Why are two American yogis interested in the Catholic saints of Italy? Our spiritual teacher, Paramhansa Yogananda, taught us to read and study the lives of the saints, so that we might be inspired by them, emulate them and strive to become more saint-like ourselves. Following this advice, we decided to make our honeymoon a pilgrimage, and planned our trip around visiting shrines in Italy.
While preparing for our trip, we discovered that most travel guides are not useful for pilgrimage. They describe in great detail the art and architecture of a church or shrine, but rarely mention the saint to whom the church is dedicated. We managed to find a few travel guides on pilgrimage, talked to some friends who made suggestions, and researched on the Internet.
We were frustrated with trying to integrate information from so many diverse sources, and realized there was a need for one concise pilgrimage guide for Italy. We wanted a book that contained detailed information about each shrine, great directions and maps, and helpful Italian phrases. Such a guide would make pilgrimage to Italy more rewarding and encourage more people to experience the joys of sacred travel.
While on our honeymoon, we gathered information everywhere we went. The following year we returned to Italy to visit over thirty-five additional shrines. We soon discovered that Italy must be home to more saints than any other country! Though we have not determined exactly how many Italian saints there are, let’s just say there are too many to describe in one book. To narrow it down, we decided to include only those saints who experienced direct communion with the Divine, and with whom we felt a special connection. We then continued our research and began writing.
Our descriptions of the saints and their shrines include some of our personal experiences, but remember everyone’s experience will be unique. There are tangible blessings to be received at each and every shrinewe only have to be open to the possibility.
We have discovered that we feel a saint’s spiritual power and blessings more easily when we create an inner environment that invites them to visit. We do this by stilling our hearts and minds in meditation. When we are receptive, the saints transmit their love of God to us as a taste of what awaits us if we stay centered in God. Many spiritually minded people are seeking profound and transformational experiences to inspire them on their spiritual paths, and we are offering straightforward tools that have helped us to realize this goal. Even without visiting a shrine, we have found inspiration when reading about the life of a saint, and begin to imagine how it would be to live for God alone, as they have done.
Though the saints in this book are Roman Catholic, we have written for people of all faiths. In this age of expanding spiritual awareness and interest in understanding different religions, it becomes apparent that most religions and faiths share basic beliefs. We believe that Truth is universal and transcends religious boundaries. God-realized souls or saints can share that Truth with us, regardless of their, or our, particular faith. To listen for this guidance, our hearts and minds must be still. The techniques we offer will enable you to achieve this stillness.
In this second edition, we have updated email addresses, websites and phone numbers. Additions include the new church of St. Pio of Pietrelcina that seats 8,000, and information on the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim road that leads to Rome. New resources have been included on our website for easy reference when making your pilgrimage plans.
Our hope is that this travel guide will provide the inspiration, tools and information you need to create a more meaningful, and possibly profound experience when visiting the saints and their shrines. May the saints of all religions bless you on your spiritual journey.
The region of Latium is in central Italy on the western side of the peninsula. The area is best known for the capital city of Rome, but it is very diverse both geographically and culturally. The western border is formed by the Tyrrhenian Sea that gives way to the flat coastal plains. The plains continue past Rome, and are transformed into the rolling topography of Tuscany and Umbria in the north, and the hills and extinct volcanic mountains of Campania in the south. The Apennine Mountains occupy the eastern edge of the region and the Tiber River enters the plains from the northern valleys and flows through Rome to the sea. While Rome is the leader in ancient and modern culture, the other towns and villages of the region offer glimpses into the more typical Italian lifestyle.
St. Francis of Assisi traveled by foot and donkey throughout Italy, spreading his doctrine of love. He visited the Rieti Valley on many occasions and founded several hermitages. It is called the Sacred Valley due to the presence of the saint, and for the deep vibrations of devotion he infused into the area. The Rieti Valley is where the first crèche scene was displayed and where St. Francis’s eyes were cauterized near the end of his life. He spent much time here in prayer and seclusion and left a legacy of divine love. There are four hermitages in the valley that are associated with St. Francis: Fonte Colombo, Greccio, Poggio Bustone, and Convento Foresta Giacomo. A welcome addition to the Sacred Valley is a walking route, the Cammino di Francesco, retracing St. Francis’s steps between each of these hermitages. For more on this route see page 249. The life of St. Francis is described in the chapter on Assisi, in the region of Umbria.
The Sanctuary of Fonte Colombo
Fonte Colombo means “Dove Spring” and was named by St. Francis because of the doves that drank from the spring here. In the sacred cave, in 1223, Francis fasted for forty days and wrote the final Rule of his Order, asking for the will of Jesus Christ. A group of superiors in his Order came and indicated to him that they could not follow a certain rule. Francis prayed to the Lord to make them understand that it was Christ who desired the rule. Jesus appeared and spoke to all those present, saying that the rule was God’s word and not Francis’s, and those who could not follow it should leave the order. The brothers, having heard the word of Jesus, understood.
It was here also, in 1226, in a small house next to the convent, that doctors cauterized Francis’s eyes, trying to effect a cure for his glaucoma, and Francis asked “Brother Fire” to be gentle. The brothers ran away at the gruesome sight, but Francis said he felt no pain.
The small chapel of Mary Magdalene (La Maddalena) is where St. Francis and his brothers held Mass. The window has a Tau sign that authorities say was drawn by St. Francis. The letter T is a biblical sign of salvation and, after Christ’s death, represented the crucifixion. Follow the steps down to a small cave where Brother Leo spent time. Beside the cave is the stump of a tree where Jesus appeared to Francis. After more stairs is the cave where Francis fasted for forty days and completed the Rule. (The mountain fissure was caused by an earthquake.) This is the best place to meditate and pray. It can be cold and damp, so bring something to sit on if you plan to stay awhile. There are few pilgrims here, and it is a very quiet place to contemplate the life of St. Francis.
The Sanctuary is 74 miles (119 km) south of Assisi, about 3 miles (5 km) west of Rieti. Fonte Columbo has overnight accommodations, but you must bring your own sheets and towels. English is not spoken so you must communicate in Italian. Phone: 074 671125 Fax: 074 6210157 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Santuario di Fonte Colombo/02100 Fontecolombo (RI) Italia. A comprehensive brochure in English is available for a donation, inside the courtyard of the convent, in a small room to the right.
