dinner was served. This was the part I got surprised to see the porters in their apron serve dinner (I only knew later that this was family ran) . We were served pasta – not the ordinary noodles we are accustomed at home. It was Italian style – only tomato sauce! I like sweet style pasta/pinoy pasta; this one was sour and bereft of any meat, even a mere Argentina cornberns would already make me happy. Sighing, we hurriedly finished the pasta hoping to go to the room already and rest. When the four of us stood up and started towards the door, Ms. Rose, owner of Ephesus, asked us where we were going because the main course was still coming. This was Europe and dinner was served through courses. So we got back and sat and eagerly waited for the main course. Rice, rice, rice. The main course was crispy fried chicken with lentils and fries. Sigh, sigh, sigh. It didn’t feel like dinner to me without the rice. So, I ate the chicken (large serving, by the way) and everything else there and stood up already. No, I did not wait for dessert; I’m that tired.
The minute I entered our room, I changed clothes, washed my face and hit the bed. Maybe because my body had not adjusted to the time difference, I woke up very early the next morning at five, when wake up call was yet at 6:3O. I took a shower, arranged some of our things in the luggage and browsed the channels on the TV. Except for BBC, every show there was in Italian. Hubby got bored with BBC and watched an Italian movie instead. Our breakfast was scheduled at 7:30 but by 7:00, we were already fidgeting in the room, so H and I headed out of the room, intending to roam around the premises of the hotel. The minute we got out of the building, we turned back immediately. It was very cold and dark yet (yes, at 7:00am). A few minutes later, mother and sister came down in the reception area too, as they had the same intention of strolling outside. I told them it was cold, but they continued to head out and in less than five minutes, they were back. We just lingered in the reception area and waited for breakfast to be served. By exactly 7:30, we went down the restaurant. It was a continental breakfast (buffet). In front of the hall, different kinds of bread, drinks, cold cuts, butter, jelly, etc. were laid down. Different flavored flakes too. I was hoping for egg omelet but there was not any. I just made ham sandwich with cheese and chose hot chocolate for my drink. I already resigned to the fact that I’m gonna gain weight in this trip at this point. I selected the less harder bread (why are their breads hard, anyway?). My husband and my sister ate as if there were no tomorrow. They literally ate everything there – from the basic bread, to cereals to fruit salad. This is why, after two weeks, they super gained weight. They said they’re afraid they’d go hungry later because there was no rice. Breakfast was not a problem for me because I’m used to just having oats and banana. Since food was abundant, a lot of us made sandwiches to eat during the day (my ziplock was ready!).
By 8:30 we boarded our bus. It was during the ride to the city proper that our pilgrimage chaplain, Fr. Arlo Yap, SVD introduced himself to us. If you watch the televised Sunday Masses at ABS CBN, I think you might know him. He celebrates mass frequently there. In fact, I recognized him from the show. Fr. Arlo stood up front, picked up the microphone and said our morning prayer. I took his prayer to heart, thanking God for our safe journey, thanking God for the blessing of being able to join the trip, asking God to take care of the families we left back home, including our country, which was then still dealing with the aftermath of the storms that hit Manila and Luzon.
Several minutes later, the bus stopped and our tour guide, Maria Cristina, greeted us. We were actually in Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome and it’s known to be the First Catholic Church in the World. Before entering the church, Cristina gave us headsets and radios (?) so that she need not shout as we go along. We can just wander around and still hear her voice giving information about the place. In was a huge church and very dark as well. Mass was currently being celebrated, so Cristina had to whisper as she explained the details of the church design and ornaments and the like. The huge statues of the twelve disciples spread out the big columns of the wide hall of the church. When I looked up, the ceiling was filled with elaborate mosaic designs made of different kinds of stones and bronze and silver. For documentation, a few of us went on to take pictures and the nun who saw us scolded us. We meant no disrespect, we just wanted to make a remembrance of our visit there.
From there, we headed to the city proper where we visited more churches. In Rome, the churches are very near each other and scattered everywhere. We first visited the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. As usual, it was as beautiful as the other churches I’ve visited at that point. After a few minutes here (Cristina was telling us about the details in the design again and what they were made of and when they were made of, including diameters, etc. – I didn’t listen already…), we crossed the street to enter into another church (I forgot the name) and it equally boasted of the intricate designs of its walls, ceilings, and so on.
