On Tuesday, October 16, I began a memorable journey with about 200 pilgrims from the Diocese of Albany, New York to attend the canonization of the first Native American saint, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, who was born within the boundaries of our diocese in a place we now call Auriesville, New York. It was to be a week full of wonderful memories, great companionship and an uplifting of our spirits as we celebrated with our Native American sisters and brothers this great event.
We left the diocese from various locations and traveled to Rome by way of different airlines with the intention of gathering together as a group for special events including our daily liturgies and dinners. The group I traveled with flew from the Newark, New Jersey airport for a flight of about seven hours arriving in Rome early in the morning of the 17th (Rome time). We were then transported by motor coach (several to accommodate our large group) to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi. We concluded the day there with a celebration of Mass at the Basilica of St. Francis. All of our local liturgies were celebrated by our bishop, Bishop Howard Hubbard. The homilist on this occasion was Father James Mackey, a long time friend from my youth. Following Mass, we joined our group for dinner in Assisi.
The next day we spent in Assisi seeing the various sites and wandering its hilly streets. We celebrated Mass at Chiesa Santa Chiara - the Church of St. Clare, the young woman who gave up everything to begin a religious order of nuns who would follow the Franciscan rule. Our homilist on this occasion was Father John Bradley of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Albany. Our local guide, Paolo, was very informative as he walked us through Assisi, a journey which ended at the site of the Church of St. Mary of the Angels. Inside this church is the original small chapel which was one of the those Francis began to rebuild after he had heard the call from Christ to rebuild my Church - a call he would later realize would be the call to reform the Church of his day. We then left Assisi and stopped for dinner in the town of Orvieto on our way back to Rome.
On the third day - October 19 - we began our day at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. This church is the cathedral church of the pope as bishop of Rome (St. Peter's is his "cathedral" as bishop of the world). There, on the Feast of the North American martyrs - St. Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil and companions - I had the privilege of assisting at the liturgy and delivering the homily (which I will share at the end of this post). These martyrs met their death within our diocese at Auriesville, where ten years later a child would be born who within a few days would be canonized as the first Native American saint. I can tell you that it was a great honor and privilege to be able to break open the word on this feast and in this place.
Following the liturgy we went to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Following lunch, the group was given a tour of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. Since I had been there on a previous trip to Rome, I took the opportunity to pass on this and rest awhile. My arthritis caused me to be uncomfortable with the great deal of walking that is entailed on a trip like this. I went by myself with another pilgrim who was also bypassing the museum tour, to St. Peter's Basilica and then waited at our assigned meeting place to go to dinner.
The following day we traveled in the morning to the Catacombs of St. Sebastian where we got an opporunity to see where the early Christians had to meet during the persecutions of the early centuries and where they buried their dead. Following this we celebrated Mass at the Jesuit church in Rome, the Church of the Gesu. Our homilist for this occasion was Father Robert Hohenstein from Schenectady, New York. The group then went to view the Trevi Fountain - the famous place where legend has it that a coin tossed into the fountain will ensure another trip back to Rome. Another deacon and I broke off from the group at this point (the group went on to the Spanish Steps) and waited at the Piazza Navona where we relaxed over a delicious dish of gelato - the creamy Italian type of ice cream (which we obtained as often as we could while there). When the group arrived, we went to dinner to cap off the evening.
The day of the 21st - Sunday - was the crowning reason for which we had come to Rome - to celebrate the canonization of Kateri along with six others who were declared saints by Pope Benedict XVI. We are fortunate that one of the other saints was also from upstate New York - Saint Marianne Cope - a religious sister who worked among the lepers of Molokai and helped nurse the sainted leper - Father (Saint) Damien - and remained there before returning to her native area around Syracuse, New York. We had to arrive early at St. Peter's square to obtain good seats for the ceremony. Four of us were fortunate to be in the front right section facing the papal altar and there witnessed the canonization ceremony followed by the celebration of the liturgy by Pope Benedict. Our own Bishop Hubbard was one of the concelebrating bishops to join with the Holy Father at the Mass.
Following the Mass and ceremony, we were on our own for lunch. I took a few friends with me to a small restaurant close to St. Peter's where I had dined on my two previous trips to Rome - in 2000 and 2005. I went to lunch there again the following day; on all four occasions when I had eaten there (over a span of twelve years), I was served by the same waiter - Carlo. That is an interesting fact in itself.
Following the lunch, the group traveled to Castel Gandolfo, the location of the pope's summer residence. Since the main part of the village is at the top of a steep hill, I again declined the arduous walk. We concluded the day there with dinner by Lake Albano.