Sanctuary of Santa Maria of the Forests
Former drug addicts now run this community and live off the land. A guided tour in Italian is available by ringing the bell. You can visit a cave St. Francis secluded in, and sit where he sat. St. Francis took refuge here to avoid the crowds of people looking for him for a blessing. When the people found him, they demolished most of a farmer’s grapes. When the farmer protested, Francis assured him that his harvest would be successful. There was a small harvest of grapes, but when they were pressed, the wine kept increasing. You can see the wine trough where this miracle occurred. This Sanctuary is 68 miles (109 km) south of Assisi, about 3 miles (5 km) north of Rieti. Phone/Fax: 074 620085 Email: email@example.com Santuariio de la Foresta Comunità “Mondo X” 02100 La Forest/Rieti (RI) Italia.
Sanctuary of Greccio
This is where St. Francis recreated the birth of Christ in a stable on Christmas Eve, 1223. There were a group of laymen and women who followed Francis’ Rule here during his lifetime, and Francis liked to come and stay here because of their deep piety. St. Francis slept in an alcove in the rock (downstairs). The best place to meditate is upstairs. The cells were built after St. Francis’s time. Greccio (pronounced Grechio) is 67 miles (108 km) south of Assisi, about 8 miles (12 km) northwest of Rieti. Phone/Fax: 074 6750127 Santuario di Greccio 02040 Greccio (RI) Italia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sanctuary of Poggio Bustone
Francis came here in 1208 for the first time and, according to legend, he received pardon for his sins in the Grotto of Revelations. To the right of the convent are stairs leading to caves used by Francis’s brothers. It is a half hour hike up to the caves, starting at a footpath with no marker. The Convent of San Giacomo is about 14 miles (22 km) north of Rieti, just east of Rivodutri. Phone/Fax 074 6688916 Email: email@example.com Santuario di Poggio Bustone 02018 Poggio Bustone (RI) Italia.
Coming and Going
The town of Rieti is about 60 miles (97 km) northeast of Rome, and all the hermitages are located within 15 miles (24 km) of this rural city. You can drive to the hermitages or hike the Cammino di Franceso (see websites). Either way, it is pleasant and picturesque. For directions, refer to the map at right, and look for the signs that say “Santuario” while winding through the valley. The hermitages should be open year round, seven days a week, but they close each day from about 12:303 or 4pm. English is rarely spoken, so be prepared to speak in Italian.
Franciscan Shrines of the Holy Valley of Rieti www.santuarivallesanta.it Official website with histories of all the sanctuaries listed here with pictures.
Greccio Tour Information Office Phone/Fax: 074 6750640
Rome is the most heavily populated city in Italy and home to its ancient culture. Now the country’s capital, it was once the center of the Roman Empire, ruler of the known world. Its history and culture are still alive throughout the capital, and it continues to be one of the most vibrant cities of Europe. The richness of the city is found in its diverse matrix of ancient ruins and modern shops, historical monuments and contemporary architecture, quaint shrines and monolithic churches. The tourist in Rome can find anything and everything that Western culture has to offer, including some of the most holy pilgrimage sites in the world.
There are countless shrines in Rome and you can visit for several weeks and still not see everything. Plan your itinerary in advance, allowing enough time to see what interests you most, as well as time for relaxation. This will make your visit more enjoyable and your experiences of the shrines more meaningful. When you first arrive, obtain a copy of “This Week in Rome” from your hotel or tourist information office. This magazine contains current hours of operation for all the shrines and sites of Rome.
Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.
St. Peter is known as the Prince of the Apostles for his deep faith, strong character and powerful presence among his fellow disciples. He led the early church from obscurity to widespread recognition and laid a solid foundation for the following generations of faithful.
The life of St. Peter is not well documented, but there are several stories in the New Testament detailing episodes in his life. Prior to becoming a disciple, Peter was a fisherman from the Galilean town of Bethsaida, and was called Simon. His brother, St. Andrew, introduced him to Jesus, and at this first meeting Jesus gave him the Aramaic name Kaphas (Cephas), or Peter, meaning rock. Peter and Andrew soon returned to their trade as fisherman and spent time with Jesus as best they could. Finally Jesus petitioned them to join him permanently saying; “Come ye after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19) The brothers enthusiastically followed the Master, becoming his first disciples.
There is no disputing that Peter was the leader of the followers of Jesus for he was often in the forefront of their activities. One incident reveals the depth of Peter’s intuitive perception of Jesus. When Jesus asked the disciples if they knew who he was, Peter replied; “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Christ responded; “Blessed art thou Simon, because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in Heaven. And I say to thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” (Matthew 16:18)
The most infamous story concerning Peter is his denial of Christ. After Jesus was forcibly taken from the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter was confronted three different times and asked if he knew Jesus. Just as Jesus had prophesied, Peter denied knowledge of him all three times. While showing his human frailty in this story, Peter would go on to powerfully lead the disciples after the crucifixion. Christ appeared to Peter one last time before his ascension and said to him, “Feed my sheep,” (John 21:17) thus inspiring Peter to preach Christ’s message throughout Judea and Asia Minor, helping to form the foundations of the Christian church.
Peter led early Christians on many missionary efforts, and was the first of the Apostles to perform a miracle. One day as they approached the temple to pray, a man lame from birth begged Peter and John for alms. Peter said “Silver and gold I have none, but what I have, that give I thee: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk.” (Acts 3:6) The man stood and, leaping with joy, went with them into the temple to pray.
As Christianity spread and gained popularity, it began to threaten the entrenched hierarchy of the Roman Empire. In 43 A.D., Herod Agrippa I began to persecute the Christians and killed the Apostle James and imprisoned Peter. Peter was chained between two sleeping soldiers when an angel appeared and led him to freedom. He escaped Herod’s wrath and went on to preach for twenty more years.
The remaining years of his life are not documented, but he finally ended up in Rome, once again arrested for his faith. Imprisoned and tried, he was executed, following in the footsteps of his Master and hundreds of other martyred Christians. Sentenced to be crucified, Peter asked to be placed upside down, because he did not feel worthy of facing death in the same manner as Jesus. He was crucified about 64 A.D. on Vatican Hill, and is enshrined there in the Basilica of St. Peter.
St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is in the Vatican City at the end of Via della Conciliazione and fronted by the vast Piazza San Pietro. The site has a long history dating back to the martyrdom of St. Peter, for the first building was an oratory built over St. Peter’s tomb immediately after his death. In 324, Constantine began construction of the original Basilica, creating a monumental structure that was in constant use until the papacy left Rome in the early fourteenth century. With the absence of the popes, the church fell into disrepair, and remained in this state until it was finally dismantled in 1506, when work on the current Basilica was begun. After 120 years of design and construction, the new Basilica was inaugurated in 1626. Many great architects and artists were commissioned to perform the work including Bramante, Bernini and Michelangelo.
