Other than roaming around some of the most beautiful cities in Italy, we also took multiple side-trips to several small towns along the countryside, as part of our saintly pilgrimage. These towns, while comfortably sewn into the landscape and not as sprawling with tourists, are particularly known for their charm, their antiqueness, and what got them onto the Italian map: their patron saint. Traveling to each of these small towns took a different amount of time, on different highways that only our driver could expertly navigate. We took every highway and winding road imaginable, crossing through the best of Tuscany and the northern region as far as we could go for hours from our hotel in Florence; passing through farmland, wineries and green patches of landscape. And it wasn’t always an easy or scenic journey; on the way to Forli, we drove through a mountain canyon and I felt myself getting terribly car sick! But it was always the destination that made each new side-trip adventure SO worth it.
Forli: Little Town of St. Peregrine (Monday, June 9)
The road to Forli seemed to never end, twisting through the mountains in what felt like an endless spiral. By the time we arrived in the small little town, I was not feeling it and just wanted to go home, but we were there to see the Basilica di San Pellegrino Laziosi, where the shrine of St. Peregrine – patron saint of cancer victims – is located. By the time we got there, the sleepy little town was right in the middle of its “siesta” hour: for four hours. I was so sick that I couldn’t even eat and took a weak nap while the parents had lunch. We walked around the square, stumbled upon the town’s oldest church (St. Mercuriale Campanile) built 1176. Finally around 4:30 pm, the doors to the Basilica were opened and we entered inside, weary but hopeful. The Church was built sometime around the 12th century and is now run by the Servite brothers (the religious order of the Servants of Mary). We were surprised to see the main chaplain and his assistant were both Filipino! After visiting the shrine, which was beautifully adorned on the right side of the church, the Servites gave us a brief tour followed by mass in Italian. We learned about the simple, yet sorrowful life of Peregrine, who was born in Forli and served in the local Basilica after joining the Servants of Mary. He was immediately plagued with all kinds of sickness and disease, including leg cancer. Walking around, we saw the preserved “chapter” (chapel) room where around the 13th century, Peregrine prayed to the painting of the crucifix before him–a restored piece by Italian artist Affresco di Giuliano da Rimini–and had a vision of Christ coming down from the cross. The very next day, he was completely healed of his cancer, and re-dedicated his life to the Church. It was pretty surreal to be walking in a church where God’s presence is so present, where healing miracles happen. It was also incredibly moving to witness my Lolo Pete, who unfortunately has pancreatic cancer, praying to the tomb of one such faithful and miraculous saint. Kneeling at the pew, I kept thinking of all of my friends, family, and loved ones back home, who all know someone currently suffering from sickness/disease, and I prayed for each of them. By the end of the trip, I was moved by St. Peregrine’s faith and trust in God, who really does provide miracles.
Siena: Relics of St. Catherine (Tuesday, June 10)
After touring a few museums in Firenze the next morning, we visited Siena. Siena is a gorgeous little town on a foothill in the Tuscany region, with rustic-colored houses lining the cobblestone streets and alleyways. On the drive up, we were surrounded by green fields and grape vines. It felt like one of those car commercials where the fancy sports car is zipping through mountains and across valleys! We only had a few hours, so we made the most of it! Visiting a few of the unique stores in the narrow alleyways of the city, we stopped for quick cappuccinos and did a little bit of shopping. We passed in front of Siena’s main basilica, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta – richly decorated in austere 13th-century design. Finally, we ended the day at the Basilica di San Domenico (St. Dominic), also known as Basilica Cateriniana, an old church at the top of the foothill where the relics of St. Catherine have been stored for centuries. St. Catherine lived in the 1300’s in Siena and was a tertiary of the Dominican order, which she dedicated her life to as a young girl. A brilliant scholar and theologian, Catherine helped to establish peace in Italy during a period of unrest, and was later named one of the patron saints of the country. (For more about St. Catherine of Siena’s life, click here.) Her head rests in the center of the Chapel of St. Catherine within the Dominican church, along with a reliquary of more of her belongings, including one of her fingers. (Not going to lie I was a little creeped out looking up at her head, but you know those 12-13th century Italians! They love to preserve stuff…)
The Earthy Tomb of St. Francis of Assisi (Wednesday, June 11)
One of my favorites. The lush nature that surrounds the foothills of Assisi is all but appropriate to this famous saint’s, well, nature. It looks a little like Siena, only bigger and smack in the middle of Italy, away from Rome and the Tuscan region. At the top of the hill is the Basilica of San Francesco, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important pilgrimage spots in Italy, the mother church of the Franciscan order (Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor). The basilica itself looked a little newer and had been under many restorations, but it was the inside that caught my attention. First off, its unusual layout – darker, Gothic-style lighting, ceilings that cave in, and elevated chapels each in their own little spaces. The colorful Gothic paintings depicting scenes from St. Francis’s life were also gorgeous, many of them designed by the Florentine painter Cimabue. And below the main church area, in a small little earthy chapel, lies the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s earthy structure and ceramic stone-style definitely caught my attention as I knelt in front to pray, listening to some of the monks chanting in Italian beside me. It’s so very Franciscan: earthy, homey, rustic, very nature-esque. And as St. Francis himself is famous for emphasizing, inside the basilica felt very peaceful, relaxing even. It wasn’t too overbearing or austere like many of the other churches; it didn’t stress strict reverence but instead, simple peace and reflection. It was simply beautiful. I whispered the Peace Prayer of St. Francis (“Make me a channel of your peace”) from a novena booklet I purchased from the bookstore, and after praying my usual intentions, left to enjoy the rest of what Assisi had to offer.
Seeing each saint’s tomb, relic, and shrine made me more aware of the person whom I was visiting/honoring, and gave me even greater respect for these incredible people who have dedicated themselves wholly to Christ. They each have different ways of expressing their faith–some simple, some more overt than others–and it was really cool to see how they have inspired not only the style of each of the basilicas, but the lives of Catholics from all over the world. I’ve definitely been inspired by each of these saints’ stories, and feel incredibly blessed to have seen & prayed at their final resting places!
The Peace Prayer
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.