Thursday, 3 March 2016

Meeting Francis

Reiti - Poggio San Lorenzo 22kms
Poggio San Lorenzo - Ponticelli 23 kms
Ponticelli - Montertondo 30 kms
Montertondo - Montesacro 20 kms
Montesacro - Rome 11 kms

Dear Friends
I'm writing this from Leonardo da Vinci airport. I have that strange feeling that I should still be walking although my legs are certainly glad I've stopped.  With a mixture of regret and excitement I'm sorry the pilgrimage is over but I'm looking forward to being home again after a month away.  Thank you to all of you who have been following our journey and especially to those who sent messages of encouragement.

During the last few days of the journey into Rome we had some spectacularly wet weather with high winds, bitter cold and thunder and lightening. Apart from a few nippy elevations the route is very straightforward and we enjoyed staying in some lovely places. Pilgrims preparing for this journey are well advised to research accommodation alternatives on  We stayed in two "bed and breakfasts"  which were charming and situated in stunningly beautiful settings.
It was all too soon that we set out on last day.The route into Rome which was devised for the guidebook is a longer, and claims to be quieter, entry into the city but we decided to walk in a straight line from our hostal direct to the Vatican.  More than an hour shorter than the alternative we were soon approaching with Saint Peter's getting larger and larger as we walked. We had applied for a time slot to walk through the Holy Door in Saint Peter's but when we approached the barrier to go to the Sacristy to get the final stamp we were ushered through the Holy Door. There were no other walking pilgrims.  In the Sacristy they couldn't remember when there had been others.
The last time I was in Rome was with our Archbishop who was being created Cardinal. I played at masses for the massive Scottish delegation in two of the main churches near Saint Peter's.  This time I arrived not in a limousine but on foot,  slightly bedraggled and tired.  On reflection in many ways I looked no different to the dozens of homeless people and beggars of all types who mill around the fringes of Saint Peter's Square.  Needing directions I approached a Swiss Guard. The last time I did this they saluted. This time he looked me down from my windswept face to my muddy boots and asked me to leave. The Big Man hooted with laughter.  I suspect I'll never live down being asked to leave the Vatican.  This pilgrimage thing is very good for my humility. From the ridiculous to the sublime today we were invited to meet the Director of the Pontifical Council which amongst other things is in charge of pilgrimage.  We had much in common between what they hope to develop and our experience in Santiago. As we left his office armed sentries at the door stood to attention. "At least you never got thrown out again"  the Big Man quipped.
This pilgrimage has been challenging and very wonderful.  Some of the early stages are very tough and were made all the more so because we were walking so early in the year. But the rewards of climbing mountains are the views and on this route we saw magnificent vistas in abundance.  Our visit to the Santuario La Verna has left a lasting impression on me. The place exudes peace and serenity.  I was struck by the fact that Francis was actually there. Amongst the relics his simple habit is preserved.  More than that, we were welcomed by modern Franciscans wearing the same simple garb still trying to lead lives of poverty and helping others.  As we walked forward to Rome I was constantly reminded of Francis' ministry. Although I sweated buckets on the climb up to Assisi the visit to the basilica, Francis' tomb and mass will be lasting memories. 
In the midst of this I sent a message to friends in Santiago talking about the selfless love that Jesus has for mankind and the simple way Francis put that into action.  "Where did it all go wrong?"  I mused.  The answer came right back, "If you find the answer to that bring it back with you." 
Perhaps though the answer or the beginning of the answer is already with us in the person of the other Francis - the present Pope. The first to take the name  All along this route in every village and hotel,  in every bar and restaurant, wherever we spoke to people they spoke of their admiration and respect for Pope Francis.  Without exception and spontaneously people told us he was a good Pope,  a Pope who understands ordinary people,  a Pope who is on their side. They spoke of Pope Francis with a fondness I've never experienced before. It made me feel proud to be a Christian and a Catholic when in recent years that has not always been the case.
I feel as if I've been lucky to meet two Francis's on this pilgrimage. One who set a better course for the Catholic Church centuries ago and the other who is trying to do the same now.

Until next time