There is so much to see at St. Peter’s and the Vatican that we recommend buying a separate travel guide. Depending upon your time available, an entire day should be allotted for a fairly complete visit. If you really enjoy museums, plan for additional time. We highlight the more important sites, but use your other guides to plan the details of your visit. You won’t want to miss at least some of the Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani) with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina), a trip to the top of the dome, and ample time to absorb the wonderful vibrations of St. Peter’s tomb.
Your first destination should be the Vatican City Pilgrim and Tourist Information Office (outside, on the left, as you face St. Peter’s). Strict dress regulations are enforced in the Basilica, so don’t wear shorts, or mini-skirts, and be sure your shoulders and midriff are covered.
As you walk into St. Peter’s, you will be astonished by the sheer size of the church. Although immense, the proportions are beautiful and the detailing of the interior is well done, if not overdone, in places. On your immediate right is Michelangelo’s exquisite Pietà, a work of art worthy of its fame. As you walk down the main aisle toward the transept of the church you will approach Bernini’s massive bronze canopy with spiral columns, built over the tomb of St. Peter and directly under the dome of Michelangelo. You can visit what is thought to be St. Peter’s original tomb below the Basilica by making reservations before you come to Rome through the Excavations Office or “Scavi” (see below). There are four massive pillars supporting the dome, and each one has significant art or relics associated with it. A piece of the true cross is behind the statue of St. Helena in the pillar at the far right when approaching the tomb. The pillar at the near right with the statue of St. Longinus contains his lance, which pierced the side of Christ. To the right of the main altar you can go downstairs and visit the Sacred Vatican Grottoes (Sacre Grotte Vaticane), which contain the tombs of many popes.
An excursion up into the dome of Michelangelo is time-consuming, but well worth the trip. The elevator is found on the outside of the Basilica on the right as you face it. After going up and viewing the inside of the dome, take the spiral staircase to the cupola for great panoramic views of Rome.
Although the Basilica is extremely large (6 acres) and usually filled with throngs of people, the size seems to absorb the sound, and it is not as noisy as one would think. The area around St. Peter’s tomb is very special, although it is not a place to meditate. There is a meditation chapel, the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, on the right as you approach the main altar, where silence (silenzio) is enforceda rare thing in Italy! This chapel is ideal for meditation and prayer after you have made your tour.
Basilica of St. Peter in Vincoli
This Basilica was built about 442 A.D. as a shrine to preserve the chains believed to have bound the Apostle Peter during his captivity in Jerusalem, and the chains that once bound Peter in Mammertime Prison. When the chains were placed next to each other, they miraculously fused into one link. They are near the main altar in a golden reliquary. Also of note is Michelangelo’s Moses. The Basilica was restored during the eighth century, and several times during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Basilica is on Piazza San Pietro in Vincoli # 4A near the Colosseum. Take Metro Line B to Cavour. Hours: MonSat, 7am12:30pm; 3:30pm7:00; Sun, 8:45am11:45.
I have been crucified with Christ;
St. Paul was a tireless missionary, traveling throughout Asia Minor teaching the gospel and living as an example of a faithful disciple. Paul was also fearless. Though many times facing death and imprisonment for his faith, he professed his beliefs and constantly lived in an inner world of Christ’s presence. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation …. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13 NIV) There is a great deal of information in the New Testament about St. Paul because St. Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, describes his missionary journeys, and St. Paul wrote numerous letters, or epistles, to members of the church, explaining his spiritual journey.
Paul was born Saul, the son of an upstanding Jewish family, and was sent as a young man to Jerusalem to receive training in Hebrew law, religion and the trade of tent-making. Saul was staunchly conservative and mindful of ancient law, and found the new sect of Christianity to be diametrically opposed to his beliefs. He saw it as his duty to persecute the Jewish converts and rid Jerusalem of their blasphemy. Saul became well known for this activity and was even present at the martyrdom of St. Stephen. He soon set his sights on purging the city of Damascus, and departed Jerusalem with a band of compatriots to assail the converted Jews of the Syrian town.
While on the road to Damascus, Saul’s group was surrounded by a brilliant light. From that light Saul heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus who you are persecuting. Get up and go into the city and you will be told what to do.” (Acts 9:4-6 NIV) Getting up, Saul found he was blinded by the light and was led by hand into the city. Here he fasted and prayed, waiting for his unknown future to unfold. After three days, a local disciple named Ananias came to Saul and restored his sight in the name of Jesus, and baptized him in the Holy Spirit. Thus Paul was converted and immediately began preaching the gospel in Damascus. Soon, he too was persecuted for his beliefs, and had to flee the city in the dark of night to save his life. After preaching in Jerusalem for a short time, he was again threatened and escaped to the desert where he secluded for three years before continuing his mission.
This was a pattern that repeated itself many times throughout Paul’s life. A powerful preacher and missionary, he trekked throughout Asia Minor, Greece and Palestine sharing the teachings of the gospel, frequently traveling with other disciples including Saints Barnabus, Mark and Timothy. He often lived for more than a year in a single location, establishing a church and developing a community of believers. Known as the Apostle of the Gentiles, Paul’s mission was converting Gentiles to the new sect of Christianity and helping them to remain faithful. As the communities became strong, or when his life was truly threatened, he would move on and help establish a new congregation. His letters of support to his numerous churches eventually became part of the New Testament and form an in-depth look into the early Christian church.
Paul would return to Jerusalem every few years to connect with other disciples of Christ and enliven their mutual bond. On his third such venture to Israel, Paul was arrested by the powerful Jewish Pharisees and imprisoned for two years, continually bound in chains. Paul defended himself before the Roman authorities and convinced them of his innocence, but the Pharisees were threatened by his power and wanted him executed. Paul was a Roman citizen, and demanded to be tried as such, in Rome. Thus began the final chapter of his life.
While on the way to see Nero, the emperor in Rome, Paul was shipwrecked. He survived the ordeal, and eventually was delivered to the capital city. The depiction of his life ends here in the gospels, but there is good evidence that he was tried and initially placed under house arrest. Exiled to his home, he still received many visitors and continued to preach and make converts. He made one final missionary journey but eventually returned to Rome, where he was again arrested and, this time, sentenced to die. His imprisonment was concurrent with St. Peter’s, but the exact facts of their demise are not well documented. While Peter was crucified at Vatican hill, Paul had a different fate because he was a Roman citizen. His sentence was carried out through decapitation, which took place on the Appian Way. It is said that after his head was severed, it bounced three times, and three springs miraculously began to flow where there was none before. The shrine, Tre Fonte, was built in his honor.