Our final full day in Rome began a little later (we were thankful that we did not have an early wake-up call) with a Mass of Thanksgiving for the canonization of Saint Kateri. We celebrated this at the Altar of the Chair (located just behind the main altar in St. Pater's Basilica) together with Native American groups from around the U.S. (there were several hundred in attendance). The Mass was celebrated by the Archbishop of Philadelphia - Most Rev. Charles Chaput - who is a Native American. Our own Bishop Howard Hubbard was the homilist and gave a wonderful homily that was appreciated by all present.
Our afternoon was on our own. I took the opportunity to do a little shopping and we finally gathered as a group for our farewell dinner at the Villa Via Licio Giorgieri. We faced an early wake-up call to arrive at the airport the next morning for our return to the United States. Unfortunately, our plane was delayed by almost three hours leaving Rome. We returned to Newark and then onto the Albany area where we arrived tired but fulfilled about 9 p.m.
This wonderful opporunity would not have been possible without the work and assistance of many people. My personal thanks to Father Michael Farano, the Vicar General of our diocese, who coordinated the trip and to our great bishop, Bishop Howard Hubbard for being such an inspiration to all of us and spending his time with us. Our bus group was also most forunate in the assistance of our bus guide - Cansu Celik - a lovely young woman from Turkey who made us feel most welcome and guided us through all the twists and turns of such a journey. Our bus driver - Andrea - was a wonder at how he could handle this large bus making turns on a dime on some very windy roads and narrow streets. May God bless them both.
And so we bid farewell to the Eternal City and returned to our homes and families - tired, as I said, but fulfilled. May Saint Kateri Tekakwitha continue to be an inspiration for us and intercede for us at the heavenly throne.
The following is the homily I shared with our pilgrims at the Basilica of St. John Lateran on the 19th:
It is an exciting time to be here in Rome - the center of our Catholic Christian faith. We see in these days a convergence of several important events and celebrations.
I had not realized it before but a few years ago I learned that the geographical center of our Diocese of Albany is a place we now call Auriesville. It was there in 1646 that Isaac Jogues and companions were martyred for the faith. Ten years later, a child was born there who this coming Sunday will be raised to the altar of sainthood - an event that has brought all of us here to celebrate.
Last week, the Holy Father and the world's bishops commemorated the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and inaugurated the Year of Faith. Also taking place in Rome at this time is the Synod of Bishops which will be looking at the "New Evangelization" - an effort to reach out to disaffected Catholics - those who have stopped practicing their faith for one reason or another.
Each of these events and celebrations speak to us as we gather here.
It was faith that drew the early missionaries to want ot bring the message of Christ to other lands in keeping with Jesus' challenge to his disciples: Go teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The martyrs we celebrate today were willing to give totally so that others might hear about Jesus. And as it has been said: The blood of the martyrs is the seed of faith. These holy men were witnesses for Christ.
We are called to do the same today: probably not by shedding our blood but in living lives that can show others that the message of Jesus is important and life-giving. As one of our men discerning the ministry of diaconate in our diocese recently wrote: Right now we are on the threshold of a critical time in our history. It is more important now, more than most any time in our history, for us Catholic Christians to practice our faith....We must be people of prayer, people of conviction, but most of all people of love.
In preparing for the Synod of Bishops, our Holy Father has said that there are two pillars to the New Evangelization: confession or witness, and charity. Blessed Kateri, whom we come to honor this weekend, showed both of these important facets of evangelization in her own life: she witnessed for her faith even though shunned by her own people, and gave of herself in acts of charity to others before her short life was ended.
The Holy Father, in his remarks at the opening of the Synod said: The saints are the true actors in evangelization in all its expressions. In a special way they are even pioneers and bringers of the new evangelization. He went on to say: Holiness is not confined by cultural, social, political or religious barriers. Its language, that of love and truth, is understandable to all people of good will and it draws them to Jesus Christ, the inexhaustible source of new life.
How do we witness today? By speaking out when the truths of faith and our moral principles are challenged. And we should do this by not whispering behind closed doors as our Gospel today reminds us, but rather by proclaiming on the housetops. We witness when we welcome into our midst all peoples without exception. We especially witness to the love of Christ for all when we show love to others by our acts of service. It is that service, we recall, that Jesus told us would be that by which we are judged: did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned....
After returning from France for his second attempt to bring Christ to the natives in upsate New York, and before his last visit to the site of Auriesville, Isaac Jogues wrote this to a fellow priest: My heart tells me that if I am the one to be sent on this mission I shall go but I shall not return. But I would be glad if our Lord wished to complete the sacrifice where he began it. Farewell, dear Father. Pray that God unite me to himself inseparably.
When we return to our homes after this wonderful week, our challege is to be willing to take on the mission of evangelization" of witness and of charity, so that with St. Isaac Jogues, each of us can then say: Pray that God unite me to himself inseparably.