Persons, places and things: Unpacking the pilgrimage


By Barb Arland-Fye

Reading a news article about the conclusion of the Year of Mercy at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome awakened a feeling of awe for me. More than 20 million pilgrims passed through the basilica’s Holy Door of Mercy; 50 of them belonged to our Catholic Mess­enger pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi. But on Sept. 1, the day our pilgrims crossed the threshold at St. Peter’s Basilica, my thoughts focused on capturing images of their reaction and what I might write about that experience. I even overlooked the Pietà, Michelangelo’s sculpture that touches my heart as a mother and a Catholic.


We had arrived in Rome the day before on an overnight flight from Chicago and my mind couldn’t fully process the impact of this first-time visit to Vatican City, the center of our universal Catholic Church. Father Marty Goetz, our spiritual leader and a priest of the Davenport Diocese, led us in procession to St. Peter’s Basilica, and it was as if the Red Sea parted during our short journey through the crowded streets to our destination. We prayed and sang, stopping near significant places on our walk: Castel Sant’ Angelo, the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, the entrance to the Colonnade; the Holy Door, and the Tomb of St. Peter.

Anyone who has been to St. Peter’s Basilica can appreciate what an overwhelming experience it can be for first-time pilgrims trying to absorb the visual and spiritual significance of this extraordinary house of worship. I scurried to the front of the procession to videotape Fr. Marty leading our pilgrims through St. Peter’s Square to the basilica. Then I squeezed back into the pack as a participant. I said the prayers, but felt like I was on automatic pilot. I was disappointed with myself.


Someone with greater wisdom said that I need to give myself time to “unpack” my pilgrimage, to contemplate its impact on my life. And that’s what I’ve been discovering these past two months. A story, a chance encounter with one of our pilgrims, a prayer, a photograph, take me back to the pilgrimage.

Today, I pulled an Italian shopping bag out of my closet that contains mementos from the pilgrimage — the special ticket and the worship aid for the canonization Mass of St. Teresa of Kolkata, another ticket to a general audience with Pope Francis, prayer cards of St. Teresa, and the crinkled prayer guide from our procession to the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica. I re-read the prayers from that program and reflected on their meaning to me, as a pilgrim whose pilgrimage won’t be completed on earth.

The reflection that we read at the Holy Door was a passage from “Misericordiae Vultus,” the Holy Father’s letter on the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. One of the sentences spoke to me as I think about living in a troubled, divided world. “Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life.”

In his homily closing the Year of Mercy on Nov. 20, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, Pope Francis encouraged all of us — “to open every possible pathway of hope.” He reminds us that “even if the Holy Door closes, the true door of mercy which is the heart of Christ remains open wide for us.”

I’ll reflect on this message from Pope Francis as I continue to unpack my pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi and open a new door, to the season of Advent.

(Barb Arland-Fye, Editor, can be reached at

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