Following a millennium’s worth of footsteps on Italy’s Via Francigena


A portion of the Francigena Way near St. Thierry. (Photo by “Garitan” on Wikimedia Commons)

By Clara L. Dorfman

MONTERIGGIONI, Tuscany —  “You’re here late.”

The head of the pilgrims’ hostel in Monteriggioni, Tuscany, gave us an amused look. We were five university students, none Italian, who had spent the entire day traveling ceaselessly to get to this miniscule hilltop village. All the work we’d done to get here wasn’t strictly necessary: we’d spent the past seven-and-a-half hours walking from another nearby town, San Gimignano, rather than catch the hourly regional bus.

Why? Because while studying at the University of Bologna for the year, each of us wound up hearing about the Via Francigena, a pilgrimage that leads from the Swiss-Italian border all the way to Rome, one way or another, and had decided that we wanted to try it out. Since it’s rather difficult to take off the multiple weeks needed to complete the entire trail, many Italians break the path into more manageable, weekend-sized chunks. This allows them to return home for the workweek after a strenuous but fulfilling weekend hike. After classes were over for the school year, we – two French, one German, one Norwegian, and one American – decided to do one such hike.

The Via Francigena is an excellent way to see the Italian countryside, not to mention the many smaller and larger towns it weaves through along its way south. For Catholics, there’s the additional appeal of its long legacy as a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s in Rome. According to the official website for the pilgrimage, the route originated as a way to unite upper and lower Europe in the 7th century. Christians began using the route on their way to Rome around the turn of the second millennium, although – as a gardener informed us about two hours outside of Siena – the modern-day pilgrim’s route is really just one of the many paths those pilgrims would take south. Indeed, the medieval pilgrimage to Rome went along the Via Cassia, which is now a major freeway. “You’d be crazy to try and walk that way anymore,” the gardener told us.

The route that’s maintained nowadays is crossed daily by dozens of pilgrims – mostly Italians, though the occasional non-Italian European may be encountered as well – and traces its way from one city or village along the path to the next. San Gimignano and Siena, our group’s starting and ending points, respectively, are pretty large towns by Tuscan standards; Monteriggioni, on the other hand, is almost comically small, with its one main piazza surrounded by a handful of alleyways, and immediately afterwards by fortress walls. “It’s a Tuscan-village theme park,” one of my friends joked when he realized just how little it was.

Many pilgrims take the route by themselves – a practice also common along the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrim route that is meant to trace the path taken by the apostle James through France and northern Spain. Given how little free time I had to walk, however, I wouldn’t have had much time to make friends with other pilgrims on the route – one of the reasons I’m glad I decided to go with others.


Sign located in Valdena marking the Francigena Way. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The walking itself was arduous, but not at all brutal. The Via Francigena’s main path is marked by red-and-white trail markers, and meanders up and down rolling hills, in and out of local farmers’ fields. We came across one rest area along the way to Siena, run by a local homeowner. He provides sandwiches and espresso to anyone who asks; in return, walkers can leave a donation and a thank-you note in his guestbook. The pilgrims’ lodgings we stayed at in Monteriggioni were clean and comfortable, with a small kitchen in which to prepare your own dinner and beautiful views of the church next door. In contrast, the pilgrim’s hostel in Siena (where I stayed last fall for a weekend, meeting many kind pilgrims and learning about the walk from them) provides a communal meal for guests. Unlike most rooms to rent in Italian cities, especially those where tourists tend to concentrate, prices for pilgrims along the Via Francigena are truly reasonable: bed spaces cost on average from 10 to 20 euros, and sometimes just a donation of your choosing is requested.

My friends and I walked 30 km (about 18 miles) the first day and, with a wrong turn, a bit more than 20 km (12 miles) the second; by the time we arrived in Siena, all of us were ready for a gelato break. We spent about an hour sitting in the city’s main piazza, the famous Piazza del Campo – where the annual Sienese horserace, the Palio, takes place every August – and then headed to the train station for our return trip to Bologna.