One of Paul’s seemingly simple teachings is still one of the most profound, “If I have a faith that can move mountains, but I have not love, I am nothing…. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always preserves. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:2-8 NIV) His feast day, June 29, is shared with St. Peter, and January 25 is celebrated as his conversion date.
Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls
St. Paul’s Basilica was originally built by Constantine in the fourth century, over the tomb of St. Paul. It was destroyed by fire in 1823, and then re-consecrated in 1854. St. Paul’s is unusual, having five aisles instead of three. The tomb of St. Paul is under the main altar where a confessional window (fenestrella confessionis) shows the epigraph “Paolo Apostolo Mart.” Follow signs to “Altare dell tomba.” Chains that bound St. Paul as a prisoner in Rome are in a golden reliquary. Basilica di San Paolo Fuori le Mura is located at Via Ostiense, 186, Roma and is open daily from 7:30am6:40pm. You will have to take Metro Linea B to San Paulo, since it is on the outskirts of town. www.vatican.va “information.” Parish office: 065 410178/065 410341
St. Paul at the Three Fountains
This church is said to have been the location of St. Paul’s execution, where he was decapitated and where three fountains sprang up where his head landed. The springs are covered over now because the water is polluted. The first church was built in the fifth century and rebuilt in 1599. It takes some time to reach this shrine since it is outside the city, but many pilgrims find this a very blessed site. Take the B line to Stazione Laurentina which is the end of the line. Go north on Via Laurentina several blocks.
St. John Lateran
Built in the fourth century by Constantine as a classic Roman Basilica, St. John Lateran was frequently plundered, and later destroyed by earthquake and two fires in 1307 and 1361. As a result there have been many restorations through the years, the last being in the seventeenth century by Francesco Borromini, in Baroque style. This church has a long history, as it was the primary residence of the popes until their departure from Rome to Avignon, France. When the pope returned to Rome in 1375, it was no longer used. The main Papal altar contains the heads of Saints Peter and Paul in two silver busts of the saints. This altar also includes the original wooden altar that St. Peter and his successors are thought to have used to celebrate mass. To the left of the altar is the Chapel of the Choir, with a relief panel of the Last Supper above the tabernacle. Behind it rests what is believed to be a piece of the table from the Last Supper. The Basilica is located on Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano #4. Take Metro Linea A to San Giovanni. Open daily 7am7pm; in winter closing time is 6pm. www.vatican.va “Information.” Phone: 066 9886452.
Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs
Near the Basilica of St. John Lateran on the eastern side of Piazza San Giovanni, the Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs enshrines the stairs that Jesus climbed during his Passion. St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, brought them to Rome from Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem. The stairs are covered in wood to protect them. Pilgrims climb the 28 stairs on their knees, ending up at the ancient papal Chapel of San Lorenzo that was transferred from the Lateran Palace.
You have given me all that I have, all that I am,
St. Ignatius of Loyola was a man of will power, integrity, but most of all, love. As father of the Jesuit order, he may be remembered as an energetic organizer and reformer, but his sole aim was to share the love of God and teach others to experience that divine love for themselves.
Born in the Basque region of Spain, Inigo de Loyola was the youngest of thirteen children of a noble Spanish family. He was raised with expectations of gaining wealth and power for his family, and at age sixteen was sent to live in the court of King Ferdinand under the tutelage of the court Treasurer. Caught in the spell of the royal court, Inigo became infatuated with his prospects of a regal future, enflamed by his incessant reading of romance novels. St. Ignatius describes himself at this time: “He did not avoid sin, being particularly without restraint in gaming, affairs with women, dueling, and armed affrays.”
Inigo enjoyed life in the King’s court for the next ten years, but when his mentor died he was abruptly left with nothing but two horses. So, at the age of twenty-six, he enlisted in the army of the Viceroy of Navarre with visions of adventure, conquest and fame. In 1521, while defending Pamplona from French invaders, Inigo was struck by a cannonball that passed between his legs, shattering one limb and seriously injuring the other. The Spaniards lost the battle, and Inigo was taken prisoner. The French admired his courage and bravery, so they graciously set his broken leg and sent him home to heal.
Time passed slowly for the convalescing soldier. He soon requested romance novels to get through his long inactive days. Because romantic novels were in short supply, Inigo resorted to reading books on the life of Christ and the saints. After reading and re-reading these books, he became increasingly inspired by the courage of the saints and impressed by the high states of consciousness they attained. Inigo began to wonder if he too could accomplish this, and planned upon his recovery to test his new faith by going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
This was the turning point for Inigo, as he began to observe and analyze his thoughts. He found that when he thought of worldly things he felt “discontented and dry,” but when he thought of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, of Christ and the saints, he felt “joyful and contented.” This discovery was the first step in developing his famous “Spiritual Exercises,” a systematic process of introspection and prayer that leads to deep contemplation of God. Around this time, Inigo decided to change his name to that of his patron saint, St. Ignatius.
After eight months of recuperating, Ignatius left on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with no specific plans except to visit Montserrat near Barcelona, which is home to the shrine of the Black Virgin. Here he made a commitment to his new life, giving away his fine clothes in exchange for sackcloth, giving up meat and wine, and letting his hair and nails grow. Then, after a year in Manresa, Spain, where he read “The Imitation of Christ,” and received many divine revelations, he eventually realized he could more effectively save souls if he cut his hair, trimmed his nails, and ceased his extreme austerities. His inner training culminated in a profound ecstasy that occurred along the river Cardoner near the Chapel of St. Paul. Seeing this as the end of his “novitiate,” Ignatius continued his pilgrimage and began preaching in earnest, sharing his Spiritual Exercises with all who would listen.
Ignatius finally arrived in the Holy Land in 1523 and visited all the sacred sites, preaching wherever he went. His exuberant tirades against the local Muslims were not well received by them, or by the Franciscans who were in charge of the shrines, and Ignatius was asked to leave the country. Without direction, he decided to return to Spain and renew his education.
Ignatius began to attract a small group of students while attending the universities of Spain and Paris. By the time he received his Masters of Arts degree in Paris at age forty-three, Ignatius had six dedicated disciples, including Francis Xavier. After several years of attempting to reach the Holy Land, they all journeyed to Rome and were gratefully welcomed by the pope who granted them permission to become a new order, the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits.