We then proceeded to another building which housed The Holy Steps or Scala Sancta. The Steps according to Catholic tradition, were the steps leading to Pontius Pilate’s place where Jesus climb during His Passion, and where his blood dripped upon. The marble steps were brought by St. Helena (mother of Constantine) to Rome in the 4th century.
I thought we had time to climb the Holy Steps so I followed two of our companions and fell on my knees on the first step. The marble steps were now encased in hard wood to preserve it. Kneeling and meditating the Passion of Christ, I saw a few glass holes (similar to that used during Holy Hour where the Host is kept) on the steps and I actually saw (the blood) stains on the marble. I just touched the spot, but some of the pilgrims kissed it. I was not even halfway when I started to feel much pain on my knees. I mean, my knees held my whole body each step up and hello, my knees were not in good condition because of that fall in Singapore. I just prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries on the way up and Lord God, if I could just stop and stand up already, I would. It was intensely painful, I already crawled in the last few steps. Upon reaching the top, I reached a small and majestic (what’s new?) chapel – which used to be the personal chapel of the early popes.
After the quick peek of the chapel, I ran down the steps in another staircase for I knew I took a while in the Holy Steps. True enough, the whole group was waiting for us already and the guide said, if we don’t hurry, we might miss the Angelus and Papal Blessing in Vatican. You don’t know how I prayed to God to please, please, please, don’t let us miss it, or I’m dead (there were three of us who climb the steps).
When we parked at the parking space of the Vatican, we were brisk walking all the way to St. Peter’s Square. Thank God that we got there less than ten minutes to twelve noon.
The square was already full of excited pilgrims. Some of them were even bringing huge banners so that the Pope can read them from afar. I don’t know what’s written in them as it was in foreign language.
The window was already ready for the Pope. Waiting there, I kept telling myself it was not a dream and I was actually there. It was unbelievable because I always see the same scene on television.
Without warning, at 12:00 sharp, the Holy Father appeared at his window and started leading the Angelus. There wasn’t any introduction or whatever. The crowd joined him in prayer, which was in Italian. When I discovered the big LCD screen near us, I joined as well. I did not need subtitles, I knew that prayer by heart. After the short prayer, the Pope raised his hands and waved to the crowd. I was so happy – I cannot describe the feeling of being there. While he was giving his message, I held back my tears when I thought of how blessed I was to be there. I thought of the rest of my family back home who were so excited for me to see the Pope and receive his blessing. When the Pope blessed all the pilgrims, I prayed that my loved ones and my friends would also make it in Vatican one day. I thought of my nephews and nieces who actually thought I could go near the Pope and give him their love. I just shouted their greetings so that I could tell them I did what they wanted me to do.
After our highly anticipated time with the Pope, we were supposed to visit the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel but there was an affair in the Vatican and it was closed that day. Our guide said we will visit them when we return to Rome in Wednesday, right after the Papal Mass. This being, we were given free time to roam around the State as our next stop would be the catacombs at 2:30.
Since we had not eaten lunch yet, we settled in one corner in St. Peter’s Square and got our boxed lunches which was sent by the hotel. It was 2 baguette sandwiches (ham and cheese), apple, orange, bottled water and coke. In fairness, our boxed lunches in Europe were more than enough to last the whole day. We did not even have to buy additional water to drink during sightseeing but whew, bread!!!???!!!
Right after lunch, we visited the nearby souvenir shops, but most of the stores were closed because it was siesta time (resumes at 3pm). However, when we walked a little farther away, there were several stores that did not observe siesta time. Fr. Arlo said, based on his experience, the cheapest souvenirs and religious items were sold in the Vatican. We compared prices because we had already bought some the day before and yes, those we bought outside cost three times more. We ended buying many in that area – and I warned my husband not to hoard yet because we still had lots of places to go.
Going back to our meeting place, we saw Ms. Boots Anson Roa taking a rest in one of the benches. We approached her for a little chit chat (we’re on talking terms now, eh?) and for pictures. She said she was waiting for her sister and since we were in different groups we headed back ahead.
The ride to the catacombs was a little far, out of the city. Cristina said there were many catacombs existing in Rome and the one we visited was Catacombe S. Callisto.