For Americans, the opportunity to take a pilgrimage doesn’t come every day. We have nature hikes and trails in the United States, but most of the historic religious paths crisscross the Old World, not the New. The Via Francigena is one of the lesser-known European pilgrimages, overshadowed by the Spanish Camino’s fame (the Camino was featured in “The Way,” a 2010 film by Emilio Estevez). Nonetheless, the Via Francigena provides a welcome respite from the day-to-day bustle of touring Italy: craning one’s neck around others to catch a glimpse of a statue by Michelangelo, maneuvering through the crowds that inevitably flock famous landmarks, eating overpriced pizza at a sit-down cafe. Besides all this, it offers the opportunity for reflection on life and faith, for those who seek it, along a route taken by countless Christians over the past thousand years. This medieval pilgrim’s path towards Rome is one budget-friendly way to see some of the Italian countryside – and to participate personally in an age-old phenomenon of Catholic faith.

Clara Dorfman is an American student studying in Italy. She walked a portion of the Francigena Way in May 2015.

Some came for healing, others to see Latin American pope

Volunteer Paulina Arua, 33, directs Mass-goers to places in Quito's Bicentennial Park. (CNS photo/Barbara J. Fraser)

Volunteer Paulina Arua, 33, directs Mass-goers to places in Quito’s Bicentennial Park. (CNS photo/Barbara J. Fraser)

By Barbara J. Fraser

QUITO, Ecuador — As hundreds of thousands of people streamed into Quito’s Bicentennial Park for Pope Francis’ Mass July 7, Paulina Arua, 33, was among volunteers from all over the country directing them to their places.

Even before the gates opened the previous day, a large crowd had gathered outside the park.

“We spent the night, we got soaked in the rain, but we dried off and went on,” said Arua, who had come from the parish of Tambillo, in Pichincha province.

Some came seeking healing. Guadalupe Saltos traveled from the town of Santo Domingo, Ecuador, with her 5-year-old daughter, Guadalupe, whose legs are paralyzed.

“I ask the Holy Father’s blessing on all of humanity, on my family, my daughter, and all people with disabilities, that there not be so much pain in the world,” she said.

A woman attending the Mass in Quito with her disabled daughter waves a cloth in time to the music.  (CNS photo/Barbara J. Fraser)

A woman attending the Mass in Quito with her disabled daughter waves a cloth in time to the music. (CNS photo/Barbara J. Fraser)

Alicia de Ponce, 85, of Quito, prayed for healing for her daughter, Ana Francisca, ill with Cushing’s syndrome. She also hoped for an easing of the country’s political tensions, which have led to protests in recent weeks, and which “don’t give us a chance to reflect,” she said.

Some remembered other papal visits. Alejandrina Zevallos, 92, made the trip from Cajamarca, Peru, with her daughter and granddaughter. Although she had seen St. John Paul II twice in Peru and once in Rome, “I had to come see Pope Francis, because he is Latin American,” she said.

Alejandrina Zevallos, 92, who grew up in Peru's rural highlands, came to see the pope who had taken the name of the saint she called

Alejandrina Zevallos, 92, who grew up in Peru’s rural highlands, came to see the pope who had taken the name of the saint she called “the first ecologist.” (CNS photo/Barbara J. Fraser)

Born in the rural Peruvian highlands, she said she also was drawn to the first pope to take his name from the saint whom she called “the first ecologist.”

“He stands with the simple people, those who work the land, those who have less money,” said Zevallos, who still keeps a garden. “He is open to the poor. I like that.”

Amid a group of people waving Argentine flags, Jose Luis Scotto, president of an association of Argentines living in Ecuador, said he welcomed the chance to see the pope, “not just because he is Argentinian, but because he is making a profound change” by addressing problems in the church, such as the sexual abuse crisis and irregularities in the Vatican bank.

“The pope is revolutionary, Latin American and a Jesuit,” he said. “The church needed that.”

Ecuadorean teachers: Pope’s university talk could be timely

Dominican and Salesian Sisters prepare flowers for Pope Francis' July 7 meeting with educators in Quito. (CNS/Barbara J. Fraser)

Dominican Sisters prepare flowers for Pope Francis’ July 7 meeting with educators in Quito, Ecuador. (CNS/Barbara J. Fraser)

By Barbara J. Fraser

QUITO, Ecuador — Fernando Serrano was one of 150 teachers placing numbered stickers on 5,000 chairs arrayed on the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador’s soccer field July 5.

