Sunday, December 20, 2015—Leave from the US. You will have packed lightly, but taken all you need for this unique pilgrimage. Safe flight!
Manger Scene in front of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy
Our Christmas Pilgrimage begins in Assisi, the City of St. Francis. With a population of about 25,000, Assisi is a small medieval town perched on a hill in Umbria in the heart of Italy. Assisi is one of the prettiest and most peaceful cities in the world, and has long been regarded as an important spiritual center. The Temple of Minerva, which two thousand years ago was a centerpiece of Roman Assisi, can still be visited today. We will spend 2 days and 1 night at the Hotel Francesco, which is next door to the Basilica of St. Francis. You wake to the bells of the Basilica!
Monday, December 21 – Welcome to Italy! You arrive at Fiumicino airport, about 10 miles outside of Rome to the west, near the Mediterranean Sea. You may have seen the sea as your plane circled to land. Robert and Deborah will meet you at the gate as you come out with your luggage after going through customs—you will walk right through the “nothing to declare” line—and we may have a quick morning coffee, tea, and brioche, or as the Italians call it, a cornetto. We will then cross to our waiting private motor coach, and head out for that little town in central Italy where St. Francis of Assisi was born.
As we drive north and east, you may either sleep after your long trip, or discuss a bit of history, looking out over Lazio and Umbria, as we give you our first overview of the pilgrimage. After about two hours of driving, we will pull into the walled city of Assisi, and you will be escorted to your guest room in the peaceful, local Hotel Francesco, located next to the Basilica of St. Francis.
After a quick lunch we will rest for several hours, then attend a private Mass in the Basilica of St. Francis. The Franciscan friars should be available before Mass to hear confessions. Dinner will be early and delicious at one of our favorite restaurants in Assisi. Our first day will end early so we all can go to bed for a good night’s sleep.
Tuesday, December 22 – Morning: Assisi. Our second day in Italy will begin with morning Mass celebrated by a Franciscan priest at the tomb of St. Francis, followed by a tour of the basilica. Afterwards, we will visit the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels in the valley at the bottom of the hill. Brother Alessandro (photo left) always welcomes us with his beautiful smile and perhaps with a delightful song. His story is amazing and his voice is angelic. We will return to the city center of Assisi to visit the Basilica of St. Clare. Lunch will be on your own in the Piazza del Comune, the main piazza in Assisi, one of the most beautiful piazzas in all of Italy. After lunch there should be time to shop, before we say good-bye to Assisi and head to Norcia.
Over the centuries, “Nursia” has in the Italian language become “Norcia”; however, it is still the same city—the heart of Benedictine monasticism. Benedict and his twin sister, Scholastica, were born here in the late 400s, at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Thus what we have in Norcia is a “link” to that ancient world, that, despite perishing during the fall of Rome, was nonetheless preserved through the mediation of Benedict and Benedictine monasticism that has come down to us from the so-called “Dark Ages” after Rome’s fall, between 500 to 1000 A.D., when civilization and learning were restricted to the little enclaves of Benedictine monasteries.
The Benedictine monastery in Norcia flourished for a millennium, but it was closed under the secularizing Napoleonic legislation that was introduced into Italy in the early nineteenth century, around 1810. From then on, through the next 200 years, the monastery remained closed.
Though it seemed as if the link with the past had been severed, the world did not reckon with Father Cassian Folsom, an American Benedictine, who has been a friend since 1990. Cassian went to Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict) in the 1990s, saying that he sensed a vocation to re-found the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, and Cardinal Ratzinger encouraged him to do so. Thus, in 1998, he came to Norcia with two companions, and on their own, with no help, they restored the ancient monastery. Bit by bit, what they were doing began to be noticed, and other young men came to join them.
Today, there are 18 monks in Norcia, and Father Cassian is gaining a worldwide reputation for his humble zeal in restoring the Faith. We will have a chance to talk to him directly, and, if you wish, to go to confession to him or to another of the monks. We will attend the Mass celebrated by the monks in their chapel, and you may join them as they chant their prayers each morning and evening in the crypt church.
