Friday, October 14, 2011

Monte Sant'Angelo

Glorious bells!

After the trials of Sunday, Monday arrived as a cool, brilliantly sunny day and a cloudless blue sky.  We didn't have a wake-up call but our instructions were that we'd be leaving San Giovanni Rotondo by 10:30AM.  I really wanted to go to confession and what better place to seek the sacrament than at the shrine dedicated to Padre Pio?  The confessionals were in the lower part of the shrine and it seemed I had arrived just in time for their scheduled start. I checked the schedule posted on the wall to see if any of the priests spoke English.  There were two priests who spoke German, Italian and English.  I sat down in a pew and waited. It would be a full 90 minutes before my turn and I began to worry that I wouldn't get back in time for the bus to depart on schedule.  But my turn eventually came and I entered the "confessional", which was actually a room.  As you entered, there was a kneeler and a screen and next to it a chair for face to face confessions.  Just as I attempted to kneel, a hand waved me over and bid me to sit in the chair.  I don't know why but I was expecting a German priest, so imagine my surprise at finding an Indian cleric waiting for me.  As soon as I began, he paged through a little book he had and I guessed that he was looking for the absolution in English.

You might think that with two friars on our travels one of them might offer to hear confessions, but that didn't happen and it was just as well because this Franciscan friar's advice, which I will keep private, was right on time.  I left feeling very light and optimistic that I could handle the rest of the journey with a minimum of tension.

Once again, there was a luggage fiasco to be sorted out.  It didn't take as long as you might think to get it right and we were on our way to Gargano.

As you may recall, I pray the chaplet to St. Michael on a mostly daily basis (occasionally, I miss a day).  Besides Lisieux, the grotto dedicated to him is the place on earth I most desired to see, and the fact that Monte Sant'Angelo was included on this pilgrimage is what sold me.  Here is a link to the basilica's website where you will a photo of the awesome statue of St. Michael that graces the altar.  Photographs were strictly forbidden in the basilica, so I will only have exterior photos to show you.

On the way there, one of the gentleman that had recently joined the quiet people in the back of the bus asked me what I knew about the basilica and I proceeded to tell him what I knew. I encouraged him to look for the chaplet when we got there and to start praying it.

The story is that a wealthy land baron lost his prize bull and searched for the beast for days.  He finally found it, kneeling at the mouth of a cave and refusing to budge from its position.  The baron was so incensed at the animal's stubborn refusal to move that he shot an arrow at its massive bulk.  The arrow did not strike the bull but instead made a u-turn, piercing the baron's foot.  Convinced this was some sort of sign but perplexed nonetheless, he went to the bishop to recount what happened.  The bishop ordered 3 days fasting and prayer and at their conclusion, the Archangel appeared to the bishop, telling him that there was to be no more shedding of bull's blood and that he would like a basilica built at the site of the cave in his honor. (There was a Roman cult at the time that practiced its paganism by bleeding bulls in caves).  But the bishop was skeptical.

Two years later, Michael again appeared to the bishop and intervened during the battle of Siponto.  But it took a third appearance before the bishop was convinced when the Archangel ordered him to enter the cave where he found an altar.  St. Michael told the bishop he need not consecrate the basilica because he himself had consecrated it with his presence.  It was then that the bishop finally commissioned a church to be built there.

It was an appearance by St. Michael in the 1600's during a plague that brought even more pilgrims to the site and many renowned saints have traveled there in homage including Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi.

Now that you have the history, I will simply say that upon arriving in the little town which overlooked the Adriatic, I went directly to the basilica.  I got there with a Mass already in progress, so I stood in the back wishing I had gotten there 15 minutes sooner.  At the conclusion of  Mass, the prayer of consecration to St. Michael was prayed in Italian and then the priest departed and the chapel emptied.

