James O’Reilly (’21) reflects on the pilgrimage to Siena, Assisi, and Orvieto.
Most Catholics know the names of St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi. Some know their stories. But my fellow classmates and I were recently blessed to go beyond factual knowledge of these saints and get to know them on a deeper and more personal level. The pilgrimage to Siena, Assisi, and Orvieto run by the Christendom Rome Program gave us the opportunity to come to know Catherine, Francis, and Clare in a way that would never be possible otherwise. From celebrating Mass by St. Catherine’s incorrupt head, to touching Tau crosses to St Francis’ tomb, to simply walking in the footsteps of these great saints, this pilgrimage allowed us to develop a real connection with these saints and to be deeply touched by our Catholic faith.
The pilgrimage began in Siena, the venue of the famous Pialo horse races, the home of the seventeen districts, and the halfway point for Medieval French pilgrims traveling to Rome. Most importantly, it is the city of St. Catherine. Nestled among the hills of Tuscany, Siena is vibrant with a culture of art and history that glorifies the Church in a unique way. The rich Catholic presence that dominates the scene is stunning: the red-bricked Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico and the black, white, and decadent Duomo di Siena (“Cathedral of Siena”) rest on two of Siena’s main hills, their bell towers rising above the rural cityscape.
During our time in Siena, we delved into the life of Catherine: we celebrated Mass both in the house she lived in and in the small chapel adjoined to the shrine where her incorruptible head remains. We visited the room where she had mystical visions and learned of her great influence on Pope Gregory XI and role in bringing the Pontifical seat back to Rome. As Doctor of the Church, her spiritual treatises and letters also influenced cardinals and princes to remain obedient to the Church in challenging times.
The influence of St. Catherine remains in Siena to this day. Beyond the physical influence apparent to both tourists and pilgrims, one can sense a spirit of peace upon the city. As pilgrims, we knew that the spirit of peace was from St. Catherine. St. Catherine famously proclaimed, “Be who you are meant to be and you will set the world on fire.” Truer words couldn’t be said of her own life. In our pilgrimage to Siena, I came to understand why such a glorious yet humble soul had such an incredible impact on the Church, and was named patron of both her home city and also her country.
Our time in Siena was just the beginning of the blessings that were to come during the pilgrimage. Siena impressed me, but Assisi blew me away. Never before had I experienced such an inspiring font of tradition, history, and beauty simultaneously. To walk in the footsteps of two of the Church’s greatest spiritual leaders, to see what they saw, and through the tours and prayers to see their lives unfold before my eyes, was something incredible. To stand where they were born, pray where they prayed, and to kneel where they died reminded me of how much God can do with a single heart on fire for Him. We were very blessed to be present for the celebration of St. Francis’ feast day. Every year, on the eve of October 4th, the city gathers in the main square to celebrate. An ensemble of drummers, dancers, and fire performers honor and commemorate the life of the great saint with hours of wonderful festivities and traditions, even almost eight hundred years after his death.
To further honor St. Clare and St Francis, Basilica di Santa Chiara and Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi stand as beautiful monuments to their great lives. Both churches contain the bodies of their namesakes: St Clare’s tall, incorruptible body lays on display while St Francis lies buried in a great pillar of rock. Basilica di Santa Chiara also contains the San Damiano cross from which Christ spoke to St Francis exhorting him to “rebuild” the crumbling Church of the 12th century. The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli houses the Chapel of the Transit where St. Francis died and San Damiano Church, the first monastery of the Poor Clares, is the location of St. Clare’s death. The pilgrimage gave us the opportunity to visit these holy sites where Francis and Clare were welcomed into the Heavenly Kingdom. These visits connected us to two people who had impacted lives hundreds of years ago and still do today. When we were in Assisi we caught a small glimpse of Heaven.
We ended our week in Orvieto, the location of the Corporal of Bolsena, a relic of the Eucharistic miracle that inspired the Feast of Corpus Christi. The city of Orvieto itself is stunning as it sits upon a rugged hillside with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and countryside. Every year, for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which in the surrounding area is counted as a major public holiday, the Corporal of Bolsena is processed around the entire city. In honor of the Feast, many Italians spend the day creating beautiful floral art pieces simply to have them trodden on by the Corpus Christi procession. Orvieto was a fitting end because it gave witness to a paramount truth of the Catholic faith: faith in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. After being inspired by Catherine, Francis, and Clare in the previous days, it was only right to honor That which had inspired and nourished them in their pilgrimages to sainthood.
When we returned to Rome from Orvieto, I realized that our pilgrimage had merely just begun. Throughout the week, many of our spiritual reflections focused on the theme of pilgrimage itself: what it means to be a pilgrim as opposed to a tourist; what the goal of pilgrimage is and what mental and spiritual attitude is appropriate. What sets the pilgrim apart from the tourist is ultimately prayer and an internal attitude of solidarity. An attitude that doesn’t see others as being in the way, as a tourist might do when the line is too long or the site is too crowded, but an attitude that sees anyone along the way as a brother or sister of Christ, the way St. Francis did. Whether doing a pilgrimage for a penance, out of devotion, or for indulgences, the ultimate purpose is the same; to grow closer to Christ. So, yes, the week-long pilgrimage ended, but it reminded me and my fellow classmates that we are the pilgrim Church. Christ is with us along our journey and He is with all those who we encounter along the way. Thanks to the Christendom pilgrimage, I was reminded that one week in extrospection is simply one step along the greater pilgrimage of life. St. Catherine, St. Francis, and St. Clare, pray for us!