Brother Alessandro singing to our pilgrims
Tuesday, December 22 – Afternoon: Norcia. In Norcia, the Palazzo Seneca will be our home for the next two nights and is located only 50 yards from the main piazza where the Benedictines celebrate Mass. The palace that houses Palazzo Seneca was originally built in the 16th century and was completely renovated a few years ago. The spa and cooking school are just a few of the offered amenities. Quiet time in the Palazzo can be spent sitting in the beautiful library or in the garden room for a cup of afternoon tea. The family-owned hotel is sophisticated, simple, and luxurious. This is why it was awarded the prestigious Relais & Châteaux award—an exclusive honor recognizing the finest hotels and gourmet restaurants in 55 countries around the world.
Our dinners in Norcia — in front of this wood burning grill
After we arrive in Norcia and have a brief rest, we will make our first visit to the Benedictine monastery of Norcia, which was built precisely over the place where St. Benedict and St. Scholastica were born. We will meet some of the monks, and begin to learn their story—one of the most remarkable in the Church today. Afterwards, we will dine at a restaurant next to our hotel, with a huge stone fireplace and oven at one end (photo above). In the winter, this provides much needed warmth, because the temperature in the mountainous region of Norcia is quite a bit cooler than that of Rome. However, you may find that you appreciate the fireplace for its ambiance more than for its warmth. Our meal will be made entirely of local products; we especially recommend their one-of-a-kind lentil soup, which tastes like no other lentil soup in the world. Sometimes one of the monks, even Father Cassian, comes out of the monastery to join us for dinner. Dinners are always a time for meaningful conversation in the heart of Italy.
The main piazza in Norcia and Basilica of St. Benedict surrounded by the Sibillini Mountains
Wednesday, December 23 – Norcia/Castelluccio. We will awake to a delicious breakfast spread in the quaint garden room filled with the morning light. Fresh fruits, local cheeses, meats, and breads will await you, and if you would like something else, it will be served to you! All food is local and prepared to order. Our day will begin with Mass at 10:00 a.m. with the monks. They chant the liturgy in Latin. This solemn moment is truly an “extraordinary” experience, but in an “ordinary” way, for this is how the monks worship every day. We will provide Latin-English missals so that you can follow along. After Mass, we will listen to a spiritual reflection given by Father Cassian.
Following a rest after lunch, if the weather permits, we will leave Norcia for the mountains outside the city. Norcia is nestled under these peaks, reminding one of Aspen in Colorado, under the Rockies. Our van will take us up a little-traveled road and over a ridge into one of the largest national parks in Italy, where the Gran Piano, or “Great Plain,” stretches out for 20 miles before us. There, we will be surrounded by the Sibillini Mountains, a range of the Apennines, which run up the entire spine of Italy, from the boot in the south to the great plain of the Po, which links Milan and Venice in the north. We will journey through the lentil fields to the tiny village of Castelluccio (photo above). Located nearly a mile up the mountainside, Castelluccio is the highest settlement in the Apennines, and in the winter, this region’s slopes teem with skiers. With its pristine mountain vistas, Castelluccio becomes a favorite for hikers and horseback riders, and sightseers. This picturesque village is well-known all over the world for its gastronomical delicacies, especially for its famous lentils. We will return to Norcia for another meal grilled on the wood-burning, open-air oven. While we sip wine or Birra Nursia, the monk’s beer, we will reminisce about our adventures and share impressions of our day with the monks.
Thursday, December 24 – Morning: Norcia. We will wake to our last meal in Norcia and a 10 a.m. Mass with the monks, followed by another reflection with Father Cassian. Father Cassian has been battling a debilitating form of blood cancer, but his suffering has only deepened his spiritual vision. Some are beginning to say, in and around Norcia, that he is a living saint. We are very privileged to have this time with our old friend who is doing so much for the Church, and who always has profound insights to impart to our pilgrims. And after we spend time with Father Cassian, we depart, at last, for Rome.
Rome and Vatican City
With a population of 2.7 million, Rome is one of the most populated cities in Europe, and one of the oldest. As we stroll over the time-worn cobblestones, the many layers of Roman history will begin to unfold. From the sculpture and architecture of the Ancients to the vestiges left from the early Church, through the Medieval and Renaissance periods with the masterpieces of artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bernini, Rome is truly a treasure-trove of art, culture and history.
Contained within Rome is the sovereign city-state of Vatican City, whose territory consists of a walled enclave within the city of Rome. The Vatican has an area of approximately 110 acres, a population of around 840, and is the smallest country in the world.