The bus parked at a parking space outside the entrance. We entered the gate and were welcome by beautiful trees lined up leading to the site. It looked like a park to me, very spacious and very green. It was so relaxing to be there. We waited for our turn while Cristina bought our tickets. H and I wandered in the souvenir shop inside until “Ephesus Group” was called over the microphone.
We lined up and were told that those who were claustrophobic better stay behind because we were going underground. A number of our companions indeed heeded the call and settled outside while the rest of us were led further in a building down the road. Inside, a Filipino brother (I forgot from what order – Don Bosco?) met us and he explained the history of the catacombs.
The underground burials of San Callisto was built in the end of the second century where early Christians were buried after being persecuted. This particular catacomb we visited occupies fifteen hectares and almost twenty kilometers long. It was said that there were more than fifty martyrs and sixteen pontiffs buried there. There were four layers (or floors) in this catacomb.
It was very cold inside and thank God there were faint lights installed to guide our way but the Brother held a flashlight as he led the group to emphasize his explanations. Yup, the claustrophobic would panic down there. It was so narrow and kind of dark and eerie. We only went as far as the second floor. We were able to see the burial place of St. Cecilia and some crypts of the popes. Pictures were totally prohibited here and I did not dare disobey this time. While walking in the catacombs, I thought of happy thoughts because if I started thinking that there were more than 500,000 dead bodies buried there, I would have jolted and ran out. We ended our tour in the catacomb with a prayer inside one of the graveyards in the second floor and climbed the staircase back up.
It was already close to four in the afternoon. We headed back to the city toward St. Paul Basilica as we will be celebrating our Sunday mass in one of the chapels there.
It was already chilly when we walked from the parking to the Basilica of St. Paul outside the walls. It was also a square, but very much smaller that St. Peter’s. At this point, I already got used to the majestic churches and its elaborate and luxurious designs and decorations. It looked more or less the same with the other churches we had seen since we arrived. Again, the ceilings were high with glamorous mosaics and touches of gold, silver and bronze. It was dark inside. As with the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, the Basilica of St. Paul was bare of permanent pews in the hall, unlike our churches here. I gathered that the seats will just be placed when there will be mass held in the main hall because there were several disarrayed seats at its sides. Like the other Basilicas, this huge building had several chapels inside it and we had mass in one of the chapels there.
Up front, in the center, before reaching the altar of the Basilica, there’s the original chain which was used on St. Paul when he was arrested. Just beneath the chain, a few steps under, is a tomb believed to be that of St. Paul. The tomb was never exhumed to check if it was indeed him buried there but they say it was because he was beheaded right there and the tomb existed immediately after he died.
After taking a quick tour of the Basilica, we proceeded to the chapel found on the right side of the altar. It was a small one, just enough to accommodate all of us. Fr. Arlo’s homily was inspiring and I hope to make another entry for his homilies one of these days.
It was nearly seven in the evening when we walked to the bus. It was a very long walk again. Upon arriving at the hotel, we went straight to the restaurant for dinner. There was the usual bread and butter on the table and a few minutes later, the first course was served. It was squash soup with rice and some greens. Hubby was thinking of our arroz caldo when he saw it and expected to taste arroz caldo after the first sip. Of course it was not, and he set it aside, saying he cannot stomach the taste. My sister gobbled her serving and my mom barely touched hers. Me? I finished mine. It was a different taste but it was bearable. Besides, there was a little rice there duh! The second serving was french fries and beef steak with a rich gravy. It was again a large serving. I only ate a portion of the beef and concentrated on the fries. Hubby enthusiastically ate his and got my left over. I think dessert was chocolate cake.
I woke up early the next day because our next stop was San Giovanni Rotondo. We packed all our things and left them at the reception area then had breakfast at 7:00am. By 8:00, we were on our long drive to Padre Pio’s. Alessandro was still our driver. My sister says he looks like Nicholas Cage, which I agree when he’s on his back hahaha.
Riding the bus to San Giovanni Rotondo had been a treat. The sights of the countryside was very beautiful.
