This pilgrimage to Rome – the Eternal City – was to have a special significance to those of us from Ryde. Our beloved Church of St. Mary’s; (or to give it the correct dedication – Church of the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary); is located in Ryde High Street thanks to the generosity of an earlier pilgrim to Rome; namely, Elizabeth, Countess of Clare. She went on the grand tour of Europe in 1841; as was the fashion and trend of the day for the aristocracy and gentry. Once the railways began to join up the capitals and major cities of Europe, such journeys for the rich and wealthy became more common, and they exposed the Catholic faith and liturgy to many English Protestants, who had previously no experience of the Mass and Catholic devotion. Consequently, a significant number became Catholics; some, like the Countess of Clare, embraced their new found Faith in the Eternal City itself. Consequently, they returned to England often to receive hostility and animosity from family and friends.
The Countess was a determined and a formidable character, and within five years of her conversion in Rome, she had built and endowed St. Mary’s in Ryde, despite local Protestant opposition.
If you look at the beautiful stained glass windows on the south side of the church, you will notice one that depicts St. Wilfrid, Patron of the Isle of Wight. In the bottom glass panel one can see St. Wilfrid arriving on the Island with his Benedictine monks in A.D. 686. He is seeking permission from Caedwalla, King of Wessex, to preach the gospel message. Not only did Caedwalla eventually become a Catholic, but he resigned as King, in favour of his brother, and went on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he died and was buried in St. Peter’s. Wilfrid also was a great Roman pilgrim, at a time when traveling such long distances was a dangerous and hazardous endeavour. His last pilgrimage was undertaken when he was seventy years old!
Like those before us, who have travelled to the Eternal City, we journeyed in the hope that our pilgrimage would be filled with many graces and blessings, as we make our way around the many ancient churches and shrines of the city, at this significant time; the start of the Year of Faith. Our pilgrimage was a witness to our Catholic Faith both as individuals and as a group. Therefore it mirrors our earthly pilgrimage through life to our eternal home in heaven.
At the heart of any pilgrimage is the Mass. This, in itself, is a means of bearing witness to our Catholic Faith and we were privileged to attend Mass, on three occasions, in St. Peter’s; remembering that St. Wilfrid, King Caedwalla, the Countess of Clare and many others from the Island, had done the same before us.
Wednesday is traditionally the day of the General Audience with His Holiness, Pope Benedict. The pope addressed the crowds in St. Peter’s Square in several languages. Under the rays of perfect Roman sunlight, the Pope’s message was quite simple: ” ……. in this Year of Faith it is important that we open our hearts and minds to the Word of God, that we here in the gospels ….”
The focal point in St. Peter’s Square is the obelisk, which was originally brought to Rome from Heliopolis by the Emperor Caligula. Pope Sixtus V had it restored and re-positioned in the Piazza.
In the afternoon we visited the Church of Sancta Maria sopra Minerva. This unique church, with its aesthetically pleasing mixture of both gothic and baroque architecture, was important to those of us from Ryde. It was here that the Countess of Clare; foundress of St. Mary’s; attended High Mass for her 75th birthday on the Feast of the Annunciation 1868 during her second and final visit to Rome. She had a strong devotion to the Dominican Order and this Dominican church is a great centre of devotion to Our Lady in Rome. It stands on the site of a temple built by the Emperor Pompey, about A.D. 100, to honour the goddess Minerva. It was also the venue for some of the papal conclaves in the 15th century. It is not without an English connection as in 1679 it became the titular Church of Cardinal Philip Thomas Howard and today it is Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s titular Roman Church. Beneath the High Altar lies the body of the Dominican (3rd Order) nun, St. Catherine of Siena, who died nearby in 1380. (There is a corbel figure-head of St. Catherine above a nave pillar in St. Mary’s, Ryde).
A short distance away is the Pantheon; the best preserved ancient building in Rome. Its official name is the Pantheon Church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs. It has a dramatic imposing interior with Corinthian columns supporting the dome. As we entered the church, Fr. Glaysher led the midday Angelus. There are no windows but light is provided by a nine metre oculus which also let in the rain. The holes in the marble floor quickly drain the water. The Italian king, Victor Emmanuel, and the artist Raphael are buried here.
Afterwards some of us went to visit the Spanish Steps; named after a former Spanish ambassador to the Vatican. This is a favourite meeting place for young romantics! Hence, the necessity for us to pay a visit! Similar to the Spanish steps, as a meeting place, is the Trevi Fountain; an amazing 18th century fountain in the form of a triumphal arch, dominated by the figure of Neptune riding on a seashell drawn by winged sea horses.
Thursday was the birthday of Fr. Glaysher. He was particularly delighted that on this day to be able to offer Mass in St. Peter’s at the tomb of Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) for the Feast of Sts. Chrysanthus and Daria (3rd century martyrs). It was particularly appropriate at the start of the Year of Faith that Father should offer the Mass of Pope John XXIII on his tomb; as it was this pope who presided at the opening of the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago.
