On Pilgrimage: Rome with Kids (Part 1)

I have been slowly making my way through our recent pilgrimage to Italy.  Please forgive me if it takes until our next family trip to finish this series of posts, but life –just life. I’d love to write every day, but I’m still trying to find the balance between blogging and living.

Since my return, we have slowly transitioned back into the ordinary rhythm of life.  Usually I return from a family vacation feeling empty and exhausted — the shell of a person I once was.  Don’t get me wrong — I love our family trips — but I usually need to hide away for a few weeks to recover from them.  This time was different.

It didn’t hurt that we were in an amazing place like Italy, but it’s more than that.  I feel like making this trip a pilgrimage made our experiences more joyful than if we had decided to just be tourists.  This joy went way deeper than the challenges of our trip–and this was by far the most difficult trip we have even taken as a family.   I felt like it was a tiny little smidgeon of the joy that is to come.  I gotta say, it gives me hope for the future.  And we all could do with a little more hope, couldn’t we?

I’m not gonna lie, I  was initially afraid to call our trip a “pilgrimage”.  Maybe it’s because there was a part of me that wondered if calling our trip a pilgrimage would somehow bring upon us pestilence, disease, danger — possibly death?  I know it’s crazy, but those are the thoughts I just have to fight against when I see them popping up in my life.

Deciding to call it a pilgrimage was an act of faith for me.  It was me looking in the  face of my fears and saying, “I believe in the goodness of God…in the kindness of God…that He is my Father and He cares for me and loves me more than I love myself.  But did this act of faith disappoint?  Of course not, and in fact, this trip stands out as one of the most enjoyable trips we have ever taken as a family.

Looking at this place for the first time? Priceless.
Looking at this place for the first time? Priceless.

Ironically, there seems to be a direct relationship between the suffering on our trip and the joy we experienced.  In other words, all the exhaustion, the lost bags, the heat, the hunger, the diverted planes, the challenges of traveling with 6 kids in a foreign country –all of these things magnified the joy that we felt while there and for weeks afterwards.

Pilgrimages are supposed to involve sacrifice.  When you are traveling with 6 kids, forget about looking for special sacrifices — they will find you.  Just be ready to accept them when they come and you’re on your way to a fruitful pilgrimage.

Rome, as imperfect as it is, was a great place to go on pilgrimage.  It is a city where the public square and the Catholic faith mesh together somewhat seamlessly. Walking around the city, it is often hard to tell the difference between a public building or a Catholic Church — either one could have a beautiful mosaic or statue dedicated to Jesus or Mary on its exterior.

And many of the fountains and infrastructure were funded by the Church to meet the physical needs of the people –not just their spiritual needs.  We drank from the fountains all around Rome as pilgrims of old would have done.  I gotta say, the best public fountain in all of Rome has to be right by the Colosseum Metro.  It actually had a filling station with natural sparkling water (frizzante). or still water.  It was cold and refreshing after a really hot walk through the colosseum and roman forum.

Everywhere you look there are pilgrims smiling and getting to know each other on the streets and in the squares.  It is a good reminder that complete strangers who share the faith can strike up an immediate friendship that isn’t often realized outside of the Church.  I have experienced a similar comradery at other Catholic events — so I know it’s not just a Roman thing — but still it added a lot to our Roman experience.

So many wonderful encounters with people like this former drug addict, now a religious brother. He kept reminding us, "You must pray as a family or you won't make it"
So many wonderful encounters with people like this religious brother. He kept reminding us, “You must pray as a family or you won’t make it in this world.”

And the art — it seems like every church you enter had some amazing piece of art to appreciate.  Sometimes people question whether or not the Church should have spent so much money on its art.  Critics often ask, “Why not sell these works and give the proceeds to the poor?”

Why not?  Maybe because the poor deserve more than just food and water, they deserve beauty and goodness and truth.  Nobody is barred from entering any of the hundreds of churches of Rome.  The rich and poor alike are welcome to enter in and encounter Jesus and the magnificent works of art meant to reflect His beauty.  This art is made available to all, not just the few who could afford to hang it on their walls and hoard it for themselves.

One of Michelangelo's greatest sculptures, just hanging out in a church by the colosseum.
One of Michelangelo’s greatest sculptures, just hanging out in a church by the colosseum.

There are also sweet little spots of devotion to the Saints.  You will find them in churches and quiet nooks around the city, and they are just another reminder of the faith and devotion of the people who have travelled here or live here year round.  Many people sacrificed much to come and show their gratitude to our big brothers and sisters in heaven who are praying for us constantly.

This little spot was marked with blue or pink ribbons in Thanksgiving for miraculous births and medical miracles for babies.
This little spot was marked with blue or pink ribbons in thanksgiving for miraculous births and medical miracles for babies.

There are piazzas full of pilgrims, tourists, and Romans hanging out together and enjoying the sweet life.  There is such a wonderful interaction between peoples of all faiths and backgrounds here.  It reminded me that there are many, many good people in this world.  It also confirmed my decision to watch very little news lest I start to think that the world is only inhabited by terrorists, thieves, and those wanting to take advantage of others.

Piazza Navona, one of the dozens of favorite gathering spots in Rome.
Piazza Navona, one of the dozens of favorite squares to gather in Rome.
Cooling off by the Pantheon
Cooling off by the Pantheon

There are bells ringing throughout the day announcing the next mass.  They take place in churches that have stood for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  They are beautiful and peaceful spots to pray and reflect and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a church in Rome.

Not such a bad place to pray or attend Mass.
Not such a bad place to pray or attend Mass, is it?

And there is also great food and gelato too.  Need I say more?

Speaking of gelato I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. Rome is also the place where we encountered plenty of people who were trying to rip us off.  Take for example the cafe directly across from the Vatican Museum entrance.  I have learned a valuable lesson.  Don’t ever go to a place that takes the name of a major tourist attraction but has no real affiliation with them, especially if they don’t list their pricing somewhere in writing!

We sat down for ice cream and the waiter brought us what appeared to be ice cream sundaes, though we had requested the typical scoops of gelato.  One bite in and and you were met by a piece of cantaloupe… and then honeydew …and then some other unidentifiable fruit.  It was as if somebody had left half of their fruit salad and our waiter decided to throw it into our ice cream and charge us an arm and a leg for it.  We paid over $100 for a horrific excuse for gelato that night and most of it ended up a melted mess in our bowls!  Oh well, our kids and nephew laughed so much about how absolutely horrible it was that it made up for the fact that we were royally ripped off!

But all that aside, our time in Rome will remain amongst some of our favorite memories as a family.  It is one great big, beautiful, catholic city and I feel so grateful that we had a chance to experience this place together as a family.

And you know what else, going to Rome makes you proud to be Catholic — it shows you all the contributions that our Church has made in society, and it was a reminder of the Heavenly City which will one day be our eternal Home.

For me, our pilgrimage fostered a renewed belief in the goodness of people  and gave me more hope.  A verse that comes to mind:

“For I know what I have planned for you,’ says the LORD. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope.”Jeremiah 29:11

My faith in these words is just a little bit stronger after our time in Rome.

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