Since it was a three-hour ride, Fr. Arlo led the rosary and we finished all mysteries in one sitting. After the rosary, Fr. Arlo stood up and suggested we get to know each other more. He called several pilgrims to share why they joined this pilgrimage. I’m not much of a sharer so I looked away. When Fr. Arlo called the ones seated behind us, Chiqui said she’ll pass and my husband teasingly prodded her to go on, until Fr. Arlo called my husband to share instead. So up hubby went and shared his story why he was there. When he was asked how he ended joining “Ephesus”, he truthfully said he didn’t have an idea. Ergo, Fr. Arlo called me to say our story and I just shared my mother’s illness and how she so wanted to take that bath in Lourdes.
There was still about two hours to go, so most of my bus mates drowsed to sleep. I was wide awake with my headphones, just admiring the view. We made a toilet stop along the way and the minute we got down, whew, it was so cold (colder than Rome) and windy. I had to run towards the toilet because I did not like the wind.
When we resumed the trip, we could already see the snow-capped mountains on the sides which meant we were near San Giovanni Rotondo. I thought, “oh no, it’s going to be colder there”! It was about 11:30 when we arrived. Whoa, who would have thought an isolated place would contain so many hotels? It did not quite suit the provincial nature of the place. The numerous hotels lined up is due to the fact that San Giovanni Rotondo has at least seven million pilgrims visiting Padre Pio’s annually.
Alessandro dropped us in front of our 4star hotel. Someone commented we just go straight to Padre Pio’s Place but tourist buses could not go up there directly. We had to board the local bus. All of us went down and inside the hotel. We made sure our luggage were at the lobby as the porters will be the one to bring it up our rooms. With our boxed lunches in hand, we waited for the local bus to pick us up. The bus only had seats at the sides and its center was empty (standing basis only).
It was only around five minutes ride further up the mountain to Frai Minori Cappuccini. We got off the bus stop and walked towards Padre Pio’s Place. Small stalls selling souvenir items lined up the streets. It was breathtaking to be on top of the mountain surrounded by everything Padre Pio. I’ve only seen the place on TV, but there I was.
It was so windy up there. We could not even stand still because of the cold. Our companions settled in a comfortable place outside the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace and ate lunch. The four of us followed suit — argh, sandwich again. I took a few bites of the sandwich and ran inside to the Shrine to seek shelter from the cold.
I won’t talk about how the Shrine was decorated because by now, all of the churches I visited were equally beautiful and lavish and looked more or less the same to me. Anyway, we said our prayers and wandered sideways. There was an exit at the side of the Shrine which led to the Old Chuch where St. Pio said mass since 1919 to 1959.
I was thinking of writing my petitions in paper for Padre Pio but we were already called because our guided tour will start.
We hurried to the Pilgrim Reception Area and were handed headsets for the tour. Pamphlets and other reading materials about the saint were also available there.
First we entered the door at the right side of the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace and went down the steps toward the tomb of Padre Pio. I was really a little down because the guide said it was just a few weeks earlier that his incorrupt body was placed back in the silver coffin and will only be exposed during anniversaries and other relevant events. I forgot about wanting to see the incorrupt body itself as I got inside the crypt. There in the middle of the room was a silver coffin where Padre Pio’s human remains lay. Everybody was silent. Some settled in the benches placed in the corner of the room while other kneeled down in front of the coffin. I sat down beside my mom in the corner and just stayed quiet but since there was already space for me to kneel in front of the tomb, I said a little prayer to the Saint – nothing particular, just asking him to pray for us.
We continued with the tour and went to the room (cell) of Padre Pio. It was so small, just enough for a single bed and a side table. Next, we stopped at the Seminarists’ Dormitory where a lot of the saint’s things were displayed, including his garments with stained blood on them, his robes, the letters people all over the world send him, even the bandages used to cover his wounds were shown. Moving on, we passed by the classroom (small seminary), St. Francis Hall, the Cell of the Operation, the Old Choir (where the Crucifix Of The Stigmata was), until we wind up at the Book Shop. Our tour guide then said we had the rest of the afternoon to explore the area for private devotions. The guide recommended we go to the St. Pio Church (there are four churches here – The Shrine of Our Lady Of Grace, The Old Church, Open Sky Church and St. Pio Church) at the back of the Shrine because there lies the future crypt of Padre Pio there where his remains will be transferred. She said the Philippines made a donation for its construction. We dispersed and went on our separate ways.
Oh, it was colder when we got out the open space outside.
