Mary McCarthy, Eilis Costelloe and Kathleen Maher
Following an invitation from the Ossory Adult Faith Development team seeking volunteers for the Year of Mercy to assist pilgrims in Rome last year, we decided to take up the challenge and apply.
We logged on to the pilgrims website to check out the requirements, amongst which were a working knowledge of Italian plus two other languages, and most importantly a letter of recommendation from our parish priest, as to our suitability.
To prepare ourselves, and become somewhat fluent in Italian, we opted for October 15-22, 2016 for our week of service.
We arrived in Rome on October 14 and stayed for one night in Bishop Seamus Freeman’s former home while he was in Rome, San Sylvestro in Capite, where we were warmly welcomed by the Rector, Fr John Fitzpatrick, who hails from Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary.
Fr John was very excited by Tipperary beating Kilkenny in the All Ireland Hurling final - and he let us know!
Irish people will be familiar with this small Basilica of San Sylvestro, from the many marriages which have taken place there.
En route to San Sylvestro we visited the first of our Holy Doors, that of the Basilica of St Mary Major where on August 5 each year a solemn celebration recalls the miracle of the snows.
After a very comfortable night’s rest in San Sylvestro, we crossed the Tiber on foot for 7 Via della Conciliazione, where our training commenced.
Here we were addressed by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, flanked on either side by his secretary Fr Francesco – a very joyful, enthusiastic young priest – and the infamous ‘Charly’, who had overall responsibility for the security of the Pope.
The archbishop gave us an inspirational talk on the significance of the Year of Mercy.
Armed with our photo ID, yellow cap and yellow bib (tabard), we set off for our accommodation in the ‘4 star’ Casarma di Centrocelli – the Airforce Base, to you and us.
We now, at last, learned the significance of our Catechism Confirmation answer – ‘Soldiers of Christ’. Security in the Airforce Base was very strict. We experienced delays and protocols on entry and exit. Our shared rooms were basic but comfortable.
We were pleasantly surprised to see that each room had the John Paul II cross on the wall. The ‘breakfast’ was a revelation, second only to ‘dinner’; frugal springs to mind. We were, after all, on pilgrimage and not in the Ritz!
Day one found us rising at 5am. Fortified by our ‘soldier’s’ breakfast of a croissant and orange juice, we made our way to the metro and boarded for the Lepanto stop near the Vatican. Very large crowds were already gathering as Pope Francis was to canonise eight people.
We were directed to St Peter’s Square to man the security scanners, which resemble those of the airport with shouts of please remove the following “orologio, chiavi, cintura, portafoglio, monete” etc., as thousands poured into St Peter’s Square.
Mass with Pope Francis began at 10am. The voices of the heavenly choirs echoed through the square to the musical setting of the Misse De Angelis. It brought us back to our youth and the High Masses in Ireland.
We were then hastily summoned by ‘Charly’ up to the steps of St Peters to help form a cordon so that Pope Francis could pass smoothly through the aisles, to be greeted by the thousands of pilgrims from the four corners of the world.
It was an emotional experience to be so close to the Holy Father and to see his interaction with the pilgrims, while all the time witnessing to the ‘joy of the Gospel’ with his wonderfully broad smile.
Another duty was to lead groups of pilgrims, on the last leg of their pilgrimage, through the Holy Door (Porta Sancta), up the centre aisle of the Basilica to the Tomb of St Peter. We journeyed with them carrying their intentions and those of the many people at home, the many who were unable to be there to make this pilgrimage.
We were struck by the reverence of the people as they prayerfully made their way slowly up the pilgrim path to the Holy Door, all the time praising God in song and words. This all took place amid the hustle and bustle of the city – a sight to behold. God is surely in the “bits and pieces” of everyday life.
Even though we had a busy schedule we still found time to visit the sights in Rome. One of our very pleasant afternoons was spent in the company of our very own, Fr Tom Norris in the Irish College, where we sampled some Irish hospitality, i.e. the céad míle failte and a cup of tea.
We made our own pilgrimage to each of the four basilicas in Rome: St John Lateran, St Mary Major, St Paul outside the Walls and St Peter’s.
We were staggered by the sheer numbers of pilgrims prayerfully making their Confessions, spending quiet time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and lighting candles.
We returned home after our week of service with faith-filled energy, commitment and a heightened awareness of the richness of God’s love and mercy for each of us. Such was our enthusiasm for the experience that we responded immediately to the Holy Father’s invitation to return to Rome on November 12 to celebrate the work of the volunteers.
We were honoured to have been mentioned and we were surprised to be told that we were the only three people who volunteered from Ireland during the Year of Mercy. Following our final pilgrimage through the Holy Door, led by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, we attended a special Mass for the volunteers.
We were then invited to a wonderful reception, after which we were all presented with a ceramic plaque depicting the symbol of the Year of Mercy, ‘Merciful like the Father’.