For Maria Shantharam, experiencing the site of Vatican City – The Eternal City – with its sea of travertine paving, towering colonnades and angelic sculptures, was like taking a trip in a time machine. “It was like stepping into an early civilisation. All of our histories came rushing to my mind,” she says. “I immediately felt peace within me.”
That moment sparked the beginning of a physical, cultural and spiritual journey discovering the many treasures of Maria’s Catholic heritage. “My family began teaching me about my faith from the day I was born,” she explains. “Walking into St Peter’s Square, I felt the freedom to explore all that I was taught to believe. Like I had the chance to ask myself what I really wanted to believe.”
Away from the crowds in the piazza, Maria’s pilgrim group explored St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, marvelling at frescos, sculptures and religious relics that highlight the rich, long history of the Catholic faith.
For Gerald McCormack, the size of these historic structures and the sheer volume of artworks and artefacts within them was staggering. “The history of the place, its age, and the magnificence of what was all there moved me the most,” he says. “When we first landed in Italy, our guide more or less said the building we were looking at was three or four hundred years old, which to them was fairly new. Then you think of Australia, which is just a couple of hundred years old and our buildings get knocked down and replaced after a few decades. Such a difference.”
Seeing Michelangelo’s famous ceiling in the Sistine Chapel was a highlight. “I couldn’t quite believe how a person who claimed that he wasn’t an artist could get up there and paint that ceiling and create such wonderful work,” He says. “I’m multi-colour blind, so things can sort of blend in together and it can be hard to appreciate what is there. But that chapel was marvellous.”
God was my map and I had to use all five senses to find everything He had for me.
So too, was the opportunity to see the Holy Father host the General Audience. “The feeling that here I was in the Vatican at long last, and seeing the Pope stands out in my memory.”
Having a local guide and spiritual chaplain unpacking the historical and spiritual significance of each site made a big impact on Gerald’s pilgrim experience. “I wouldn’t have done it on my own – I couldn’t have. I would have turned north instead of south, east instead of west, and would have been confused continually,” he laughs.
From Rome, pilgrims travelled south to explore the ancient ruins of Pompeii, then down the Amalfi Coast to soak in the sweet, Mediterranean sea breeze and horizon, before arriving in Assisi. Here, Maria was reminded of her favourite line from one of the first prayers she learnt as a child, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”
While celebrating a private Mass in the candlelit stone crypt where the tomb of St Francis lies, Maria cried hot, heavy tears. “It was the loneliness of missing those who’ve departed us, thinking if only they were there to see this too,” she explains. “My heart poured out an unexplainable feeling, a moment that can be defined by me but not with words.”
Those intense emotions were tempered with the peace she found while retreating in the shady greenery in Eremo Delle Caceri, the forest oasis where St Francis was known to have spent time in prayer and contemplation.
Inside the Basilica of St Clare Maria, knelt before the original crucifix from which Jesus spoke to St Francis, telling him to repair His Church. “It was as if I was floating on a cloud,” Maria says. “I thank God for giving me the opportunity to witness this and enjoy such a blessing.”
From Assisi, the pilgrims travelled to the artistic capital of Florence. Maria was awestruck at every turn – from the gelato on the cobblestone streets and the sunset on the terracotta skyline to the intricate paintings and sculptures inside the Duomo.
“I felt like I was in a movie. I was overwhelmed by the beauty, the people, the culture, everything,” she says. “The narrow streets, the brick foundations, the taste of the food and the drink, everyone’s laughter and expression, the atmosphere… I was just so inspired. There was so much to see and discover. Like God was my map and I had to use all five senses to find everything He had for me.”
I thank God for giving me the opportunity to witness this and enjoy such a blessing.