We walked past the running streams and the olives, took pictures at the Open Sky Church, the Great Cross and Long Avenue until we saw St. Pio Church. This church was relatively new, constructed in 2004, as the Shrine could not accommodate so many pilgrims. It could house 6000 people there. There’s the Open Sky Church if the crowd is more than 6000 (it’s just a vast space outside St. Pio Church).
St. Pio Church was already closed and we turned to leave when our companion said The Lower Church of St. Pio Church was open. Thus, we went down the stairs leading to the place. Wow, it was dazzling in gold inside. The round structure was full of golden mosaic, there was no single space without it. The walls told the life of St. Pio, all in magnificent mosaic. I sat there and wondered how much the building cost. Better yet, how much money was donated by Pope Pius Center of the Philippines? I think the guide said that donation helped finance one wall there (I’m not sure).
We still had an hour until we go back to the hotel, so we drifted in the souvenir shops. I had already bought rosaries in the Book Shop and was just particularly looking for a relic of St. Pio. I nearly combed all the shops there but there wasn’t any. Luckily, one of the last shops we set in had a second class relic – a leaflet containing a small cloth of one of the robes that St. Pio wore when he was still alive. I was so happy to buy it even if the prayer written on the leaflet was in Italian (well, Padre Pio only relied on his Guardian Angel to help him read the letters written to him in languages other than Italian, so I didn’t care about the language too).
By this time, the winds were blowing us away already and the temperature had dropped further. H wanted to drink coffee and found a little coffee shop in the corner. Did I already mention that in Italy, it sucks, nobody speaks English? So we got in, ordered (more like pointed) coffee. H had in his arms two books on Padre Pio which we got from our tour. As he sat down, the son of the Signora approached him and showed him exactly the same book. I could not understand what he was saying but he took the books from H’s arms and put price tags of 8.50E at the back of the books. Then the son gave the books back to H. I left H inside while I checked out other shops outside. Finished with his coffee, I saw H approach me outside but the son kept calling him “Signore”. I went back with H and that guy “told” us we did not pay for the books (read: he was charging us of theft!). It was useless to argue because they can’t speak English. I ran out and hollered to my sister to help me with the situation. My sister arrived and raised her voice over the Signora and the same time waving the sames books she also got from our tour. By sign language, she said we got ours from the Book Shop. Thank God, the Signora understood and said “confusion, confusion” then she got their same book and banged the book on the head of his son. Aish!
We still had a few minutes til our bus arrived and our powers could not take the cold anymore. We were compelled to buy gloves and hats in the shops. The minute the bus showed up, we raced into the bus (it’s heated!).
When we arrived at the hotel, I found our luggage at the lobby. The porter did not bring it up our room because they did not see our names thereon so H and I had to bring it up ourselves.
Our room was very imperial. It reminded me of our hotel in Korea (The Imperial Palace). Once I got in, I immediately checked the room temperature. What? The highest temperature was only 25 degrees centigrade! I badly needed a 30 that time, gosh. There was still more than an hour to dinner time and seeing that we had a balcony, H and I stepped out to look out but the cold was biting us, we turned back immediately.
It was finally dinnertime. We’ve gotten used to munching bread and butter while waiting for the food to be served. Our first course was soup. Second course was roasted pork with gravy, beans and potatoes. Dessert was something similar to leche flan with whipped cream and chocolate ice cream on top.
The next day was an early day. By 6:30am, we left our luggage outside our rooms for the porters to carry down as we will be leaving San Giovanni Rotondo after hearing mass at The Old Church and proceed to Lanciano.
Hearing mass at The Old Church was an unforgetable experience. While the mass was ongoing, I kept seeing the masses aired on TV celebrated by St. Pio in the exact place and I could not help feeling overwhelmed by it all. St. Pio died on that altar while he was saying mass sometime in 1959. What is more, the homily of Fr. Arlo was again very touching that my tears were threatening to fall. I really felt St. Pio in there and his presence was all over the place. Immediately after the mass, we quickly scribbled something for the saint, confessing my sins and asking him to pray for everybody – my family, relatives and friends. I even asked him to pray for the Philippines too. It was while asking the Saint to pray for my intentions that I teared up already. I left the church with a very light and happy heart.
