I recently returned from a young adult pilgrimage to Italy with the Apostles of the Interior Life in celebration of the 25th anniversary of their founding in Rome (I was given a waiver since I’m no longer a young adult.) While I had lived in Italy for several months and had visited it a few other times, this pilgrimage was especially meaningful. Like Dante in the opening line of his great pilgrimage, the “Divine Comedy,” I found myself “midway upon the journey of (my) life,” having just turned 39.
After several days, I soon began to see that being immersed in the physical locations of pilgrimage, and even viewing the physical remains of the saints, brought home that they, just like me, had to choose the good each and every day, no matter what happened. And yet, the pilgrimage of life is not walked alone, for all of these saints are alive in the Body of Christ, offering support and encouragement.
Before speaking about this physicality, it’s important to know that in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy there is an ancient practice of displaying the bodies and bones of the saints for the purpose of veneration and remembrance. In the United States, largely formed by the philosophies and practices of post-Enlightenment Protestantism, this practice of veneration might seem strange. The purpose of this little essay is not so much to explain the reasons the ancient apostolic churches do this, but to reveal its effect on me in my pilgrimage. However, for those wanting to know more about the history of this veneration, especially in the very early Church, this link is quite good: https://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/RELICS.HTM.
There is something to be said about walking in the footsteps of the saints, but it is something else entirely to see them face to face. The picture above was taken at The Hermitage of St. Catherine on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. It was founded by a merchant named Alberto Besozzi of Arolo, who in the 12th century found himself in a violent storm while he was in a boat on Lake Maggiore. Seeing his situation was desperate, he vowed to God that, should he live, he would spend the rest of his life in solitude and prayer. His lifestyle soon attracted others, and a complex of buildings was built on the shore of the lake, including an atmospheric, frescoed church. Within that church, his body lies within a glass casket, dressed in the habit of a religious.
Standing before his remains, I looked upon the thin, desiccated lips that had, nearly 900 years ago, sputtered and gasped out his vow in the midst of the storm. His feet and his hands carried his work and his prayer in fidelity to his promise each day of his life. “He was a real man; he truly existed,” I thought. He had to face temptation and struggle, and he had to choose to be faithful to God every day.
This physicality of pilgrimage can reveal lessons and feed meditation in nearly every circumstance. On the last day of the group pilgrimage, I was able to help out by giving some commentary and history on such sights in Rome as the Coliseum, the Forum, and various churches. Standing near the Roman Forum, I said, “This is the very heart of ancient Rome. If we walked towards that arch you see, the Arch of Titus, you would find reliefs showing the Romans carrying away the riches of the Temple of Jerusalem after they sacked the city in AD 70. Their empire was the most powerful in the known world, powerful enough to spare the time, money, and men to utterly crush the last remnants of the Jewish rebellion at Masada. At the time, it was inconceivable that anything would bring the Roman Empire to its knees. And what do you see now?”
“Nothing…ruins,” they answered.
In my last 2 days of solo pilgrimage in Rome, I meditated on how soon earthly nations and empires crumble and that even the most powerful men fade into the past. Walking rather aimlessly towards the Tiber River, I happened to go into St. Agnes’s Church at Piazza Navona. The piazza is built on the former Stadium of Domitian, which was used for such events as footraces and gladiatorial combats. It was a smaller stadium, and seated perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 spectators. The arcades around the stadium were often used as brothels, and it was to one of these that the young St. Agnes was condemned in the reign of Diocletian for being a Christian. Preserved by God from being raped at the brothel, the exasperated Romans finally killed her by the sword.
I walked into her church and went into a side chapel. There, I was stunned to see the small, delicate skull of a girl of perhaps 12 years of age – St. Agnes. Her skull rested in a rectangular silver reliquary. At the center was a wreath of green enamel that recalled the evergreen wreaths that were often laid at the graves of virgin martyrs in the early Church. The wreath framed the clear, circular portal through which her little skull could be seen.
It was a moment of such tenderness, intimacy, and beauty. Her life and witness seemed to echo there with her mortal remains. This pure, brave girl, condemned by Rome to be murdered in obscurity before her life had even bloomed, was still alive, still known. Even though she died over 1,700 years ago, she was alive in the same Body of Christ as myself, and there did not seem to be any barrier of time or death to keep us from each other. In the presence of this “dead bone,” there was a torrent of life that would never fade into a lifeless, forgotten past.
Seeing this skull of a mere child who gave her life because of her faith, I meditated on the contrast of Agnes and the Empire that murdered her in the days that followed. When I was speaking to the pilgrims at the Forum, I said, “Yes, only the ruins of the Roman Empire remain. And yet, look at what is still alive and here today—the Church and the witness of the saints. This mighty empire, like all others, did not last. But Christ remains.”
The saints, even those who perished over a millennia ago, have a freshness, a newness that transcends the dust of the years to inspire us to imitation. It is this newness that I experienced in the ability of St. Agnes to transfix my heart and speak across the centuries, seeming to say, “You can do this! I will pray for you and walk with you the rest of your pilgrimage.”