Unlike the other major basilicas we visited, you do not climb steps to enter the main sanctuary.  Here, you go down a series of winding staircases until finally, you reach the cave.  I felt like I had found Heaven on earth and I was not disappointed.  A sister monitored the chapel, occasionally pleading for silence and reminding the faithful not to take photographs.  I honestly don't understand why Catholics would enter a sanctuary like this and feel compelled to snap a photograph before greeting the Lord, but that's exactly what I saw repeated over and over again.  One man actually argued with the sister when she told him to stop taking photos and I shushed him because I felt she needed back-up. I can't imagine arguing with a religious in such a sacred place, but there you have it.

I knelt down to pray my Rosary and I felt that the solitude and the beauty that the chapel afforded made up for the tortures on the bus the previous day.  It had been a very long time since I had been able to remain so focused in prayer, which I only remember because of what happened next.

As I fingered my Rosary and meditated on the Joyful Mysteries, my eyes momentarily closed, I felt a tap on the shoulder.  One of the more gregarious and least reverent people on the trip pointed to a book and asked me if I had seen it.  He shattered the solitude I had finally managed to achieve and my response was to wave him away, pointing to the Rosary.  I just cannot imagine a person so lacking in self-control that they would interrupt a person in prayer to show them a souvenir.  It's not like he couldn't have shown me the book when I left.  And he was the same person who had complained to me about J interrupting him as he prayed in Assisi!

I concluded my Rosary and then visited the tiny Blessed Sacrament chapel.  This was a crude and tiny little basilica and for me,  it exuded holiness and the sacred more than any other place we'd been to.  Whatever happened from then on would be ok with me after this experience.

We had lunch at an adorable little restaurant.  J sat with me and he started a topic which was off-limits.  I wasn't nasty or mean but I told him very directly to drop the subject and never bring it up to me again.  He lowered his head and sat in silence for the next 10 minutes, but after his quiet tantrum, he eventually came around and engaged in conversation again.  Our waitress was a bit on the plump side and she had a face like a Botticelli angel.  She paid ample attention to J and to the other single gentleman on the trip who was also at our table and I soon noticed that she would bring them extra appetizers, etc.  Like the waitress in Visso, she had only to endure them for the length of the meal and if I could manage a week with them, I was sure she could handle an hour.

The meal was second only to the lunch prepared for us by the Benedictines.  Dessert was a luscious bowl of ripe fruit and something Italians call the "host".  Honey-soaked almonds sandwiched between two razor-thin wafers.  Simple and delicious.  We left the restaurant and were given 45 minutes to shop and take photos, so here goes.

The castle at the entrance of the town dedicated to the Archangel Michael

The entrance to the basilica

There was no shortage of images of Michael beating the tar out of you know who
Another image of St. Michael
Even a hotel named after the Archangel
Street scenes
More winding streets lined with shops

Monday, wash day in Gargano
That blue is not the sky, it's the Adriatic sea
Imagine having such a view from your rooftop!
The contrast of the rooftops against the sea was gorgeous
The best was saved for last.  We boarded the bus for the very long ride to Rome.  We made 3 rest stops on the way.  At our last stop, I got out of the bus to take a closer look at a church bell that was ringing in the twilight.  I looked a little closer at the pasture in front of me and realized there was a shepherd bringing his sheep in for the night.  You could heard the bleating of the sheep and the jingling of the bells they wore around their fuzzy little necks.  A few sheepdogs worked to round them up and even in the dimming light, I could see a white figure lying in the grass that seemed to have escape their notice.  I waved to the shepherd and pointed to the light-colored clump.  He whistled and the animal slowly rose to its feet. It wasn't a sheep after all but an aging dog who needed a lot of momentum and encouragement to get up on his old legs.  The bell continued to toll and the end of our trip in Italy could not have ended in a more enchanting way for me.

Thank you, Lord, for looking after us and blessing us with so many privileges.

Blurry, but not in my mind's eye. The grayish looking blurs in the forefront are the sheep going in for the night


  1. Wonderful blog Joyce. This was particularly vivid to me as a reader.

  2. Thanks for the beautiful photos and travel notes!

  3. Thanks Manny and Terry. This post concludes my diary of the trip and I appreciate the kind comments. Joyce

  4. Loved reading about it! Sounds like it was a blessing with a lot of trial mixed in.


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