This is a unique time in the Vatican as Pope Francis continues to define his pontificate, and Emeritus Pope Benedict continues to reside in Vatican City in a small convent inside the Vatican gardens, not far from the Domus Santa Marta. The Vatican usually is quieter in December and we expect to have the opportunity to breathe in that peace, during these days of the “two Popes,” Benedict and Francis, both so very different and yet each so filled with the love of Christ and of His Church.
Thursday, December 24 – Evening: Rome. We will stop for a light lunch on our drive into the Eternal City. We will experience an Italian “autogrill,” known for good Italian snacks and meals. This lunch will be one of the two meals that will be on your own. After lunch, we will arrive at our hotel, Hotel Michelangelo, for the next 4 nights. We plan to have enough time for a brief rest before dinner. After dinner we will gather to depart for St. Peter’s Basilica to attend the Christmas Eve liturgy celebrated by Pope Francis. The Mass will begin at 10 p.m., so we will find ourselves in the basilica at midnight, when Christmas begins.
Friday, December 25 –Rome. Our Christmas Day in the Vatican will begin with the opening of presents, and greeting each other with the great joy of the feast. After a relaxing morning, we will walk to St. Peter’s Piazza to see Pope Francis deliver his Urbi et Orbi Christmas message to the faithful around the world. After lunch near the Vatican, we will have free time to experience Christmas in Rome.
In the late afternoon, taxis will take us to the Spanish Steps, where we will begin our afternoon Christmas walk to the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona. Along the way, we will also visit the Basilica of Sant’Andrea delle Frate, where Our Lady appeared to Alphonse Ratisbonne, which effected his miraculous conversion. This special church is also where St. Maximillian Kolbe offered his first Mass. Robert Moynihan will be pointing out the historical and religious significances of the important places we will be encountering along our afternoon stroll while we walk towards Vatican City for dinner at another fine restaurant.
“Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy!” (Luke 2:10)
Christmas is a wonderful time to be in Rome. The entire city seems to light up with a special joy, and there is more peace throughout the city than usual. Little red and white lights flicker on kiosks set up in Piazza Navona, and the Vatican sets up a larger-than-life manger scene in St. Peter’s Square, right next to the obelisk. Roman grandparents stroll with their grandchildren through the streets to look at the nativity scenes and little displays of stuffed animals and other children’s gifts. We will join them. People throughout Rome tend to be more courteous to one another “in the spirit of the season,” and the entire city can actually seem to become a small village. We, too, will become “Roman villagers” at Christmas.
Saturday, December 26 –Rome/ Manoppello/Castel
Gandolfo. We will continue our Christmas celebration by traveling a little over two hours to the little town of Manoppello, Italy (population 157 — yes, it’s tiny!) in the rugged Abbruzzo region. There, we will visit the Shrine of the Holy Face — the shrine which contains a mysterious cloth bearing the image of a man with wounds on his face, an image some believe is the actual face of Christ, formed at the moment of his Resurrection. Pope Emeritus Benedict visited this Shrine in 2006 to venerate the Holy Face of Manoppello. We will have lunch at the same restaurant Pope Benedict dined at when he visited Manoppello — a family-owned restaurant where Nonna, Grandma, cooks with the fresh ingredients from the region. A real Italian experience!
After a few hours, we depart for Rome. On our way back we stop in the lovely town of Castel Gandolfo—the Pope’s summer residence. Since our lunch will be long and filling, we will only have a café in the main piazza, just outside the front door of the Papal Palace. Dinner will be on your own this evening after our return to Rome.
Father Cucinelli, friar at the Shrine of the Holy Face
Sunday, December 27 –Rome. Morning Mass will be at the altar of the Chair of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica, followed by the Pope’s Angelus. Afterwards, we will have some free time to shop, rest or to visit St. Peter’s Basilica on your own before lunch at one of our favorite restaurants. After lunch, we will depart for the three other patriarchal basilicas in Rome, St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. St. Peter’s Basilica is the 4th patriarchal basilica. Each of these churches is a glorious monument to the Faith and contains treasures of art and faith that can take one’s breath away.
In St. Mary Major, for example, there is a painting of Mary (photo left), which is believed to have been painted by St. Luke himself, making it the oldest painting of Mary in the world. It is called the Salus Populi Romani (English: the Protectress of the Roman People)—Protectress is a translation of the Latin “salus” which means “salvation” or “health.” It has historically been the most important Marian icon in Rome, and was crowned by Pope Pius XII in 1954. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI venerated the Salus Populi Romani on different occasions, and asked Mary on each occasion to “pray for us.”
