“Top Five” 2015: Week Six
by Steven Reeves (Archdiocese of Louisville)
Top Five Highlights of Week Six:
1. June 21: A morning in St. Peter’s
After spending the last two weekends traveling to Norcia and Florence, I was looking forward to spending a more relaxing (and easier on my wallet!) weekend in Rome. Sunday was an absolutely gorgeous day. I was able to sleep in a little, pray Morning Prayer on the lawn outside CIAM overlooking St. Peter’s, enjoy a relaxing breakfast, and then head over to St. Peter’s with Mark. After getting through security, I headed for the tomb of St. John Paul II to spend some time in prayer. I’ve been reading through Gift and Mystery, which he wrote on the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination. It was wonderful to read John Paul write about being in Rome, and even visiting Ars, as a young priest. It’s both encouraging and humbling to know that not too long ago, one of the young guys in collars walking to class and peeking into churches in Rome was Fr. Karol Wojtyla.
At about 10:00, I made my way behind the main altar to the Altar of the Chair and met some of the other guys for Sunday Mass. Both times I’d been in St. Peter’s before, I had heard organ and choir voices off in the distance and it sounded like heaven. Today I got to experience it up close. St. Peter’s is the gold standard for beautiful liturgy, and rightly so. Even more than the smells and bells, though, what struck me at Mass were the readings. The disciples’ question after Jesus calms the storm is one that we all have to answer: “Who is this, whom even wind and sea obey?” And the great thing about being Catholic is that no matter whether you went to Mass in the most humble chapel or the most beautiful basilica, we all heard the same Gospel and received the same Eucharist.
2. June 21: Walking to San Lorenzo
Sunday afternoon I took a walk by myself across town to visit the church of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura – St. Lawrence Outside the Walls. I had to walk all the way across town out to the eastern suburbs, but since the weather was so nice it was a pleasant walk. I wanted to go not only to see the church, which dates back to the 4th century (and doesn’t look like it has been changed all that much since), but because this church houses the relics of three very important saints. Along with St. Lawrence, the famous deacon martyr of Rome, the church also contains the bodies of St. Justin, a 2nd century Christian philosopher and martyr, and St. Stephen, one of the first seven deacons chosen by the apostles and the first person to give his life for Christ. The three martyrs are all kept in one large tomb underneath the altar, covered with a red cloth and with three palm branches lying on top. It was a special moment for me to be able to pray that like my namesake, I too may be “a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5).
3. June 23: Gelato after Circling the Vatican
On Tuesday evening I participated in a Rome Experience tradition: the Circle the Vatican run, which is exactly what it sounds like. We start at the obelisk in the center of St. Peter’s Square, run around the edge of Vatican City, and end up back at the obelisk. I wish I could say I ran the whole thing and flew by all my competitors, but I can’t. I did make it, though, and having everyone cheering me on through the final stretch across the piazza was a great encouragement. The real highlight, though, was making the short trip to Oldbridge for some celebratory gelato. Fr. Eric was asking us for the perfect gelato combination the day before. As far as I’m concerned, it’s amaretto, banana, and chocolate. And who did we run into there but Archbishop Wong, whom we had just met a few days earlier at the Congregation for Clergy! He was very happy to see us again, and it was reassuring to me to know that our favorite gelato place is also frequented by the locals and not just tourists.
4. June 24: Seeing Pope Francis
Wednesday was General Audience day, which meant we were up early in order to get good spots. In case you ever get to go to a General Audience, remember that the best seats are the ones on the edge, near where the popemobile passes. Several of us ended up with great seats in the very back row of a section, with our backs against the passage the pope would pass through. Again, the weather cooperated with us: it was cloudy and overcast for most of the morning, which meant we didn’t have the sun beating down on us. It was easy to tell when Pope Francis arrived because all of a sudden people started standing and yelling, and eventually we spotted the popemobile and realized he was heading our way! After a few frenzied moments of jumping up and getting my phone out, I looked up and there was Pope Francis about 10 feet from me! He looked very happy, joyful, and energetic. When he smiles, waves, shakes hands, blesses, and kisses, it does not look staged or forced at all. In fact, I think it is at those moments when Pope Francis is most himself.
I offered to let the young daughter of the family in the next row stand on my chair so she could have a better view of the pope, but it turned out she preferred to stay in her seat and play with her hairband. Someday, I suspect she’s going to wish that her 5-year-old self had chosen differently!
5. June 28: Spain and the Holy Family
This past Sunday was the day we said “Ciao” to Rome and “Hola” to Spain. We landed in Barcelona, and our first stop was to visit the Sagrada Familia basilica, which was designed in the 19th century by Gaudi and is still under construction. However, it is complete enough that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI traveled to Barcelona to dedicate it in 2010. As for the basilica itself, there really is nothing like it. On the outside, the sculptures of animals, plants, and biblical scenes all seem to flow naturally out of the rock and up into the beehive-like towers. Some in our group said it looked like the church was melting, but I think it looked more like all the decoration was growing out of the rock. Walking inside the basilica was a jaw-dropping experience. I have never seen more brilliant stained glass, filling the basilica with color. The pillars that support the basilica branch and interconnect in a way that makes you feel like you are in a forest. It truly does feel mystical, like you really have stepped out of the normal world and into heaven. Our visit there was far too short, but I will have to return – maybe in 2026, when construction is scheduled to be completed.
Since we were unable to say Mass in the basilica as originally scheduled, we continued on to Torreciudad, a beautiful church and complex in the foothills of the Pyrenees. We just made a brief visit here as well, since we are returning on Monday to spend a day of recollection here. We just stayed long enough to celebrate Mass in a small chapel, which also happened to be dedicated to the Holy Family. Considering the news from the United States this week, it seemed providential. Now more than ever, may we look to the Holy Family of Nazareth for strength, inspiration, and example as marriage and the family come under ever greater attack in our culture.