Mindful of the time, we went to the bus stop to wait for our bus. We were supposed to be back to the hotel before 8:00, grab a quick breakfast and continue to Lanciano which was three hours away. We were all there but we had to wait for a few others for a really long time (more than thirty minutes). Fr. Arlo and some of our companions boarded the bus bearing happy news. They got with them a first class relic of Padre Pio. It was one of cloths used by the saint to cover his bleeding hands and yes, it had blood stains. By God’s will, what seemed to be a very long process only took Fr. Arlo less than an hour to get. Father later relayed that he just went to the office to submit the letter of request, asking for a first class relic of the saint for the SVD community in the Philippines (1st class relics are only for institutions, not for individual parties). He was told by the receiving clerk that after it was approved, it will just be sent by mail to the Philippines. They turned to leave but halfway, the clerk went after them, saying the Parish Priest, who was on his way out of San Giovanni Rotondo, immediately approved it. We cheered for Father, happy that all throughout the journey, a piece of Padre Pio will be accompanying us. Fr. Arlo announced that from San Giovanni Rotondo to Lanciano, he shall be passing around the relic at the other bus and from Lanciano to Assisi, the relic will be with us. Each of us will be given unlimited time to touch the relic and pray.
Because of the worthy delay, we left San Giovanni Rotondo late at about 9:30 in the morning. As with our travel to San Giovanni, we again recited the Holy Rosary on the road to Lanciano, Italy.
Alessandro pulled over the bus parking area of Lanciano a few minutes after 12:00noon. We got down the bus, collected our boxed lunches and settled ourselves in the benches. It was also very cold in Lanciano that I did not want to drink water already for I might feel colder. After taking lunch and all that cheerful talks, Ms. Rose and Father went on ahead to the Sanctuary of the Eucharistic Miracle. A few minutes later, both of them came back to inform us that the Sanctuary was closed and will open at 3pm (siesta!). Thus, we had less than two hours to wait there.
Our original itinerary was that to leave San Giovanni Rotondo at 8:30 the latest so that we’ll be by Lanciano before 12:00 and proceed to Assisi to hear mass at the Basilica of St. Francis at 5pm. It was also in Assisi where we shall stay overnight. That early, I was already concerned. We were supposed to leave Assisi very early the next day to catch the Papal Mass in the Vatican at 9:30, after which we shall be visiting the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel, then proceed to the airport for our flight to Portugal.
Anyway, I kept the anxiety to myself while we roamed around the streets of sleepy Lanciano, killing the time. At about 2:30, we marched to the direction of the Sanctuary of the Eucharistic Miracle.
Along the way, Ms. Rose and Father Arlo told us there wasn’t anything else to see in the Sanctuary except for the Host turned Real Flesh and Wine Turned Real Blood on the altar. So Father said, we’ll just take a good look, say our prayers and head off to Assisi.
The Sanctuary was still closed when we got there. Several groups were also outside waiting. While waiting, they were saying the Holy Rosary. We also did. At 3pm sharp, the doors of the Sanctuary was opened and we hurriedly went in. It wasn’t so big inside, but it was small either. Up on the altar proudly stood on its stand the Host-turned-flesh and the (dried up) Wine-turned-blood. Although there were pews in the hall where people could kneel and pray, most of the pilgrims there went to the altar as close as they could to the Host and Wine and knelt directly on the marble floor. There was a single line for those who want a closer look. Some of our companions knelt directly on the floor and prayed but I joined the others who fell in line to get nearer. In front of its stand, I saw the brownish host whose form was not the perfect circle it usually is but an uneven piece of flesh. It looked like a piece of pork to me (sorry, I haven’t seen human flesh in slices!). The wine was no longer liquid but dehydrated and the color of dried up blood. I took a quick picture and moved on and fell on my knees on the floor and prayed. Seeing the old flesh and the blood, I will not take communion lightly ever again.
After praying, I sat on one of the pews but I saw Father Arlo motioning us out. I called the others and followed Father. We waited at the exit of the Sanctuary where the Book shop was conveniently located, so naturally, we flocked inside. Several minutes passed and another companion called us out telling us it was time to go.
After all was done, the bus was only able to start for Assisi at 4:00pm. With only an hour until our scheduled mass in Assisi, I knew for certain at that moment that we will be missing it. Everybody was so quiet inside the bus. It took forever to get to Assisi and the road was winding. Alessandro could not speed up because the bus had GPS and he will be reprimanded by his employer if he disobeyed traffic rules. The maximum speed going there varied, some at 40kph, some 60kph but did not go over 70kph. It was already dark and I felt that we were going nowhere. The twists and the turns were so frequent, the bus was at times traveling only at 20kph.