“It’s a blessing from God that the pope is coming to speak here,” said Serrano, 50, who teaches foreign languages in elementary school. “We hope for a message of peace, that we must work to educate for peace.”

Diosela Ullca, a kindergarten teacher in Quito, is preparing stickers for assigned seating in stadium at Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador. (CNS/Barbara J. Fraser)

Diosela Ullca, a kindergarten teacher in Quito, prepares stickers for assigned seating in the stadium at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador. (CNS/Barbara J. Fraser)

When Pope Francis meets July 7 with teachers from Catholic, public and other private schools, he will be speaking as one educator to others, said Romulo Lopez, executive secretary of the Ecuadorean bishops’ education commission and president of the Confederation of Catholic Educational Establishments.

The pope will be speaking not just to Ecuadorean educators, but to “all Catholic educators around the world,” Lopez said.

The pope’s speech in Ecuador will be especially timely, however, as government educational reforms have limited the teaching of religion in schools. Only recently was an agreement reached to allow Catholic schools to add religion classes to the official government curriculum, Lopez said.

“The pope’s presence will help us strengthen our work and open up possibilities for dialogue with the government,” he said.

He and the teacher volunteers were not the only people looking forward to Pope Francis’ visit to the university.

Nathalie Tomala Calderon, who will present the pope with a rose and a statue of St. Miguel Febres Cordero

Nathalie Tomala Calderon, 10, will present the pope with a rose and a statue of St. Miguel Febres Cordero. (CNS/Barbara J. Fraser)

Ten-year-old Nathalie Tomala Calderon, who will present the pope with a rose and a statue of St. Miguel Febres Cordero — an Ecuadorean member of the Brothers of the Christian Schools canonized by St. John Paul II — was alternating between excitement and nervousness.

“This doesn’t happen every day,” the girl said, as her mother noted that even the rehearsal had given her the shakes.

In a nearby building, out of the sun, Dominican and Salesian sisters were fashioning huge arches of flowers and foliage. They expected to spend two days attaching 4,000 roses, along with carnations and baby’s breath, to the frames.

“Catholic education goes beyond spiritual formation,” Dominican Sister Mariana Garcia said as she tucked leaves into a foam base. “The pope motivates us to have a social commitment to the poor.”

She will be among the teachers listening to the pope’s words in the stadium, in which will hang two huge banners bearing quotations from Pope Francis: “Do not be afraid to dream of great things,” and “Educating is an act of love; it is like giving life.”

The participants will then face the “serious mission” of communicating the pontiff’s message to others, Lopez said.

“The Holy Father comes with great wisdom and charisma. He knows how to speak to everyone, and we have to learn that simplicity, that wisdom, and transmit it to our students and the people with whom we work,” said Anita Caicedo, who works at a Salesian school on the outskirts of Quito.

“Subjects like philosophy and science you can learn by studying, but it is what you carry in your heart that you live out every day,” she said. “Speaking from the heart, he will try to help us reach others. We need that, if there is to be peace in the world.”

The Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador is ready for Pope Francis, who will speak there July 7. (CNS/Barbara J. Fraser)

The Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador is ready for Pope Francis, who will speak there July 7. (CNS/Barbara J. Fraser)

El Vaticano da a conocer detalles de la visita que el papa realizará a Sudamérica del 5 al 12 de julio

This is the official logo for the July 5-8 visit of Pope Francis to Ecuador. The pope will also visit Bolivia and Paraguay during his July 5-13 trip to Latin America. (CNS photo) See POPE-LATAM (UPDATED) May 8, 2015. EDITORS: 600x425 pixels, best quality available.

Por Cindy Wooden

CIUDAD DEL VATICANO — En su visita a Latinoamérica que el papa Francisco realizará del 5 al 12 de Julio no pasará por su tierra nativa, Argentina, pero estará en contacto con sus raíces jesuitas y demostrará una de sus principales características de su ministerio cuando era arzobispo de Buenos Aires: un contacto directo con los pobres, los enfermos y todos aquellos que se esfuerzan en llevar el Evangelio en relación directa con desigualdades sociales.

El papa iniciará su viaje por tres naciones sudamericanas en Ecuador antes de pasar a Bolivia y posteriormente a Paraguay, anunció el Vaticano el 8 de mayo cuando se publicó el itinerario detallado de la visita.