The Society of Jesus was established in 1540, and Ignatius was elected general superior against his wishes. While taking the typical vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, the Jesuits added a fourth vow to accept assignment to any place to spread the teachings of the Gospel. This ultimately led to the Society becoming a worldwide organization in Ignatius’s lifetime, with brothers serving throughout Europe, as well as in India and Brazil. For his remaining sixteen years, Ignatius guided the Jesuits through their expansion from ten members to more than a thousand. They established orphanages, houses of refuge for prostitutes, hospitals for famine relief and colleges for both religious and laypersons.
Ignatius was frequently sick, so little attention was given when he again became ill in July of 1556. He passed away quietly on the morning of July 31, at age sixty-six. St. Ignatius was canonized in 1622 and declared the patron saint of spiritual exercises and retreat. At his canonization, the Pope said “Ignatius had a heart bigger than the world.”
St. Ignatius was an exceptionally balanced person with tremendous will. He could be tough and take action when needed, and he could be kind and loving when the moment required it. He wisely advised his monks to seek “the presence of God Our Lord in all things and at all times, whether conversing, walking, looking, tasting, listening, thinking, in everything you do.”
The Church of the Holy Name of Jesus
The Church of the Holy Name of Jesus is the mother church of the Society of Jesus founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is in Rome on Piazza del Gesù, near Piazza Venezia. The church was built in the Counter-Reformation style twelve years after St. Ignatius’ death, and consecrated in 1584. The Chapel and Tomb of St. Ignatius are on the left side of the main altar. The remains of St. Ignatius rest in a gilded bronze urn under the altar. At the level of the altar are seven large bronze bas-reliefs showing scenes from the life and the miracles of St. Ignatius. The chapel of St. Francis Xavier is to the right of the main altar, and contains a reliquary with his arm above its altar.
The rooms where St. Ignatius lived for twelve years, from 1544 until his death in 1556, are open to visitors. The entrance is at Piazza del Gesù, 45. As you face the church, there is a large doorway to the right. Next to the door is a bronze plaque with “IHS” (the first letters of the name of Jesus in Greek), which represents the seal of the Society of Jesus. At the front desk you can ask for a guidebook in English, and, if you want, ask if anyone is available to lead a tour in English. Follow the long hall to the right, then up a flight of stairs, and at the top take a left. There is a museum and meditation room with chairs. This is an excellent place to sit and meditate on St. Ignatius. It was in this small room (with the window opening on to an enclosed balcony) that Ignatius slept and worked. The larger room (with window on the west opening onto the street), presently the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin, is where Ignatius celebrated Mass, received visitors and died. From these rooms Ignatius governed the Society of Jesus. The museum contains many relics and writings of the saint, all described in the guidebook.
I would like to visit the rooms of St. Ignatius.
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Is there anyone available to give us a tour in English?
He who desires aught else but God deceives himself utterly.
St. Philip Neri was a man of the common people. He taught people to trust their intuition and to follow their heart’s guidance in finding God. Philip was known for his big heart and sense of humor, attracting souls through his loving and accepting personality. Born Filippo Romolo in Florence on July 21, 1515, Philip Neri led an uneventful childhood as the son of a not-so-successful notary. Prospects for a successful career led Philip to move at age eighteen to live with his wealthy uncle. Living near the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino, Philip began spending more and more time in prayer and contemplation, often going into quiet seclusion amongst the rocky crags that characterize the area. It is here that he experienced a “conversion” and decided to leave the prospect of wealth for a spiritual life in Rome.
Sixteenth century Rome was in material and spiritual decay after being invaded and ransacked by the French Constable of Bourbon. It was a time that called for a vocal reformer to fill the void and help uplift the spirits of the populace. Philip arrived in 1533, just six years after the infamous Sack of Rome, and quietly began his personal mission.
His first four years were spent in rigorous study of philosophy and theology while earning a living by tutoring two young boys. This he did in exchange for a meager amount of corn and residence in a small room. After much prayer, Philip decided to put an end to his studying in order to give himself more completely to God. He began to preach in a very unobtrusive way, engaging people in conversation and gently adding comments about moral behavior and righteous living. He became known for his hearty sense of humor and his acceptance of everyone. During his conversations, Philip would ask people, “when should we begin to do good?” and if he received a positive answer of “now,” he would suggest people help in the hospitals and assist the poor and needy.
At night, he would spend his time in prayer, making the rounds of the holy churches of Rome, especially the seven Basilicas. He most relished going to pray at the Basilica of San Sebastiano, where he would go down into the catacombs and enter into silent communion with God. It was here that Philip had a transformative encounter with the Holy Spirit. While praying, a globe of fire entered his mouth and heart, and he experienced such an intense heat that he threw himself to the floor and bared his chest to cool down. When he stood up, he felt a swelling around his heart and his body shook with an overwhelming joy. For the remainder of his life, he would feel this intense heat in his throat and heart, and his heart would undergo palpitations so strong, that people could feel them transmitted throughout an entire room.
After fifteen years in Rome, Philip began meeting with a dozen laymen for prayer and spiritual discussions. Together they formed a benevolent fellowship. Their mission was to help the pilgrims who arrived in Rome often ill and without money. They opened pilgrim houses that became very successful, bringing notoriety to Philip and his followers. Philip was advised by his confessor that he could better serve God and his congregation by becoming a priest, so Philip was ordained in 1551.
Philip encouraged everyone to take communion daily, even though this was an uncommon practice at the time. He reveled in the joy he found in the Mass and was often overcome with devotion during his services, so much so, that he occasionally asked his brothers to read silly books to him prior to starting Mass. This enabled him to focus on the task at hand and not get lost in his ecstasies.
Philip felt a strong calling to minister to the young men of his community, wanting to help them avoid the pitfalls of secular attractions. He would meet with them over lunch to discuss spiritual matters and read inspirational books. His Brothers at Girolamo complained that his young men made too much noise and disturbed the house, but he retorted, “They may chop wood on my back so long as they do not sin.” Over time, he attracted many souls to this daily practice, which became known as the Oratory, a Congregation of secular priests and clerics. When someone made trouble for the group after being expelled for unacceptable behavior, Philip realized that his Congregation needed a permanent church, so Santa Maria in Vallicella was given to him for the new home of the Oratory.
Philip saw his congregation as an informal fellowship and did not want to formalize it by becoming an official order of the church. He taught that every individual in his congregation had to discover a personal relationship with the Divine, following his or her own God-given intuition. Thus he avoided giving too many instructions on prayer and contemplation and told his followers, “Be humble and obedient and the Holy Ghost will teach you.”
