Haywood pilgrims see Pope Francis
A group of 31 pilgrims from Haywood County and beyond made a pilgrimage to Italy in late April to deepen their faith and see art treasures and historical landmarks in Assisi, Siena, Florence, Pompeii and Rome.
The group, led by Fr. Lawrence LoMonaco, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Waynesville and Immaculate Conception in Canton, had tickets to a general papal audience at St. Peter’s, but little did they know they would get within five feet of Pope Francis.
The Italian tour director told the group to stand by a certain barrier in St. Peter’s Square, because the pontiff usually comes near the barrier in the “popemobile.” To the delight of the group, Pope Francis made two slow passes within five feet of the WNC pilgrims.
“Pope Francis radiated like a saint,” said Candy Keener of Waynesville. “I could have touched him. We got lucky since there were tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square.”
It wasn’t just a drive-by. The popemobile was open and the Pope did not appear fearful in the crowd, said LoMonaco.
“The Pope was kissing babies and hugging people,” LoMonaco said. “Pope Francis was genuinely joyful. He was really engaged with the people there. It was obvious how much the people love him. You could feel the spirit.”
The pope’s care and concern for other people was evident to pilgrim Rosie Bornoty of Waynesville.
“He’s so humble,” Bornoty said. “A woman in the crowd was so emotional, she was crying. The Holy Father kept calling out to her, ‘Señora, why are you crying?’ Seeing him was the most amazing experience ever.”
It was hard to beat seeing Pope Francis up close, but the pilgrims had other meaningful experiences.
The tour, organized by Catholic Travel Center, was led by spiritual director LoMonaco, who celebrated Mass daily with group member Fr. Raju Devasia Murinsayil, from Lowell, Massachusetts. St. John cantor and choir member Suzy Bernardi provided musical accompaniment to the daily services.
The group, with members ranging in age from 28 to more than 80, started in Orvieto, then traveled to Assisi. There they celebrated Mass at the Basilica of St. Francis at the altar where the saint is interred. Assisi was described as “beautiful” by the pilgrims — a small town with beautiful hills and a feeling of spirituality. It is full of historical and spiritual importance in the lives of St. Francis and of St. Clare.
The next stop was Siena, an ancient walled town set on three hills, where the pilgrims enjoyed the architecture, history and churches. St. Catherine of Siena worked to get the papacy of Gregory XI returned to Rome from Avignon, France. In recognition of their many accomplishments, St. Catherine and St. Francis were named as co-patron Saints of Italy.
The day in Florence was spent viewing magnificent works of art, sightseeing and doing a little shopping.
The pilgrims headed to Rome for spiritual reflection at the Basilica of St. Peter, the Papal Basilica of St. John Lateran and other major churches and, of course, visited many of Rome’s historical sites, including the Coliseum.
The group had a lot of fun, too. When they visited Trevi Fountain, Bornoty was so excited to see the iconic landmark she said her mind “went blank” and she threw in four coins, not the traditional three coins: “one for love, one for money and one to return to Rome.”
The group had the option to visit Pompeii. The ruins of the city and the plaster casts of the people covered by volcanic ash during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. left quite an impression on the pilgrims.
“What we saw in Pompeii reminded us how foolish we are with material things,” said Bornoty. “The people there were consumed with having fun, and look what happened to them.”
The last, and the greatest stop on the pilgrimage, was the Vatican, with the general papal audience. Some of the pilgrims said they were so excited after seeing Pope Francis that they didn’t feel like eating lunch after the papal experience.
The whole trip brought the pilgrims together.
“Everybody was looking out for each other,” said LoMonaco. “It was a spiritual awakening.”
It proved to be an awakening not only for those already steeped in their faith, but also, for the 5 or 6 people in the group who didn’t go to church regularly, LoMonaco said. He felt the trip had a profound influence on the non-church goers and their developing spirituality.
“I’ve been all around the world,” Keener said. “I’ve been to Rome before, but it was never what I felt in this trip, through the grace of God, from beginning to end. I have a feeling of joy, and I’ll never forget it. We all came back refreshed and happy.”
Fr. Lawrence LoMonaco will lead a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in April 2015, organized by Christopher Cross. Recently, LoMonaco was appointed pastor at St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Hickory. For information on the Holy Land trip, call Cross at 888 727-5881.