As the time drew near to making the pilgrimage to Rome I was aware of not only a greater sense of anticipation but a deepening sense of significance.
On arriving in Rome and walking a clerical kilometre (ask my fellow pilgrims about that), we paused just before crossing the Ponto Emanuele. The heart of the City of Rome, with most of its ancient ruins, are on one side of the River Tiber with St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican city on the other. Although St Peter’s is just within the old city walls, the crossing of the Tiber was a clear deliberate act of the will. This had been the goal, our journeys end, not only for the last 24 hours’ travelling but for many of us, spiritually, a journey that has taken years.
That crossing of the river felt as if it also had another meaning too, especially as we were preparing to enter the season of Lent. Leaving the centre of the city behind felt like leaving something of the kingdom of this world behind, with its many appealing attractions. This passing over or via water has strong resonance with scriptural images such as Noah’s Ark, the Exodus crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan and of course our very own baptisms. Each image marks a journey from death to life from the kingdom of this world to God’s kingdom.
Nothing can really prepare you for what becomes a sensory overload when you first step inside the doors of St Peter’s Basilica: it’s too vast, too grand and too overwhelming. I experienced confusion. How could I connect with all this? I was trying to find the words to properly make sense of it all. All this was tumbling about in my mind as I made my way into the sacrament chapel. As I knelt among all that splendour I fixed my gaze upon the Blessed Sacrament, the host was held in a rather simple monstrance, I began to realise that this sacramental presence was the key to my understanding. If I kept my eyes on Jesus then, and only then, could I begin to make sense, not only of the vastness of the Basilica, but also the reason for my journey here.
It began to become clear to me that St Peter’s was not so much an alternate reality; there was something familiar but different about it all at the same time. I realised that what I was seeing was an attempt to represent, not a vanquished world, but a world redeemed – made new, whole and healed. A world where heaven and earth meet and the will of the Father might be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The splendour was also made possible because of the number of the faithful that over the years have brought gifts as an act of praise and worship. It is inevitable that the place of the tomb of Saint Peter, the mother cathedral for over a billion Catholics, would attract pilgrims with their offerings for God in thanksgiving for the ministry of the Apostles and in particular Peter. The Ordinariate in its turn brought a few little gifts of its own. We offered choral evensong at St Maria Travestere and after celebrating mass at St Joseph’s Altar in St Peter’s we gathered at the tomb of Peter and said the General Thanksgiving. I was reminded of the first and last verses of the famous J. Monsell’s hymn:
O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Bow down before him, his glory proclaim;
With gold of obedience, and incense of lowliness,
Kneel and adore him, the Lord is his Name!
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