In April 1994, after forty-three years of service in Rome, Philip developed a high fever and became delirious. He beheld a vision of the Virgin Mary and was seen rising about a foot off the floor. He soon descended and then dismissed the doctors saying the Madonna had healed him from his affliction. After a year of good health, he became ill once again in March of 1595. One day, he suddenly collected all his papers and burned them. Then, after a full day of duties, he passed away peacefully on May 25, 1595.
The Romans turned out in throngs to pay their respects to the enigmatic Philip, and filed through the church all day long. When the church was finally closed, the doctors closely examined his body and found that “two ribs over the heart were broken and arched outwards. The heart was unusually large, while the great artery leading from it was twice the normal size.” So to say that Philip had a big heart was not an exaggeration! St. Philip Neri was beatified in May 1615 and canonized in March 1622.
St. Philip Neri was a new breed of saint, a saint of the people. He reached out to people where they were and taught them how to find an inner home in God. He recommended reading about the saints because he thought intellectual pride was “more effectively overcome by the examples of the saints.” His humor and joy were his trademarks, for he lived by the proverb, “A saint that is sad, is a sad saint indeed!”
The New Church, or St. Mary in Vallicella
Chiesa Nuova is part of a complex built in several stages beginning in 1575, comprised of the church, the Secular Oratory, the Vallicella Library and the Convent of the Congregation. Chiesa Nuova contains the tomb of St. Philip Neri, co-patron of Rome, also known as the “Saint of Joy.” St. Philip was given the original church by Pope Gregory XIII as a home for his new congregation. The new church was rebuilt upon the original foundation and completed in 1605, ten years after the saint’s death. The other buildings and restorations were made in the following centuries.
On his death in 1595, St. Philip was first laid in a walnut coffin and placed in the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella. Four years later, a new silver casket was made to hold his remains. When the old coffin was opened, the clothing was found to be decayed while the body remained incorrupt. In 1602, the body was transferred to a new chapel built to honor Philip. The casket was opened again in 1922, when St. Philip’s body was found to still be incorrupt. Subsequently clothed in new vestments and placed in a crystal casket with a silver mask covering his face, his body now rests at Chiesa Nuova, in the Chapel of St. Philip Neri, to the left of the main altar.
The main altar contains the miraculous image of Santa Maria in Vallicella, behind the painting of Our Lady. The ancient icon is revealed on Sundays and at special times when the painting of Our Lady is slid to the side to display the icon. The story is that a disappointed gambler threw a stone at the image on the outside of the church and drops of blood fell on the cheek of the Virgin. St. Philip requested the painting be transported inside the church, and it became the emblem of the Congregation of the Oratory and a vehicle for many miracles. Once, the Madonna of Vallicella appeared to St. Philip in a dream, warning him of a rotting beam in the church. The beam was subsequently discovered to be rotten and was repaired, saving the congregation from a dangerous situation. Also on the main altar is the “Cor Flammigerum”the flaming heart, which represents St. Philip and the mystical experience he had while praying in the catacombs of St. Sebastian, when a globe of fire descended and entered his heart.
In the Visitation Chapel (fourth on left), St. Philip’s favorite painting is displayed: “The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple” by Federico Barocci. St. Philip experienced frequent ecstasies and levitations in this chapel. The Assumption Chapel (fifth on right) is known for the painting of the Virgin by Aurelio Lomi di Pisa. The Virgin moved her eyes in 1796 with most of the Oratorians as witnesses. A month-long festival ensued, during which the miracle reoccurred.
The private rooms of the saint are open on Tues., Thurs., & Sun., including the saint’s feast day, May 26th. Guided tours can be arranged in advance (see below). The rooms consist of the Red room and Inner chapel on the ground floor and three rooms upstairs.
Basilica of St. Sebastian,
Constantine built the original basilica in the fourth century in honor of Saints Peter and Paul who had been buried there for a while during the time of persecution. Excavations in 1916 revealed a secret Christian cemetery under the church, giving credence to this story. In the third century, St. Sebastian was buried in the catacombs and his relics are now under the main altar. Behind this altar there is a reliquary containing the head of St. Fabian; his body lies underneath the floor. In the Chapel of Relics, on the right, are the imprints of Christ’s feet from when he appeared to St. Peter and one of the arrows that pierced the side of St. Sebastian. On the left of the altar is the entrance to the catacombs. The Basilica is located outside the city walls on Via Appia Antica 136, before Circus Maxentius and the tomb of Caecilia Metella.
St. Catherine of Siena spent the last two years of her life in Rome working tirelessly for the unification of the Church. Growing weaker over time, and finally succumbing to intense pain and paralysis of her legs, she died on April 29, 1380, at the age of thirty-three. Her remains are buried under the main altar of the Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Read about her fascinating life in the chapter on Siena, in the region of Tuscany.
Basilica of Holy Mary above Minerva
The first church, which was destroyed at some point, was built in the 700’s over the ancient temple of Minerva (50 B.C.). The current Basilica was started with the help of two Dominican monks, Sisto and Ristoro in 1280 and completed in 1370, with changes made in subsequent periods. The Basilica is known as the only Gothic church in Rome.
A wooden image of St. Catherine, sculpted by Isaia of Pisa in 1430, rests in the glass and stone urn that contains her relics. To the left of the altar and through the sacristy is her chapel, The Room of St. Catherine, constructed in the 1630s from the walls of the rooms where she died at Via Santa Chiara #14. The chapel is open from 9am6pm, except Sundays. This is one of the best places to meditate in Rome. There are a few chairs and very few visitors. Be prepared to speak in Italian.
Where is the room of St. Catherine?
To the left of the main altar is the tomb of Fra Angelico (Fra Giovanni of Fiesole). He is buried inconspicuously in the floor in the Frangipane Chapel. He died in the monastery next door. Blessed Fra Angelico, a Dominican monk, is best known for his beautiful frescoes in the San Marco convent in Florence (see Florence, Tuscany). Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is located near the Pantheon on Piazza della Minerva.
Other Places of Interest
See the chapter on Siena in Tuscany for information on St. Catherine’s shrine and childhood home.
