The Banstead 5 Pilgrimage 2004

Rome, Assisi and Venice

Andrea and I try to make the B5 Pilgrimages a combination of visits to holy places that are connected with Christians of the past who have struggled, as we do, to keep the Faith , and may have received the title “saint”, with the Christians who live in those places today. This plan worked very well and the Holy Spirit gave us plenty of opportunities to meet the local Christians and often took us by surprise.

Pilgrimage 2004 - St. Peter's Square - Papal Blessing
St. Peter's Square Papal Blessing

35 of us arrived in our hotel in Vatican City on Saturday, 29th.May, after unpacking I said, “Let’s go for a stroll and say our evening prayers in S.Peter’s Square before supper.” There were crowds of people about. We make a gathering in the colonnade. I got up to start the prayers and there was a sudden fanfare, the crowds started shouting and waving red flags. Someone was being carried in to a canopied podium on a golden throne. “It can’t be ?” “It is !” At the very same place that Jesus’ disciple the Apostle Peter was martyred was his successor – Pope John Paul 2- who had come to lead the prayers for the Vigil of Pentecost. We couldn’t have had a more dramatic combination of saints of the past and Christians of today ! We had a Papal Blessing for our Pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage 2005 - Chapel at Catacombs
Chapel at Catacombs of Priscilla

The next day, Pentecost Sunday, we were in the Roman catacombs being shown around the tunnels and tombs by a delightful American nun Sister Martha. “I’ve only been a nun for three years. I wanted to give my life to prayer. I’ve ended up looking after this catacomb museum and hardly have time for Vespers!” (a bit like her name sake). She brought us up out of the dark passages into an early Christian chapel complete with its 2,000 year old altar all laid out for our Eucharist. We could feel the prayers of the holy women and men who had worshipped there down the ages.

Our next holy site was the great church of S.Paul’s Without The Walls – the place where S.Paul is buried. We were allowed to sit next to his tomb with a vast 5th.century apse full of mosaics of Jesus in majesty surrounded by his Apostles above our heads as we sang, “For all the saints.” We did many other things in Rome – visiting the Forum, palaces, ancient gardens and little churches. We were given a marvellous English afternoon tea with fresh scones baked by the Bishop’s wife at the Anglican Centre. Bishop John works as the leader of this ecumenical Centre to welcome pilgrims of all denominations and to keep in close touch with the Roman Catholic Church. The Centre is housed in a 15th century Renaissance palace that belongs to an Italian princess and her English husband. They met when he, as an English soldier liberating Rome was billeted in the palace. Our dinner that night was in a restaurant run by nuns who sang to us.

Holy Communion on the terrace at Greccio
Holy Communion at Greccio

Then we were off to find S.Francis. First to see the little cave at Greccio in the hills of central Italy where he was inspired to make a Christmas scene and thereby invented for us the Christmas Crib. The monastery was tiny clinging to a wooded cliff overlooking a beautiful valley. We had planned, with a friendly Chinese Friar, to have our Eucharist in the modern chapel but it was being used by American pilgrims, so in good Franciscan style we improvised. I got out my primitive communion set and we celebrated Holy Communion on the openair terrace overlooking the valley, in the glad company of the trees, the running stream and the birds. These were our companions as we sang Francis’ Canticle of the Creation, “All creatures of our God and King.”

Pilgrimage 2005 - The Pilgrims at Greccio
The Pilgrims at Greccio

Then on to Los Angeles, the village below Assisi for our hotel and a visit to the little church where Francis set up his first community of friars. This remained the main centre of preaching and care of the poor throughout his life and this is where he received God’s call to offer the ministry of penance and is where he died. Imagine our amazement as we entered a vast white church to find his little church sitting under the dome. His little church could hold about 12 people and was full of holiness. Outside in the square we watched a priest playing football with his youth club and some of us bought books from the Franciscan bookshop.

Assisi is a medieval town built part way up a mountain. As we stopped outside S.Clare’s Church to listen to our guide, I met an American nun,Sister Rosina, who runs a pilgrim hostel and she explained the work of the Assisi Christians for the poor and homeless of the area.

St. Francis Basilica
St. Francis Basilica Assisi

Members of the Third Order (lay members of the Franciscan movement) opened their chapel for our morning service and we sang the popular hymn based on Francis’ prayer, “Make me a channel of your peace.” At the great Basilica of S.Francis we had a special guided explanation of the famous Giotto frescoes that tell the story of his life. After lunch some of us walked down through the olive groves to the little church of S.Damien. This is where Francis was converted to become a servant of Jesus as he knelt in prayer before the crucifix in this ruined church and heard the voice of Jesus, “Francis rebuild my church.” (It is a copy of this cross that hangs in the Open Door Café). S.Damien’s was full of young people at their prayers and children scampering about. I was impressed at how many young people we saw throughout our journey taking Christianity seriously.


In Ravenna our local guide, who was fascinated by our pilgrim shells, helped us to understand some of the stunning Christian mosaics of the many ancient churches and baptisteries. The sun shone for our boat ride through the lagoon to the water city of Venice. Our guide whisked us through the crowds in S.Mark’s Square for a long look at the mosaics that fill the great basilica. The Pentecost dome was especially impressive. In the centre was the Holy Trinity – a dove sitting on a book which rested on a throne – then red streamers went down to the twelve Apostles sitting on their thrones. Beneath them were pairs of men, with the names of the peoples mentioned on the first Day of Pentecost, one with a beard one without, symbolising the passing on of the Faith from one generation to another. Finally four great angels, holding up the dome, held out their hands blessing us below with the Christian message.

We deserved our swim in the hotel pool, but alas, nobody had a rubber hat. Barbara came to our rescue and we all shared hers !

We gave thanks to S.Antony, at his great shrine church in Padua, for answering our prayers when we loose things. Antony , a scholar and great preacher, joined Francis and helped forward the Franciscan reform of the Church. We were drenched as we waited for our booked time to see the newly restored Giotto frescoes at the Scrovegni chapel but it was worth it. It was the quickest 15 minutes I’ve ever had. Seeing the Kiss of Judas and other famous scenes was like meeting relations for the first time.

Our pilgrimage was completed by attending the Sunday masses at S.Mark’s Venice. There we were again, sitting under those great domes, now filled with gorgeous music, first from the resident choir, then a visiting choir from Texas.

Christian pilgrimages are all about Christians visiting other Christians of the past and present. We certainly did an immense amount of this and we have much more to tell you. Be sure, your guardian angels are always about you on the pilgrim journey – as Andrea and I walked the back streets of Venice before coming home we bumped into friends from North Devon. Jeremy had been a pilgrim with me to the Holy Land in 1988. “O, David, you’re wearing your pilgrim shell. I’ve still got mine!” Where next ?

David and Andrea Chance Top