One of the first acts after his election was for Pope Francis to pray before Salus Populi Romani. In May of 2012, the month dedicated to Our Lady and the Holy Rosary, Pope Francis also prayed his first public Rosary before this ancient and venerable image. The Roman Breviary states: “After the Council of Ephesus (431) in which the Mother of Jesus was acclaimed as Mother of God, Pope Sixtus III erected at Rome on the Esquiline Hill, a basilica dedicated to the honor of the Holy Mother of God. It was afterward called Saint Mary Major and it is the oldest church in the West dedicated to the honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
The Salus Populi Romani is one of the so-called “Luke images” of which there are many throughout the world. These are believed to have been painted from the lives of Jesus and Mary by St. Luke himself. According to the account: “after the crucifixion, when Our Lady moved to the home of St. John, she took with her a few personal belongings—among which was a table built by the Redeemer Himself in the workshop of St. Joseph. When pious virgins of Jerusalem prevailed upon St. Luke to paint a portrait of the Mother of God, it was the top of this table that was used to memorialize her image.
“While applying his brush and paints, St. Luke listened carefully as the Mother of Jesus spoke of the life of her Son, facts which St. Luke later recorded in his Gospel.” The account also tells us that the painting remained in and around Jerusalem until it was discovered by St. Helena in the fourth century. “Together with other sacred relics, the painting was transported to Constantinople where her son, Emperor Constantine the Great, erected a church for its enthronement.” So this icon is, in some ways, the greatest treasure in the entire city, as it is connected back through St. Luke to Mary, and to a table made by Christ Himself. In the presence of this icon, we are able to sense the presence of the Holy Family as something close and real to us.
St. John Lateran (photo above) is the oldest and ranks first among the four Papal basilicas of Rome since it is the cathedra or “seat” of the Bishop of Rome. For centuries, the Popes lived here. The façade has the inscription Christo Salvatori, “To Christ the Savior,” indicating the church’s dedication to Christ—the cathedrals of all patriarchs are dedicated to Christ himself. As the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, it ranks above all other churches, including St. Peter’s, and so, unlike all other Roman basilicas, it holds the title of Archbasilica.
St. Paul’s Outside the Walls (photo right) is dedicated to St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, who was beheaded in Rome, and contains his tomb. This magnificent church contains the images of all the Popes in little circular portraits.
Because we only have a few hours to see these historic, impressive basilicas, we will concentrate on the meaning of each of the buildings, and the life and work of each of the saints to whom these basilicas are dedicated.
We will end our day back at one of our favorite restaurants, where we will enjoy a farewell dinner. Our farewell dinner, hosted by Dr. Robert Moynihan and Deborah Tomlinson, will be a celebratory feast and special friends and guests of Inside the Vatican magazine will be joining us. After dinner, you will have more free time to bid a fond farewell to those special people and places you will have come to cherish.
Monday, December 28 – Farewell. After an early morning Mass, breakfast, and farewell, your driver will escort you back to the airport for your return home. Farewell to all our fellow pilgrims, our friends, until we meet again…
Not mentioned in this sketch of our itinerary are perhaps the two most important points…
1) During our days in Rome, we will have the chance to meet with a few Vatican monsignors, and perhaps even an archbishop or cardinal, who will listen and respond to pilgrims’ questions and concerns about the Church today, about issues of concern to Church members, and about working alongside Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis. These meetings change from pilgrimage to pilgrimage, but they are always remembered by pilgrims as special moments to be close to the Pope as he leads the Church in this difficult period of history.
2) We prefer to schedule Mass in the morning, but there is a possibility that Mass times can fluctuate due to circumstances and Vatican events. Each day we will have the opportunity to attend Mass. The Mass schedule for the Rome portion of our pilgrimage will be finalized closer to the time of our departure.
We will make every effort to adhere to the printed program and itinerary. On rare occasions it may be necessary to adjust arrangements due to unforeseen circumstances beyond our control (including such circumstances as the weather, airline schedule change, hotel requisitions, political disturbances, or transportation mechanical problems). Should such adjustment be necessary, substitution will be made to the best of our abilities.