St. Mary Major
The Virgin Mary appeared separately to Pope Liberius and the Roman patrician Giovanni, in 352 A.D., requesting that a church be erected in her honor. The Virgin Mary told them that a miraculous snow would fall indicating where the church was to stand. The next day, on August 4th, during a heat wave, snow fell on the place where the church was to be built. The earliest record of the church’s construction is from 432 to 440 by Pope Sixtus III. The original church was replaced in the thirteenth century. A reliquary below the center altar displays a piece of the baby Jesus’ crib. You need to check when this relic is displayed as they close it up completely. There is also the crypt of St. Matthias the Apostle who replaced Judas Iscariot. There’s a bench on either side of the reliquary to sit on. This church is on Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore Via Liberiana, 27. Take Metro Line B to Cavour or Termini Stazione. The church is between these two stops. Open daily: 7am8pm; in winter the church closes at 7pm. Phone: 064 83195 Fax: 064 875521. www.vatican.va under “Information.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls
Constantine built the original church dedicated to the martyr St. Lawrence, who was slowly burned to death in 258 A.D. The church was rebuilt in 576 with many remodels through the centuries. The relics of St. Lawrence, St. Justin and St. Stephen are behind the main altar. Located near the Campo Verano cemetery on Piazzale del Verano 3/00185 Roma, Italia. Open SatThurs 7am12; 3pm7. Phone 064 91511. www.basilicadisanlorenzo.org Italian. Email: email@example.com.
Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem
This Baroque church was first built in the fourth century by St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, and houses many relics she brought back from the Holy Land. Many restorations have been made through the years including a complete remodel in the eighteenth century. During one of these restorations, around 1492, a fragment of the cross Jesus died on was found, hidden in an arch. The Chapel of the Relics contains fragments of this cross, St. Thomas’s finger, a nail from the crucifixion, two thorns from Jesus’ crown of thorns, and a part of the crib of Jesus. The Chapel is on a staircase on the way to the second level and through a doorway to the left of the Sacristy. The remains of Sts. Caesarius and Anastasius are under the main altar. Located on Piazza di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, take Metro Linea A to San Giovanni. Open daily 6am12:30pm; 3:30pm7:30; in winter it closes at 6:30pm.
Coming and Going
Car: Are you crazy?!!! Pazzo!!! All roads lead to Rome, but don’t drive on them! Driving in Rome, really is crazy. We spent time in Rome using public transportation, then rented a car at the airport and drove to other regions of Italy. Arrange your rental before you get to Italy, and it will be cheaper. There are hefty city and airport taxes, so be prepared.
Airports: Leonardo da Vinci, also called Fiumicino, is 16 miles (26 km) southwest of Rome and is the main airport, but there is another airport, Ciampino, that is also used sometimes for international flights, mostly charters. From Leonardo da Vinci Airport, there is a non-stop train that runs hourly and takes about 30 minutes to reach the main train station in Rome, Stazione Termini. It runs between approximately 7:37am and 10:07pm. There are signs in the airport to the train station, and you buy your tickets from vending machines. If you arrive at Ciampino Airport, hourly COTRAL buses take you to Anagnina Metro station in about 25 minutes, where you connect to Stazione Termini for another 30 minute ride.
Train: Just like the roads, all trains lead to Rome! The Termini Station (Stazione Termini) has connections to the Metro lines A and B and to buses outside the station. Trains to Leonardo da Vinci Airport leave between 6:50am and 9:20pm. Validate your ticket before boarding using the “obliteratrici” machines. Beware of pickpockets.
Bus: It is well worth the money to buy a good map with the bus and Metro information, even though the free ones from the tourist information centers are adequate. Buses ATAC and Metros use the same ticket. Buy them at newsstands, tobacconists and vending machines. Make sure you stamp your bus ticket on the bus. If you arrive late at night at the airport, there are buses, COTRAL, that will take you to central Rome. www.atac.roma.it Italian. Roma Christiana operates pilgrimage bus stops where you can hop on and off yellow and white, double-decker buses for one price starting at Piazza dei Cinquecento every fifty minutes. There are other tour buses that start there too.
Metro: There are two lines, A & B, that serve many of the major tourist destinations.
Taxi: It is advised that you use only the yellow and white licensed taxis with meters. This of course is the more costly way to get around in Rome.
Air: Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi (ORP) www.orpnet.org Italian The Vatican offers pilgrimage travel packages to holy destinations.
Enjoy Rome/Via Marghera 8a/00185 Roma/Italia; north from the Termini train station. Exit to the north (the Via Marsala exit) keep going straight for three blocks, on the left. A favorite in the tour books and everyone speaks English. Informative website. Phone: 064 451843; Fax: 064 450734. www.enjoyrome.com E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org
IAT Ufficio Informazioni e di Accoglienza Turistica/Via Parigi 5/00185 Italia; Phone: 064 88991
APT Azienda di Promozione Turistica/Via Parigi, 11/00185/Roma/Italia; Phone: 064 88991 Fax: 064 819316 www.romaturismo.com Great online brochures & info on Rome. E-mail: email@example.com
ActiviItaly www.activitaly.com Tourist information on Rome.
Airports of Rome www.adr.it Fiumicino and Ciampino airports.
All Roads Lead to Rome www.stuardtclarkesrome.com Lists churches of Rome and detailed tourist info & maps.
APT www.romaturismo.com Comprehensive tourist information.
Bishop’s Office for US Visitors to the Vatican www.pnac.org click on “Coming to Rome.” All you need to visit the Vatican.
CO.IN. www.coinsociale.it/tourism Cooperative Integrate ONLUS is a national non-profit association based in Rome that provides comprehensive services for people with disabilities. Accessible Tourism provides tours and info on accessibility for the tourist. Once you are in Rome pick up their free “Roma Accessible” guide at COIN/Via Giglioli 54-a/00169, Roma Phone: 396 23269231
St. Peter’s Basilica www.stpetersbasilica.org Comprehensive information about St. Peter’s Basilica, click on “contacts for St. Peter’s Basilica.”
Enjoy Rome www.enjoyrome.com Comprehensive tourist information.
In Italy www.initaly.com/regions/latium/church/church.htm Comprehensive excerpts from June Hager’s book on the churches of Rome.
Info Roma www.inforoma.it/romepage.htm Rome itinerary services.
Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi (ORP) www.orpnet.org The Vatican offers pilgrimage travel packages to holy destinations.
Parco Via Appia Antica www.parcoappieaantica.it Guided tours by bicycle or on foot through the Caffarella valley and along the Appian Way.
Roma Termini Railway Station www.fnc.net/termini/fseng.htm Rome airport & train station info, timetables etc.
The Christian Catacombs of Rome www.catacombe.roma.it
Trambus www.trambus.com Italian info on transport in Rome.
Vatican www.vatican.va Comprehensive information on the Vatican.
