The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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June 30, 2000 Issue
Bishop Banks' Corner

Bishop Robert J. Banks
Bishop Robert J. Banks

Central part of the Eternal City

Diocesan pilgrimage to Rome gives a real sense of the unity of our faith

By Bishop Robert Banks

"This is a pilgrimage, not a vacation. On a pilgrimage, there is no complaining."

That was the understanding and commitment of the almost 200 pilgrims who took off for Rome two weeks ago on five different flights.

The commitment was quickly put to a test for the 16 pilgrims who were traveling with me. After our hour's flight to Detroit, we learned that the next flight to Newark was cancelled. Then we found out that there was no possibility of getting all our people on a flight to Rome for almost two days. To top that off, the airline put us up at a motel that will be long remembered, but not for the luxury accommodations. The result of all this was that a dozen broken-hearted pilgrims had to return to Green Bay rather than continue on.

I was more than impressed by the spirit in which the disappointed pilgrims put up with all the aggravation. The Lord undoubtedly gave them double credit for the pilgrimage, even though they never made it to Rome.

There was one seat available the next day, and everyone agreed that I should be the one to get to Rome. The whole pilgrimage schedule was built around the Masses that I would be celebrating at the various basilicas.

So I joined the pilgrims in Rome just in time to be at St. Peter's for the Pope's noonday blessing on Sunday. After the blessing, we headed over to St. Mary Major Basilica for Mass. It was impressive to see all our Green Bay pilgrims filling the large chapel where the Romans keep the picture of Mary that is the most important for them.

On Monday, we went to the American church in Rome, St. Susanna's, for what was one of the highlights of the pilgrimage. The rector of the church laid out for us the fascinating history of the church. While the present building is only several centuries old, there has been a church on that spot since the year 280. The location marked the home of the martyr, Susanna. Mass was probably celebrated there even before 280 since the early Christians had to gather in homes for Mass. They were not allowed to have churches then. Directly below today's altar, they have uncovered the floor of the kitchen and dining room where Mass was most likely celebrated and where Susanna and her family probably discussed their decision to die for the Faith.

We then had an opportunity for everyone to go to Confession and that was followed with Mass.

Next came the only incident in the pilgrimage that might have violated the commitment not to complain.

After Mass, a dozen or so of us, mostly diocesan staff members and spouses, gathered for lunch at a local restaurant. The lunch took longer than expected so we missed out on the guided walking tour scheduled for that afternoon. I graciously offered to act as guide for the group and I led them to all the places they would otherwise have missed, even adding a stop at my alma mater, the old North American College. In return for this kindness, the group thereafter referred to the tour as a "forced march," just because the pace was a little faster than they liked.

Tuesday was a free day, and most of the group headed for Assisi where Fr. Mark VanderSteeg, who had just completed his graduate studies in Rome and Jerusalem, celebrated Mass.

On Wednesday, we had Mass together at a local church and then headed to St. Peter's Square for the audience with Pope John Paul II. Our group had an excellent location for the audience and four of our group were among those who had an opportunity to greet the Pope personally.

Thursday morning we were privileged to celebrate Mass together at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter's Basilica. It was a special moment for me since it was at that altar that I celebrated my first Mass after Ordination some 47 years ago. Msgr. Frank Dewane, our diocesan priest who works in Rome for the Holy See, helped to arrange that Mass and all the others throughout our stay.

In the afternoon, we visited St. Paul's Basilica and were given a prayerful tour of one of the catacombs by a "retired" Salesian priest from the United States. Then it was off to a restaurant so our entire group could have a final and thank-filled celebration of a great pilgrimage.

I think all who were with us for the week would agree that they were truly on a pilgrimage and not just a tour of Rome. The Mass each day was central; the passage through the Holy Door at each of the basilica's was a special spiritual moment; prayer and the Sacrament of Reconciliation kept us mindful of what we were about; and there was a real spirit of friendliness and helpfulness among the pilgrims.

And Rome is a good place for a pilgrimage. Not only is it where Ss. Peter and Paul gave their lives for the Faith, it is also where so many other saints and martyrs lived and died. As one of the pilgrims mentioned to me, you come away with a vivid sense of the history of the Church, of how many Christians over the centuries gave their lives for the Faith.

You also get a better sense of the universality of the Church. On the same day that we celebrated Mass at St. Peter's, there was just ahead of us a bishop and several priests from Angola in Africa. In every basilica, the confessionals had signs indicating the several languages in which confession could be heard. At the audience with the Pope, I sat next to a bishop from Japan and earlier had chatted with a bishop from Ireland.

And, of course, Rome is where the present Successor of St. Peter carries on so courageously his special ministry of "presiding over the Church in love."

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