Aunque las comunidades locales de jesuitas han gozado de una atención especial por parte del papa Francisco en varios de sus siete viajes hechos al extranjero en su calidad de papa, es en este primer viaje que se incluye en forma oficial en el programa. Tendrá la oportunidad de comer el 6 de julio con la comunidad jesuita del Colegio Javier en Guayaquil, Ecuador.

La siguiente noche, “visitará en forma privada” la iglesia de Quito de la Sociedad de Jesús, joya de la arquitectura barroca española. Los primeros jesuitas que llegaron a Ecuador lo hicieron en 1574, solamente a 34 años de distancia de la fundación de la sociedad llevada a cabo por San Ignacio de Loyola. El trabajo en la iglesia de Quito empezó en 1605.

El papa Francisco pasará menos de tres horas en La Paz, capital de Bolivia. Fuentes allegadas al Vaticano dijeron que por la alta elevación sobre el mar de esa ciudad era recomendable que el papa solamente hiciera una breve visita. La misma tarde en la que llegue a Bolivia, el 8 de julio, viajará en avión a Santa Cruz, después de la ceremonia de bienvenida, una visita al presidente y una reunión con las autoridades civiles.

This is the official logo for the July 10-12 visit of Pope Francis to Paraguay. The pope will also visit Ecuador and Bolivia during his July 5-12 trip to Latin America. (CNS photo) See POPE-LATAM (UPDATED) May 8, 2015.

El papa Francisco tendrá las ceremonias oficiales de bienvenida y visitas privadas con el presidente de Ecuador, Bolivia y Paraguay, respectivamente, como lo dicta el protocolo. Además, el papa se reunirá con dirigentes de “la sociedad civil” en Ecuador, funcionarios del gobierno en Bolivia y miembros del cuerpo diplomático en Paraguay.

Pero se espera que el centro de su visita sean las Misas públicas a celebrarse y el tiempo que pase en contacto directo con la gente, que con frecuencia se ve marginalizada en la sociedad. El 8 de julio visitará un asilo de ancianos dirigido por los Misioneros de la Caridad en Quito; en Santa Cruz, Bolivia, dirigirá la palabra ante los participantes del Segundo Encuentro Mundial de Movimientos Populares, gente comprometida con el pueblo, y visitará una prisión. En Asunción, Paraguay, visitará tanto un hospital de pediatría como un barrio de los más pobres en Banado Norte.


Independence Day Mass closes Fortnight for Freedom

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (CNS photo/Julie Asher)

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (CNS photo/Julie Asher)

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington was the main celebrant of the July 4 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington to mark the close of the U.S. bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom, an annual observance to raise awareness of threats to religious freedom in the U.S. and around the world.

Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski was a concelebrant and the homilist. The text of his homily is available here.

“Religious freedom is the human right that guarantees all other rights,” said Archbishop Wenski, who is chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. “The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person. Peace and creative living together will only be possible if freedom of religion is fully respected.”

The fortnight, now in its fourth year, is a two-week period of prayer, education and advocacy focused on the role of faith in public life and the preservation of religious liberty rights. This year’s theme was “Freedom to Bear Witness.”

Other concelebrants included Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, who celebrated the fortnight’s opening Mass June 21; Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio and Auxiliary Bishop Richard B. Higgins of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services; Auxiliary Bishops Barry C. Knestout and Mario E. Dorsonville of Washington; Msgr. Walter R. Rossi, rector of the national shrine; and Msgr. Ronny Jenkins and Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, general secretary and associate general secretary, respectively, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

As the concluding prayer for the general intercessions, Cardinal Wuerl recited Archbishop John Carroll’s 1791 “Prayer for Government,” which says in part:

We pray you, O God of might, wisdom, and justice, through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with your Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the president of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to your people, over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality. Let the light of your divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.”

Taking an evening to honor our work

Father Thomas Weise kayaks off the shoreline of the Shrine of St. Therese in Juneau, Alaska. The photo won first place in the scenic category at the Catholic Press Association Awards.  (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Father Thomas Weise kayaks off the shoreline of the Shrine of St. Therese in Juneau, Alaska. The photo won first place in the scenic category at the Catholic Press Association awards. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

BUFFALO, N.Y.  — With award presenters that rivaled any Hollywood show, Catholic News Service and others in the Catholic media celebrated the good work members created last year.