In the afternoon we visited the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. This is significant for us from Ryde as it was on the Feast of the Birthday of Our Blessed Lady (Monday 8th September) 1841, that the Countess of Clare entered the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, having received the Gift of Faith the previous day in St. Peter’s Basilica. With the Countess was Fr. William Hunt (who was later to become Provost of the Diocese of Westminster) and a young seminarian at the English College, Thomas Grant. The Countess informed Thomas Grant that she would build a church in Ryde and she she said to him: “……..I am sure that you will one day become bishop, and I will invite you to consecrate the church ….” Neither of them was to realize, at the time, that this remark would come to fruition. Thomas Grant, in fact, became the first Bishop of Southwark when the Catholic Hierarchy was restored in England in 1850. Thomas Grant gave the Countess a rosary in remembrance of her becoming a member of the One True Faith, and it was here that she used the rosary for the first time. (We have this rosary still in St. Mary’s, Ryde).
By co-incidence it was Bishop Thomas Grant who consecrated St. Mary’s in 1863. Hence, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of this event in six months time.
Fr. Glaysher spoke to the group about St. Pope Pius V, the Dominican Pope (1566-72), buried here in this basilica. He is famous for two events. He excommunicated Elizabeth I in 1570; and he codified the Mass (now known as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass) and permitted its use “in perpetuity”.
The next scheduled visit is to the Basilica of St. John Lateran. This is the Pope’s Cathedral. The inscription on the facade proclaims “Most Holy Lateran Church, Mother and Mistress of all the Churches of the City and the World”. Traditionally the pope lived at St. John Lateran. It was largely due to political changes that the pope was restricted to the small area known as Vatican City State. The importance of St. John Lateran from eccesiological point of view is due to its status as the church where the Bishop of Rome has his chair as the successor of the apostle Peter. Therefore on 7th May 2005 Pope Benedict officially took possession of this basilica, – his cathedral church.
A short distance away are the Scalla steps (the holy steps). These 39 steps are reputed to have come from the house of Pontius Pilate and to have been climbed by Jesus after he had been scourged at the pillar. Traditionally therefore pilgrims ascend these steps on their knees. Many famous saints and princes of the Church have followed this path of Christ prior to His Crucifixion on their knees. Martin Luther was reputed to have reached half-way and decided to give up!
After this we visited the 12th century San Clemente church. An ancient stairway leads underground to a maze of corridors and chambers, believed to be the home of St. Clement himself, third successor of St. Peter as Pope. He was martyred by Hadrian in A.D. 88. Also here is the earliest religious structure on the site, believed to be a 2nd century pagan temple.
Some of us then accompanied Fr. Glaysher on a walk to see the Roman Forum. This was once a place of unprecedented splendour with white marble and golden roofs of the Roman law courts, temples and market halls.
At dinner in the evening, John Ochai, gave a brief speech and made a presentation to Father, on the occasion of his birthday. He thanked him for his organization of this pilgrimage and his concern for the spiritual nourishment, not only of us pilgrims, but of the faithful in Ryde.
On Friday Mass (E.F.) in St. Peter’s was at the altar of Pope St. Pius X (1903-1914) for the Feast of St. Evaristus (early 2nd century pope and martyr). Pius X is the only canonized pope in recent times and is probably best known for lowering the age at which children may receive Holy Communion.
Today we visited the Benedictine Basilica of St. Paul-outside-the-walls. Constantine built a 4th century basilica on this site. It is Rome’s largest church after St. Peter’s. There is a peaceful 13th century cloister and a Romanesque paschal candlestick of the same period. Both survived the 19th century fire. The main features of the basilica are the 86 Venetian marble columns and the mosaic medallions which depict all the popes from St. Peter to the present day. The burial place of St. Paul is reputed to be under the high altar. St. Ignatius Loyola and his companions made their first vows in front of the 12th century mosaic of Our Lady – now kept in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
This Basilica is of particular interest to us from Ryde, familiar with the Benedictine abbeys at Quarr and St. Cecilia’s. It was here that Dom Prosper Gueranger made his monastic profession. This took place in the sacristy when it was in use as a temporary church after the fire. It was Dom Gueranger who restored monastic life at Solesmes. His writings on liturgy and ecclesiology left a rich legacy for the Church, which those of us from Ryde have the good fortune to witness at our two Benedictine abbeys. It was particularly apt that we should visit this basilica just two weeks after we celebrated the centenary of Quarr Abbey.
At noon Fr. Glaysher led the Angelus and gave us a talk on the Reformation and the changes that took place in the liturgy under the different Tudor monarchs.
We had hoped to visit the Catacombs, but time prevented this. The catacombes were the early Christian burial places and they also served as a clandestine meeting place until the marauding barbarians started to ransack the place in the 5th century. The walls contained depictions and writings of the early Christians who suffered and died for the faith in the first few centuries. The catacombs were eventually abandoned by the Christians and almost forgotten until the 16th century when a farmer digging discovered a whole “world of the dead”.