Padre Pio’s relic reached me when it was dark already and probably near our destination. To save time, H and I jointly held the relic and individually prayed. I just touched it and thought of the saint, requesting him to help me pray for my intentions especially for the safety and good health of my loved ones, relatives and friends. I made special mention to pray for my country, as we have received text messages of the succeeding storms that hit the country after Ondoy and Peping. The relic did not stay long with us because we were conscious of the time and we quickly passed it to the couple in front of us.
Finally, finally, Alessandro pulled over our hotel at almost 8:00 in the evening. The long travel was draining everybody and making others cranky (including me). We went straight to the restaurant for dinner. H went to the toilet because he got dizzy from the trip and felt like vomiting. So did my sister. Mother and I just stayed put without saying a word and waited for dinner to be served. I already wanted to stretch and lie down in bed. I tried the stoned bread on the table. I merely took a bite thereof because soup was already served. I wanted the day over, so I sipped the soup in a rush so that I can move on the second course. After the soup, it was beef with vegetables and pasta.
During the meal, Father announced that we could not go to the Basilica of St. Francis that night (as if I’d entertain thoughts on going!) because it was already closed. He then went on to say the inevitable that the Basilica of St. Francis was still a 25 minute bus ride to the mountain and another 20 minute walk. He said that if we insist on going, we cannot make it in time for the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Father suggested that instead of continuing to the Basilica, we just visit and hear mass at St. Mary of the Angels Church which was only less than ten minutes walk from the hotel. He added that it was equally relevant because St. Francis actually lived there before and while his Basilica was not yet made. At any rate, the Papal Mass will have to go because we cannot make it to Rome by 9:00am, unless we abandon visiting St. Mary and the Angels Church as well. Father wanted a group decision. I agreed with the consensus. Skip the Papal Mass (we met the Pope already), attend mass at St. Mary and the Angels at 6am, breakfast at 7am, head back to Rome at 8am and make it at our reserved Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel tour by 11:30. That settled, I skipped dessert and rushed to our room. Thankfully, our luggage was delivered there already.
We woke up at 5 in the morning the following day. Shortly before six, we deposited our luggage in the lobby then hiked to St. Mary and the Angels Church. There were so many nuns and priests and brothers walking the streets in different habits. Majority of the men were in the brown habits similar to that worn by Padre Pio, St. Francis and St. Anthony. I don’t know if they belong to the same order though.
It was freezing outside and I was so relieved to reach the church to get warm. Mass had just started when we went in. Right in the center of the church, immediately below its dome, stands the original stone chapel from the 9th Century where St. Francis used to say mass. Said chapel was given to St. Francis by the Benedictines. This became the early headquarters of the New Franciscan Order which he founded. It was a very small chapel. The rope belt of St. Francis can be seen in another portion thereof.
I sat there for a while but I got out to steal a shot and sat at the regular pews after. The mass was very solemn and was attended mostly by nuns and priests. I learned later on that the masses in this church are those which are aired at EWTN, and yes, yes, I recognized it was the same altar.
After the mass, we walked briskly back to the hotel to grab breakfast and if possible, fly back to Rome. We left Assisi at 8:30 (huhuhu, goodbye Papal Mass) and snoozed back to dreamland after our daily prayer and rosary.
Three hours later, we entered Rome again. Traffic was heavy (not even 1/10th of Manila’s traffic!) and Cristina (yup, our guide before) already called Alessandro because she was already waiting for us. It was almost high noon when Alessandro dropped us where Cristina was waiting. We got our boxed lunches from Alessandro and went to Cristina, who led us across the street and into the entrance of the Vatican Museum.
We went through security check when we entered the building – the same procedure we undergo in the airport. Fortunately, cameras were not confiscated but we were advised that in some areas, cameras were prohibited.
The reception building was packed. Cristina left us at a corner as she went to get our headsets. Some of our companions started eating their sandwiches but were reprimanded. Cristina motioned us to where she was and distributed our headsets for the tour. She also said that we’ll eat lunch in the grounds of the Vatican Museum.
After we wore our headsets, Cristina ushered us out of the reception building and to the direction of the Vatican Museum grounds. We ate our lunch in the open space of the grounds. The view was spectacular and we could already see the dome of the St. Peter’s Basilica ahead.