The Catholic Press Association awards banquet was the final session at a three-day Catholic Media Convention in which journalists from the U.S., Canada and other countries came together to discuss current trends, tips for the future and hear challenging and compelling stories from speakers.

A boy in New Mexico kisses his father through the border fence following Mass Nov. 22 in Sunland Park, New Mexico. The photo was part of a package honored by the CPA.  (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

A boy in New Mexico kisses his father through the border fence following Mass Nov. 22 in Sunland Park, New Mexico. The photo was part of a package honored by the CPA. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The presenters — Carol Zimmermann from CNS, Mark Zimmermann of Washington’s The Catholic Standard and J.D. Long-Garcia of The Tidings in Los Angeles — kept the night moving with humor and speed in announcing hundreds of awards in dozens of categories.

Catholic News Service was the recipient of multiple awards. It swept the category of Best Multimedia Package for News/Features and won for best multimedia package for straight news. CNS also took first place for Best Scenic, Still or Weather Photo and won awards for general news photos, photo stories, multiple picture packages.

In writing categories, CNS took first place for a personality profile of a Franciscan in Honduras, and it was honored for coverage of immigration, restorative justice and the multiple stories synod on the family. A feature on restoring the Holy Stairs shrine won second place. Two columnists — one in English and one in Spanish — were honored for general commentary.

You can download the entire list of winners here.

J.D. Long-Garcia, Carol Zimmermann and Mark Zimmermann kept colleagues entertained during the Catholic Press Association Awards Banquet. (CNS/Barb Fraze)     J.D. Long-Garcia, Carol Zimmermann and Mark Zimmermann kept colleagues entertained during the Catholic Press Association Awards Banquet. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

J.D. Long-Garcia, Carol and Mark Zimmermann kept colleagues entertained during the Catholic Press Association awards banquet. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

‘One nun can make a difference’

The June 24 welcome dinner for the 2015 Catholic Media Conference in Buffalo, New  York, combined three worlds: journalism, Catholicism and Buffalo.

It began with a tribute to the late Tim Russert, a well-respected journalist who was the longtime moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” who was equally proud of his Catholic faith and his hometown of Buffalo.

Mercy Sister Lucille Socciarelli (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Mercy Sister Lucille Socciarelli at CMC in Buffalo, N.Y. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

And maybe no one was more proud of Russert, who died in 2008, than Mercy Sister Mary Lucille Socciarelli, his seventh-grade teacher at St. Bonaventure School in Buffalo,  who once told him: “Timmy, we have to find a way to channel your excess energy,” and named him editor of the school’s newspaper. Russert credited Sister Lucille with inspiring him to become a journalist and later established the Sister Mary Lucille Outstanding Teacher Award to honor teachers for the impact they have on students’ lives.

Sister Lucille, who goes by Sister Lucy, coincidentally just moved back to South Buffalo and was a special guest at the Catholic Media Conference. She told the group how much she treasured her friendship with Russert and how the city was so proud of him.

She also said Russert had told her, with a twist on the famous inauguration speech of President John F. Kennedy: “One nun can make a difference and you did.”

The former teacher proudly wore a Buffalo Bills pin and laughed and nodded in agreement with the introductory remarks about her given by Mark Zimmermann, editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese.

He told the attendees that Sister Lucille was highlighted in chapter nine of Russert’s book about his father, “Big Russ & Me”: Russert wrote that Sister Lucille was chatty, had a great sense of humor, liked popular culture and even sometimes played baseball with her students, swinging the bat, and “rounding first base with her black habit and rosary beads flying in the wind.” He also said he and his friends thought the nun was “the coolest teacher we had ever met.”

Zimmermann pointed out that when Russert  famously wrote “Florida, Florida, Florida” on his dry erase board in the early morning hours following Election Day 2000, one viewer later sent him a note about his penmanship — Sister Lucille.

She told Catholic News Service after the welcome dinner — where she received a standing ovation and was greeted by a number of reporters who waited in line to talk to her — that the problem with the famous Florida writing wasn’t that Russert didn’t write in cursive, because she said that was even worse.

More on Russert,  Sister Lucille and another Catholic teacher of Russert’s can be found here.


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