In the afternoon we arrived at the Venerable English College; the oldest English institution outside of the British Isles. A tour of the college had been arranged by the English student for the Southwark Archdiocese, Philip Andrews; well known to some of us in Ryde. Mass (O.F.) was offered in the college chapel. In his sermon at Mass, Fr. Glaysher recalled the life and sacrifice which the martyrs from this college gave for their love of the Faith and their ardent desire to return to England, to offer the Mass for those of their fellow countrymen who had been starved of its spiritual nourishment in recent years. Afterwards, Philip gave us a tour of the college. It was founded by Cardinal William Allen in 1579. The college is simply steeped in history. Inscriptions on the walls record the names of those seminarians who suffered martyrdom for the Faith as they sought to bring the Mass and the Sacraments to the scattered Catholics in Protestant England. The wall paintings in the gallery above the college chapel vividly depict the gruesome sufferings of the martyrs. This was not for the faint-hearted. It reminded the seminarians of the painful ordeal that they faced if caught and sentenced when they returned to their native England. The students used to assemble in the chapel to sing the Te Deum when they received news of the martyrdom of one of their own. They glorified in martyrdom. There could be no better death than dying for Christ.
We briefly met the Rector, Mgr. Nicholas Hudson and the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, Mgr. Kieron Conry, who was in Rome for the Synod of Bishops. We reminded the bishop that he now has one of our former parish priests of Ryde, Fr. David Buckley, in his diocese.
This year marks the 650th anniversary of the college’s foundation, and they were eagerly awaiting news of an imminent visit by His Holiness Pope Benedict.
After dinner that evening some of the group went to the theatre.
On Saturday there was an early breakfast, as after Mass we were staying in St. Peter’s Basilica in order to avoid the long wait endured by those queuing later on. We were extremely fortunate to be able to have Mass (O.F.) in St. Peter’s for Our Lady’s Saturday at the tomb of St. Peter in the crypt. Whilst there we looked at the tombs of some of the popes and that of James (III), the Old Pretender and his two sons, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Cardinal Henry Stuart; the legitimate Kings of England and Scotland, who were supplanted by the Hanoverian succession. The Stuarts made their base-in-exile in Rome.
After Mass we surveyed the basilica; the focal point of which, is the high altar and the massive central dome above it, designed by Michelangelo. It was completed in 1590 by Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana. The bronze statue of St. Peter is impressive. We will find visitors queueing to kiss the foot of the first Pontiff in order to gain a Plenary Indulgence under the usual conditions. Nearby the Blessed Sacrament Chapel with perpetual adoration was the one calm and peaceful part of the great basilica.
The marble sculpture of Michelangelo’s Pieta (1496) is significant to us from Ryde, as it was said to be at this spot in 1841 that the Countess of Clare decided that she would become a Catholic as she recited the rosary whilst meditating on the image of Christ’s lifeless body lying in the arms of his Blessed Mother Mary and reflecting on the sadness and sorrow caused by the sins of men. It is providential that we have a similar statue of Our Lady of Sorrows in the back of St. Mary’s.
Some of us ascended the dome of the basilica, from where panoramic views of the city and the distant Roman countryside could be seen.
The rest of the day is given over to free time. Optional visit to Vatican Gardens, Museum and Sistine Chapel.
Gill and Peter walked to the Piazza Navona and after admiring its fountains, made a brief visit to the Church of Sant Agnese in Agone, built on the site of the martyrdom of St. Agnes and where her head may be venerated. One of the seven altars is dedicated to St. Cecilia and is dominated by a large bas-refief by Antonio Raggi (1662-66) depicting the death of St. Cecilia. The font where St. Frances of Rome (patron of the Benedictine oblates) was baptised is also to be found here.
Near the Piazza Navona is the Chiesa Nuova (New Church), built for St. Philip Neri, founder of the Oratorians and now housing his body in a chapel at the end of the left aisle. This church has a more ancient name, Santa Maria in Vallicella (literally a small valley in which pools had formed). It is believed that a church has been on this site at least since the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great (535-604) and was built by him.
Meeting up for the final time at the hotel, we said farewell to Gloria and Eddie, who were staying on to visit family and departed in three taxis for the airport at 6-30pm.
We return to England today after our pilgrimage, but we will not be asked to lay down our lives like those young priests, who set forth from the English College in penal times; but, like them, we are expected to spread the Faith by our Christian life and our adherence to the gospel message. We retain vivid memories of our pilgrimage which will remain for now (hopefully for evermore). For some of us these experiences fade and the significance of fragmentary written record or stray anecdote become lost with the passage of time. Hence the need to garner these recollections and produce a record for posterity, at the same time as satisfying the curiosity of others who, hopefully, will journey, as we did, to the Eternal City in the future.