I wasn’t able to attend the prayer vigil in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore before the canonisation of John Henry Newman in Rome as our – very exhausted – Catholic Herald Newman pilgrim group found ourselves blocked by Vatican guards from leaving the roped-off area of the sacristy of St Peter’s Basilica.
The reason we were led through to the sacristy is that that was where our “pilgrim passports” were given their final stamp after we had completed the last 70 miles of the Via Francigena, the ancient route that winds through France, Switzerland and Italy.
The canonisation Mass was exceptionally moving, with a huge banner portrait of Newman hanging from the façade of St Peter’s, flanked by four other saints. I was grateful to Sandy Loder – our ex-Guards officer guide and founder of Peak Dynamics – for getting up at 6am to bag a row of seats, German hotel pool-style, a few rows from the front. He had not been allowed into the Vatican to have his passport stamped as his rucksack had contained two rather jagged hunting knives (for foraging figs and cutting up cheese and salami for our picnics).
I was also grateful that I had shaved – for the first time in a week – and was wearing a dark linen suit and a tie, as my phone rang with my father on the line. “You were on the television,” he said. “The cameras cut from Prince Charles with the VIPs straight to you and then lingered on you and [my wife] Laura standing up at the front of the crowd.”
My theory is that we were picked out of the 20,000-strong congregation because we were almost the only people near the front who weren’t waving football team-like banners or flags, or holding up our mobiles in some weird iPhone salute. As we had walked into the square at 7.30 am, various street vendors had tried to sell us selfie sticks for one euro.
When we had pushed our way through the madding crowd of tourists packed into St Peter’s the evening before, I was saddened at how everybody was walking around in a frenzy of mobile phone worship. Nobody was praying. I was secretly relieved when the guard in the sacristy pointed to our phones and said we were not allowed to use them. But the rest of St Peter’s was a cathedral of selfie-dom, and it has ruined the religious experience.
Still, that didn’t stop us from having a group pilgrim photo standing just outside the sacristy by the marble roll call of all the popes from St Peter.
My sources tell me that the Pope clearly enjoyed the canonisation Mass: he hugged Mgr Guido Marini, the papal master of ceremonies, at the end and kissed him on both cheeks. The Prince of Wales also reportedly wowed the Pope and, later, other Catholic luminaries at the reception at the Pontificio Collegio Urbano. He praised the valuable contribution of Catholics to British life.
The only slight snag was that the article he had written for L’Osservatore Romano was so good that Fr Ignatius Harrison – who introduced HRH – said he had to lay aside his own speech as Prince Charles had usurped his own words with his eloquent praise of Newman.
I also heard that when the London Oratory Schola sang for Benedict XVI at his residence, the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, on Saturday, the eyes of the Pope Emeritus were filled with tears.
Our walk to the Vatican was the Herald’s first such venture, and we plan to offer a programme of around four such walks a year, ranging from the four-day St Cuthbert’s Way in Cumbria, which ends up in Lindisfarne, to the two-day Abbesses’ Way in Shropshire.
Such walks offer a chance for reflection, switching off one’s phone and living in the present. I also like the fact that each morning we were handed an itinerary by Sandy Loder and – like obedient monks – never questioned the route or the pace. I found not having to make any decisions – other than occasionally pointing towards a promising-looking trattoria around lunch time – strangely liberating.
As we headed off on the Via Cassia towards the fortified ancient town of Viterbo, it felt extraordinary to march in the hot October sun towards the Eternal City along the cobbled road (no cars allowed) that legionaries, pilgrims and slaves would have walked some 2,000 years ago.
I was surprised as to how few fellow pilgrims we encountered. Maybe a dozen in five days. Perhaps that was why there so few places to eat or buy anything.
A highlight was walking along the Appian Way into Rome. I liked that the address is still popular with wealthy Romans today, except that instead of senators having centurions guarding their luxurious villas – the smartest were close to the old Roman horse racing track – they now have electronic security gates and CCTV cameras. But the names of many of the villas are still the same as 2,000 years ago, which gave our walk a strange sense of tempus fugit.
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