The Testimonium. It was time to do battle with the crowds in St Peter’s Square and get into the Basilica and find the obscurely located office of Don Bruno Vercesi, the priest in charge of dispensing the official Vatican stamp on your pilgrim’s passport and rewarding you with the Testimonium of completion of the VF. Brandishing my pilgrim’s passport, I dared to ignore all the long queues and rapidly made my way into the heart of the Basilica. I discovered how recondite this office was because several of the security staff were unsure as to its whereabouts. I forged my way into the sacristy, ignoring ‘no entry’ signs until I was stopped by security. I held out my passport to him and his attitude changed immediately. He ushered me into the innermost recess of the sacristy where I was met by the man in charge (but not Don Bruno, who could dispense the Testimonium). I was told that he was only available Monday-Friday, and that I should return on Monday. Of course, I protested, and tried to insist that he could dispense it……but I knew he was going to win. So I got the stamp, but will have to return on Monday.
The road less travelled? The VF, in comparison with the route to Santiago de Compostela, may be the road less travelled, but it is amazing how VF travellers manage to locate each other. The group of four UK cyclists that I first met in Piacenza crossing a piazza, I met several times en route, once we stayed in the same hostel, and once they saw my name in the visitor’s book of a hostel I had just left. Now, amidst the thousands of tourists milling around St Peter’s, apparently they bet each other a beer on who would see me first. I think it was Mike who will be drinking several free beers tonight, paid for by his friends Laurent, Nick and Tim. You can’t see Tim in this photo, because he is outside St Peter’s looking after the bikes!
Teaching English to the Italians? Would you recommend that Italians should learn the English spoken by this gentleman? Or is it, now that he has lost his place in the England team, that he’s having to sell his time at 8euros an hour to make ends meet?
Pilgrimage in the modern world. I know what I am about to say may be controversial, but it might get people thinking. In the Catholic world places like Fatima and Lourdes are much visited shrines, and people talk about going ‘on pilgrimage’ to these places. Given that most get there by plane, train or coach, this is not ‘pilgrimage’ really, it should be called ‘paying a visit to’ a shrine. Now, that is not to devalue the experience, but just to correct the use of language.
However, I also want to ‘correct’ our idea of the medieval notion of pilgrimage. Although I am a committed Christian, I do believe that the major religions of this world have ‘hijacked’ the notion of pilgrimage, and made it fit their own purposes for spiritual advancement. In the Christian world, the 13th and 14th centuries were notorious for this promotion and, amongst many things, the sale of indulgences did much to discredit the value of the journey. The basic meaning of the term ‘pilgrim’ is one who ‘wanders, travels or journeys to a destination’, and in medieval times that was an arduous undertaking usually done on foot. People travel the ancient ways for a variety of reasons, and not necessarily religious ones. Pilgrimage should be seen as a journey with a purpose, and that purpose could be anything. I’ve met people trying to resolve personal situations (marriage, family, friendships), celebrating coming through an illness or serious operation, or simply wanting personal time with their own thoughts as they travel along. One Dutch pilgrim I met, on the way to Santiago, had no belief whatsoever in the hereafter, and when I asked him “why to Santiago?” his response was illuminating: “well, any destination will do, it’s the journey that counts”.
And that, for me, is the nature of ‘pilgrimage’. Arriving in Rome was an exciting conclusion, but the journey was the thing that really counted: what I learned about myself, disconnecting from the ordinary things of life, and the things I learned from those I encountered on the journey. The journey is what you make of it yourself. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado included the following lines in a famous poem: “Caminante, son tus huellas el camino, nada más; caminante no hay camino, se hace el camino al andar” (Traveller, the road is made up of your own footprints, nothing else. Traveller, there is no road ahead, you make the road as you go along). And closer to home, in the poem Little Gidding, T.S.Eliot wrote these famous lines: “We shall not cease from exploration, And the end of all our exploring, Will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for the first time”.
For me, that is the very essence of ‘pilgrimage’. Neither poet even mentioned the term ‘pilgrimage’, but they understood it. If, after a long journey like a pilgrimage, you begin to see your own everyday life with new eyes, then your journey has been a success. In some small way, your life will be changed forever.
Haiti. Once again, thank you to all who have donated to the re-building of the Claretian school in Port-au-Prince. Fr Anistus is immensely appreciative, and the money is going to an extremely deserving cause.
The purpose of travel differs from person to person. In medieval times, the greatest travellers were usually pilgrims, who would set off on foot from their own front door in the direction of a distant holy place. They had to endure not only the hardships of the journey itself, but also the ever present dangers of disease, hunger and highway robbers. Many died en route. Those that arrived at their destinations could not rely on Ryanair to take them home again. The only way home was back the way they had come, on foot. This is what we would call ‘travel with a purpose’.
Modern pilgrimage is a much more clinical experience, though not without its stresses and dangers. With the invention of the bicycle, another mode of transport is added to the duo of walking and horseback. On both the routes to Santiago de Compostela and to Rome, the pilgrim must demonstrate they have travelled ‘under their own steam’ in order to qualify for the ‘Compostela’ or the ‘testimonium’. To do this, they have to carry a credential or passport, have it officially stamped along the route, and present it at journey’s end at the appropriate office.
The fascination of the ‘pilgrim’s progress’ is to travel in the footsteps/hoof prints of tens of thousands of others, along the very same route whose history stretches back 1000 or more years. In the case of the Via Francigena, its history goes back 1400 years to the year 598 when St Augustine trekked to Rome to receive the pallium from the Pope. His return journey would have taken a minimum of 6 months, probably more.
Our knowledge of the route has been informed by recent research into the archives, where the travel notes of Archbishop Sigeric, who travelled to Rome in 990, have been re-discovered and studied in depth. Although some place names have changed, and many of the traversable routes have been reconfigured, it is now possible to trace the exact same route as St Augustine in 598. Unlike the Camino de Santiago, which is now a well established and popular route of modern pilgrimage, the Via Francigena is still largely unknown, but beckons the modern pilgrim to pack his rucksack or pannier, and venture forth.
My plan is to do just that ;0)