With lunch over, Cristina led the troop inside. She told us to please wear the headset at all times because she did not want anybody to get lost. It was a Wednesday and almost everybody who went in the museum were wearing black because of the Papal Mass (as we did) so it will be very hard to spot anybody who gets lost.
Cristina was right. The museum was crowded by people in black. I had to hold the hand of H at times to ensure we stayed together.
There were so many artworks inside the museum and we did not have the luxury of time to leisurely appreciate it all. We just followed Cristina’s voice in our ears when she took us to the most famous artworks. I was torn between listening to Cristina’s voice and making sure H and I didn’t get lost in the maze of people in black that I did not really care to absorb it all. There were just too many (tall) people and so many artworks to see that I lost my concentration – Cristina was so detailed in her explanations and my brain could not comprehend all those information she was feeding minute by minute.
Our final destination in the museum was the Sistine Chapel, which seemed to be the destination of everybody as well. All of us flooded to that direction. Several minutes later, we found ourselves entering a fully packed hall, where everybody was standing and looking up. I followed their gaze and oh, that was the Sistine chapel already. Cristina went on to explain the most treasured paintings on every corner of the chapel, especially the works of Michaelangelo. She went on to tell the story behind each painting, especially of The Last Judgment while we found ourselves in the corner of the hall, sitting on the floor. Although there were Vatican personnel roaming around the hall and making sure no pictures were taken, I managed to sneak and capture the moment for memory’s sake. I was not caught by any of the security personnel (there were a lot who took pictures) but some lady in the proximity shouted at me in foreign language. I figured she was telling me to stop what I was doing. Killjoy. There was a door in the center, opposite the door we entered in the chapel and we were told the door led to the Pope’s quarters. Security personnel guarded it.
After staying more than thirty minutes in the Sistine Chapel, we were led out of the museum and to the direction of St. Peter’s Basilica. We will be going to the crypt first, located underground the Basilica. I only knew of the crypt when Pope John Paul II was buried as his burial was televised.
The crypt was not as dark as I expected it to be. It was well lighted and well ventilated. Here lies most of the popes of the Catholic Church. I was able to take a picture of the first tomb I saw upon our entry but it was announced no pictures were allowed there, so I ceased taking any. Some tombs were lavish, with the sculptures of the dead popes on top of their tombs.
We visited the tomb of Pope John Paul II. It was a very simple tomb in white in accordance to his wishes. There were no intricate decorations whatsoever. Many people were kneeling in front of his tomb and praying , so we did not stay long.
We moved further to the tomb of St. Peter. The tomb was directly below the altar of the Basilica. The tomb was dark in color but it was very elegant. We spent a moment of silence before his tomb.
When we were on the way out to the Basilica proper, I looked around, hoping to see the tomb of St. Jude. My sister instructed me to visit his tomb for her and say “Hi”. How could I, there were so many tombs there and we did not have free time to wander around.
Up in the basilica, Cristina began narrating to us the history of the basilica, its regal adornments and embellishments (gold, silver and brass in abundance), its artworks, and everything else relevant therein. There was Michaelangelo’s contribution, “Pieta”. Because of all the churches I had been too, I’ve gotten used to the majesty I saw inside the basilica. It was the same huge, dark, beautiful, elaborate extravagance. Truly tantalizing.
After the tour inside the Basilica, we headed out to St. Peter’s Square to commence our walk to the bus. We needed to head back to bus because we had to be in the airport by five to catch our flight to Portugal at seven in the evening.
Walking in the square once again, I made one last look at the place. Before I took the trip, I said this was a once in a lifetime journey. That was before I stepped on the cobblestones of Rome and the rest of Italy. Just before leaving the square, I said to myself that I am definitely coming back. I’ll be back for the Papal Mass. I’ll be back to see the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi; to visit St. Claire’s place in Assisi too. Promise.
We walked almost three kilometers to where Alessandro was waiting. We bid our final goodbyes to Cristina and thanked her for everything.
The ride to the airport was silent. I looked at the streets of Rome and although I felt a little sad that we had concluded our journey, I was also looking forward to our next stop in Portugal.
We arrived at the airport and Alessandro brought our luggage down. We extended our gratitude to him.