Matthew 16:18, part II

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.

At Bible study last night, we watched a video in which Dr. Allen Hunt described his journey to the Vatican. (I immediately wanted to turn to everyone and yell, “I SAW THAT. I WAS JUST THERE!”) He spoke of visiting the tunnels beneath St. Peter’s Basilica (which I did not see, alas) and standing before the tomb of St. Peter.

The basilica is built right above the location of his tomb. Dr. Hunt said that, at that spot, you can look up and see the floor of the altar through slats in the ceiling. Which means the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica was built directly above his tomb.

“Upon this rock,” he quoted, “I will build my church.”

We’d just celebrated Mass in a side chapel at St. Peter’s. It was still too early for guided tours (they’re not permitted before 9:00 a.m., to give people prayer time), so we had time to wander the basilica on our own. I don’t think I fully grasped where I was, until I approached the altar. Beside it was a placard declaring it the site of St. Peter’s tomb. Beneath my feet was the place where Peter lay to rest. Peter of the Bible. An apostle of Jesus. The very one Jesus entrusted to tend his flock.

The rock of Peter himself, who guided those first Christians to the truth. And the literal rock of his tomb, on which the basilica bearing his name—the center of the Church itself—was constructed.

I don’t remember much from what followed in that video. But I remember Dr. Hunt looking up at the ceiling, like he was still standing on that first century ground beneath modern Rome. “Upon this rock,” he repeated, pointing downward, “I will build my church.” And he pointed to the sky.

And, yes, once we broke into smaller groups, I shared some of my photos of the Vatican.

The Family

We sat in a restaurant in Rome, our group filling the entire room, with opera singers serenading us. It was the farewell dinner of our pilgrimage, and the table was piled with food and local wine. I was drained from travel and ready to head home, but also not ready to leave. I’d asked the person beside me to pass the rosemary focaccia, and there was a cacophony as she tried to lift the platter. “Oh, just use your hands,” I said. “We’re family now.”

We’d spent a week together on the bus. We’d traveled from Assisi, to Orvieto, to Tuscany, to Rome; we’d stood on chairs together in St. Peter’s Square for a better view of Pope Francis. We’d celebrated Mass together every day. We’d prayed at the tombs of St. John Paul II, St. Francis, and St. Clare. We’d eaten so much food, from pizza and pasta and antipasto and meats that tasted delicious that we didn’t even recognize.

I didn’t know anyone going into this pilgrimage. I’m very shy with new people, so I didn’t expect to connect right away. And it wasn’t instantaneous. I sat in the back of the bus, and hovered on the outskirts of the group. Many of them knew one another already. But all it takes is one person to say, “What are you doing for lunch?” And then you find yourself at a table for four in Assisi, trying to decipher an Italian menu while learning one another’s names.

Over the course of the week, we became a family.

I’m still processing this trip as a whole. A lot happened, both internally and externally. I learned a lot about the early Church, and a lot about myself. I was surrounded by wonderful spiritual guides, and beautiful people who I connected with despite my initial shyness. I took over eight hundred photos that I am also still processing. On our final day, I took my journal and headed for the Vatican. I’d planned to sit inside St. Peter’s Basilica to write, but the line for security was wrapped around the square. But the sun was out, and it was almost too warm for a coat. So, instead, I sat on the stairs outside to record my thoughts. I was there for a long while, looking around, even after I had finished writing.

“We’re family now,” I had said at dinner, accepting the piece of focaccia. Later, the room grew silent as the opera singer belted Ave Maria. There were tears and resounding applause as she bowed. I looked around at my new spiritual family, at our piles of empty plates and platters, and I loved them.

Biennial Pilgrimage

Today, my boyfriend leaves for Israel. I’ll admit to being a little envious. He sent me his flight schedule, and just seeing “arrival in Tel Aviv” brought back the most obscure of memories: Waiting for our group at a coffee shop in Ben Gurion airport; finding a single shekel on the carpet and laughing that it was my only local currency. That single shekel is still in my wallet.

I was reminiscing about my own travels to Israel, which I’d always said was “three years ago or something.” I joked of our poorly-planned (or best) schedule, in which we departed for Israel right after casting our presidential ballots on Election Day. Then I realized: This was in 2016. Only two years ago. It seems impossible not only that my own pilgrimage was so recent, but all that’s happened in that time. The questioning, the searching, and ultimately finding Home.

But my envy is misplaced. I would certainly revisit Israel, but now is his time to connect with God in His very own promised land. Besides, I’ll be on my own pilgrimage during this time—tomorrow, I leave for Rome. We didn’t coordinate our trips at the same time (we didn’t even know each other yet when they were arranged), but God has a funny sense of humor sometimes.

Not only that, but I depart on November 8: two years, to the day, since I departed for Israel myself.

Many people have seen my conversion as a rejection of my roots. That I’m somehow abandoning my faith, or God himself, by being part of organized religion. But Catholicism does not take the place of spirituality. Exploring Vatican City will not replace my time in Jerusalem. It’s a completion. It’s a culmination of all I’ve searched for. It’s my own personal evangelization, taking a journey from Israel to Rome like the first disciples did.

I recognize my boyfriend’s journey for what it is, not because he’s told me, but because I’ve done it myself a mere two years ago: A desire to grow closer to God, and to learn first-hand his Truth. Sometimes I’m more excited for his trip than my own, but then I remember what my pilgrimage symbolizes. It’s a physical manifestation of my faith journey. It’s furthering the adventure that began in the Holy Land. It’s building a home upon the foundation, linking together the history and the present. Those early disciples hailed from Israel, but they didn’t remain there. They went forth. So shall I.

“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” —Acts 1:8