Vatican City State www.vaticanstate.va Vatican Government.
Parco Via Appia Antica www.parcoappieaantica.it Guided tours by bicycle or on foot through the Caffarella valley and along the Appian Way.
The act of pilgrimage was a deep test of faith in the middle ages, and countless seekers made personal sojourns to one of three major holy destinations. Rome was one of the primary destinations in Europe, and pilgrims from the western reaches of the continent found their way to the city of St. Peter by walking the Via Francigena. The ancient pilgrim’s route originated in Canterbury, England, then wound its way through the plains and hills of France before climbing the mountains of Switzerland and descending the Italian peninsula, to complete the journey in Rome. The name “Via Francigena” has many translations but it literally means the French road or the route of the Franks. The first historical mention of the route was recorded in 876 AD in the Actum Clusio, a parchment discovered in the Tuscan Abbey of San Salvatore al Monte Amiata. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric the Serious, wrote an initial description of the route in 990 AD. The Archbishop traveled to Rome to receive his ecclesiastical vestments from Pope John XV and on his journey home to Canterbury he recorded the intricacies of the route and the first map was created.
The Via Francigena reached its peak of popularity in the thirteenth century, but through the years its use declined, until the knowledge of its existence became just a dim historical footnote. It wasn’t until 1994 that the embers were rekindled into flames of renewal, and a revival was planned by the Italian Ministry of Tourism and the Committee for Cultural Itineraries of the Council of Europe. This initiative sprang to life after the Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi made his own pilgrimage to the Spanish city of Santiago di Compostela, and realized the power and vitality of the modern day pilgrimage movement. He vowed to put the Via Francigena back on the map.
Historical Pilgrim Routes and Symbols
The historical medieval pilgrimage routes of Europe led to one of three sacred sites: Santiago di Compostela in Spain, Jerusalem in the Holy Land, and Rome. The resurgence and tremendous popularity of the Spanish route began in the late twentieth century, and it continues to thrive as people from all over the world come to take part in the ancient ritual. This unprecedented renaissance has ignited interest in all the ancient pilgrim routes that once criss-crossed Western Europe. In 2006 alone, over 100,000 pilgrims registered to walk the Compostela, along with thousands of other hikers and non-registered pilgrims. In that same year, only 8,000 people walked the Via Francigena as very few pilgrims were aware of its existence. This is slowly changing as the Italian and European cultural and religious agencies get out the word about this beautiful, often neglected trail.
Each of these pilgrimage routes has an artifact or symbol associated with it, and this is often carried by each of its travelers. In Spain, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the goal, and the pilgrims carry a shell. This symbol is also seen in many towns and villages along the route, and metal castings are often embedded in the road. A Christian pilgrim in the Holy Land is bound for Jerusalem, and he carries a crucifix. On the Italian Via Francigena, the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome is the final destination, and the symbol carried by the pilgrim is a key. For the Catholics who make the spiritual journey, they seek forgiveness of their sins. For non-Catholics, the routes offer their own individual meanings, both spiritual and personal.
The Italian Route
The Via Francigena enters Italy in the Alpine passes of the northwest, descending through the region of Val d’Aosta and the town of Aosta. It then makes its way through the western provinces, passing Pavia, Lucca, Siena, Viterbo and ultimately ending at the Vatican City in Rome and St. Peter’s Basilica.
There are many small towns and villages along the way that you would seldom visit as a casual tourist, but they contain beautiful churches, holy relics and sites of miracles. For example in Lucca, St. Martin’s Cathedral houses a crucifix called the Holy Face (Volto Santo) that legend tells us was made by Nicodemus at the time of Jesus. Another account tells of St. Catherine of Siena praying to the Holy Face and Jesus speaking to her. Exploring this pilgrimage route is not only an opportunity to test your spiritual strength and receive its many blessings; it is also a means of encountering the hidden side of Italy and experiencing the Italian people and their culture.
Once arriving in Rome there are seven churches dedicated to pilgrimage: St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, St. Sebastian Outside the Walls, Basilica of the Holy Cross and Our Lady of Divine Love.
Planning your Via Francigena pilgrimage
The routes are mainly footpaths and in some areas they are not well maintained. About 8% of the paths are actually considered dangerous! Although the Italian government has allotted over 1500 signs to be installed along the paths, you will still need detailed maps, since the Via Francigena is not yet well marked. Also, there are alternative routes to consider, so careful planning of your itinerary is recommended. Excellent advice is available on the many websites listed below, and you should take advantage of their local expertise.
While the Via Francigena is becoming more organized, lodging is not consistently available. You will need to make plans and reservations in advance and not expect to find accommodations as you arrive in each town or village. You may consider including stops at some of the natural hot springs along the way. The springs at Bagnaccio near Viterbo and the thermal baths at Bagno Vignoni, near Siena, offer weary pilgrims much appreciated respite and rejuvenation.
Finally, make a concerted effort to get in shape before your trip. A typical day includes up to 20 miles (30 kilometers) of walking for the experienced hiker, so develop a training schedule to get prepared. You may hike less so plan accordingly. Begin developing the specifics of your journey at least a year in advance, and utilize the websites listed below for their maps, itineraries, and expert advice. The websites also describe how to obtain a pilgrim identity card. The monasteries and churches along the route recognize this card, and they will provide accommodations for one night of your sojourn, as space is available.
The Rieti Valley is home to several ancient hermitages visited by St. Francis of Assisi. Each of these sanctuaries in this Sacred Valley has a story to tell of St. Francis and his time spent there. Santuario di Greccio was witness to the first Nativity scene created in 1223, and Santuario di Fonte Colombo is where St. Francis wrote the Rule of the Franciscan Order. In the Grotto of Revelations at the Santuario di Poggio Bustone, St. Francis received pardon for his sins. He performed the miracle of the wine in Santuario Santa Maria de La Foresta. Refer to page sixty-eight for more details on each of these shrines dedicated to St. Francis.
The fifty-mile (80 km) footpath inaugurated in 2003, retraces the footsteps of St. Francis between the sanctuaries, and is divided into eight stops. The path is well marked with arrows and wooden signposts. Your first stop is at the Rieti Tourist Board on Via Cintia, 87, in Rieti. They will give you a free Pilgrim’s Kit or you can have it mailed to you before you come by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is an excellent website, Cammino di Francesco (see below), with “Practical Tips” for walking, riding your mountain bike, horseback riding or driving by car for people with special needs. If you complete the walk in no less than two days you also receive a Pilgrim’s Certificate from the Rieti Tourist Board.