Exploring Saint Ambrose’s Milan Bishop Zinkula and fellow St. Ambrose trustees treasure pilgrimage

Contributed Msgr. Francesco Braschi of the Ambrosiana Biblioteca in Milan, Italy, shows a book at the biblioteca with Bishop Thomas Zinkula earlier this month.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Bishop Thomas Zinkula celebrated Mass in the Basilica di Sant’ Ambrogio in Milan, Italy, earlier this month, a spiritual highlight of his pilgrimage with other members of the Board of Trustees of St. Ambrose University-Davenport.

The basilica’s namesake, St. Ambrose, served as bishop of Milan in the fourth century and a preeminent theologian of the Catholic Church. He is also the patron saint of the university in Davenport, the only Catholic university in the world named for him, said Father Bud Grant, a theologian who founded a research center focused on the saint.

St. Ambrose University embraces its relationship with the saint, especially through support of the Academy for the Study of St. Ambrose of Milan (ASSAM). Study-abroad trips have been made to Milan with St. Ambrose University students, alumni and others. But the pilgrimage Sept. 4-8 was the first for members of the Board of Trustees.
Inspiration for the pilgrimage came from one of the 28 voting trustees. He asked St. Ambrose University President Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, “Would you be willing to lead a pilgrimage for us to Milan and get the bishop (the Board of Trustees chair) to come along?”

Schedules were tight, resulting in a brief but enriching experience, Sr. Joan said. Participating were nine trustees and four spouses. They took a guided walking tour of Milan the first day. Bishop Zinkula was impressed by a visit to a castle where he viewed Michelangelo’s Pieta Rondinni, a unique, rough version of the sculpture in which Mary, who is standing, appears to be holding up Christ. “It was so different from his first one. I wondered, ‘what was his purpose?’” the bishop said.


The pilgrims toured the Duomo, one of the largest churches in the world, on their second day. Beneath the Duomo is an archaeological zone bearing the remains of a baptistry where St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine, one of the most important theologians in history. “The Duomo was amazing,” the bishop said. “It took something like 500 years to build and it was so intricate. The stones had different colors, depending on where the sun was in the sky.” The pilgrims went to the top of the Duomo where “we had a spectacular view of all of Milan and all of these marvelous carvings on top of the roof,” Sr. Joan said.

That day’s visit included a tour of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a monastery where a painting of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci is displayed in the dining room. The bishop was struck by the expressions that Da Vinci captured in the painting.

Msgr. Francesco Braschi of Biblioteca Ambrosiana gave a tour of the library and art museum the following day. He showed the visitors ancient manuscripts, maps of the New World, and an illuminated book dating back to the third or fourth century. Bishop Zinkula appreciated Msgr. Braschi’s “love for St. Ambrose, for the church and our Catholic faith. He radiated joy.” The library fed the mind while the art museum fed the soul, the bishop said. “The two go together.”

On their final full day, some of the pilgrims visited the Milan Museum of Science and Technology to view Da Vinci’s inventions. Later, the group toured the Basilica di Sant’ Ambrogio. Their tour guide, Professor Alessandro Gandelli, “so graciously took us all around to places typical tourists don’t get to go and he helped serve at Mass,” Sr. Joan said.

The professor shared many stories, dating back centuries, some of which involved conflict. He said he “loves the Catholic Church because it’s human, but still it perdures as obviously the Holy Spirit is in control,” said the bishop, who presided at Mass that afternoon in the basilica chapel. “That was one of the highlights of the pilgrimage … You could sense the spirit of St. Ambrose,” the bishop added. “It was Friday, our last day, and we were having this spiritual experience together.”

The day concluded with a farewell dinner during which each person reflected on a request that Sr. Joan made at the beginning of their journey. They were asked to reflect on how they were tourists, travelers and pilgrims. She provided some ideas to guide their reflections:

Bishop Thomas Zinkula poses with members of the Board of Trustees of St. Ambrose University in Davenport while on a trip to Milan, Italy.

“Tourists are a joy. They have fun, they take thousands of pictures, they buy T shirts and other souvenirs, they have funny stories and lots of laughs, they run around and they relax and enjoy.

“Travelers are learners. They read the descriptive materials; they try the food and the language; they do not search for a Burger King or a Kmart; they are open to what the new country can teach them, they do not compare it with, say, the U.S., and find it wanting. They are grateful guests in a country which might be a bit different but which has its own beauty. They walk in order to receive the new learnings.

“Pilgrims travel with open hands, open to whatever the journey will give them. They travel with prayer, with gratitude, with willingness to let God plan the trip. They reverence the people who have been here before. They stop now and then to reflect and to realize what this experience is offering.”
Sr. Joan said she and the trustees were grateful that Bishop Zinkula made the pilgrimage with them to the place where St. Ambrose University’s patron saint had a profound impact on the Catholic Church.

The bishop, like all of the pilgrims, “was learning more about the patron and namesake of our university,” she said. “It meant a great deal that he joined us and said Mass with us. I think it’s an experience he won’t forget.”

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