Rome sweet home – A pilgrim’s guide.

There is no place like Rome; for me it’s Rome sweet home  not merely because of my Catholic faith but even more because every inch of this city has played a great part in both secular and religious history. Sadly most tourists who tell you they have visited the city have seen very little of it especially those who come in on an eighteen days, six country whirlwind trip (eighteen days includes your flights to and fro and in all probability, five days sitting in a bus)

So what’s left for the Catholic pilgrim to see especially if you are party to such ‘profit oriented’ pilgrim trips? Most of these groups end up arriving in Rome on a Tuesday night and are settled well outside the walls of Rome. Tour operators don’t want to cut their profits and so while they tell you that you are visiting Rome or Paris you must factor this truth, that you will not be in a hotel room looking down the Champs-Élysées or the Via della Conciliazione gazing at the Vatican but be settled in some distant suburb of the city. (End of day one in Rome)

The morning after your arrival (Wednesday) sees you ushered into a bus for the Papal Audience. By the time you reach the Vatican one third of your ‘day two’ is already over. The rest of the better part of the papal audience will see you seated at some considerable distance from the Holy Father and after the papal blessing you will be ushered by your tour leader through a rapid half hour tour, pushing your way through a sea of humanity (most of whom come to the audience) to be given some mundane information about a magnificent structure whose construction began on 18 April 1506 and was completed on 18 November 1626. I once overheard a tour guide in the Vatican refer to the body of St John the XXIII as “another dead Pope.”

By day three you would have seen the Vatican museum (and missed out its gems ) and the Sistine Chapel                  (with a poor explanation of the same in the Belvedere court) and half a dozen tourist spots that are sold as ‘must see’ by your tour operator. By the end of day if not mid-day, most Indian tour operators will see you packing to the airport, if Rome was your last stop (which usually it is) or onward to  the city of Florence                    ( rarely because it’s expensive) or to Assisi or Venice.

So am I here to castigate the Tour operators? I would say yes and no for it is also a matter of perception that is fed and willingly swallowed by pilgrims who put in a substantial amount of their savings in a ‘once in a life time trip’. The problem begins when pilgrims are dazzled with the words on the brochure, “European trip covering five or six nation”. Pilgrims think that if they ‘see more countries’ and places then they are done and dusted in one go and while you do get to see your favourite Marian shrines you are also obliged to see many other place that you are least interested.  Tour operators continue to feed on this desire, offering most of the while brochures that have a slew of places, most of which do not include an entry fee and are often seen seated in a bus ( especially big cities)

In these series of articles on Rome and Italy, I want to offer the pilgrims, especially those from India traveling to Rome, options they can place before the tour operator to tailor their pilgrimage to the pilgrims need. I dare say that most operators will turn these down because they are not profitable for business or alternatively they will present the pilgrim with an astronomical cost (but try your luck and smile knowing I said so). While I acknowledge that Rome is no cheap city to visit, I find a great deal of dishonestly in what the pilgrim is offered especially when it comes to the Rome section of the pilgrimage.

My articles come from four personal trips that I have made to Rome, trips that I have planned by myself. It will offer you not only the must see of Rome and the Vatican but also valuable information that you need to have as a pilgrim. It is my hope, that at some stage the pilgrims to Rome will be more discerning in asking questions, than be left with some half-baked information of what they were made to see, much less of what they should have seen but were never told.

 I know there are honest tour operators out there and these need to be willing to take a hit and offer better pilgrimages. To the pilgrims I say this, be realistic and read both, the fine print and the bold print that is offered to you.  Don’t be dazzled by the fact that you’re going to Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland, Paris and Rome (besides the cities in these countries that are ‘offered to you,’ for in reality you are merely being ferried across a nation with a mid-day stop, which by the way has ‘a site of some religious importance’ and not one that you were enthusiastic to see.

Fr Warner D’Souza

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