Inspired by anger and love
When we checked into the very modest Hotel Giardino in Badia Prataglia the temperature was dropping fast. It was colder inside than outside the hotel. The room was clean and the señora tried her best and gave us a heater for the room although there wasn't enough hot water to shower. I went to bed to rest and heat up. San Esteban went to mass.
I only got up for an hour later to go down to the massive dining room which had one lonely table set for two. I could see my own breath it was so cold. We'd seen the Señor of the house playing a cigarette fuelled game of cards with some friends and a bottle of wine and he now appeared with a giant tureen of minestrone soup. Food for body and soul. This was followed by mushroom tagliatelle and we chose steaming bowls of hot chocolate for dessert. I was back under the covers soon after and awoke almost 9 hours later. I looked out of the window to see the little town covered in snow. It was bitterly cold. "This might be a 4 layer day" I thought.
Despite only carrying just over 6 kgs in total we always have a potential 5 layers of clothes when walking in winter. Much time is taken up looking at weather forecasts and debating the number of layers to wear. Over breakfast we reviewed the route to the Santuario where Saint Francis visited to pray and meditate and where he received the Stigmata. The day ahead was arduous with significant climbing and exertion. We decided on three layers with another kept handy just in case. This was a day of ups and downs with three climbs the last of which would be the most taxing. Soon we were ascending the first. The views then and throughout the rest of the day were magnificent. The sun broke through as we went up snow covered icy paths. A very friendly stray dog joined us for 10 kms. The climb took me back to my early days on the Scottish mountains. Only when you are up can you see the full grandeur of hills and valleys. The layers worked well. We were dripping with sweat as we toiled slowly up the inclines but if we stood still for a few brief moments the chill wind started to bite. It was slow. 2 kms an hour. By the time we reached Rimbocchi we had covered only 11 kms in 5 hours. It was cold but the sun was shining and we hunkered down at a picnic table for a sandwich. Just then we saw a woman opening the bar and we were rewarded with hot coffee. But we were eager to get going, the guidebook warned of a very strenuous 6 km climb over 3 hours to the Santuario.
I was looking forward to visiting this place and Assisi even more than Rome. Although I'll be delighted to get there the last time was at the Consistory where my Archbishop was appointed Cardinal. I remember looking at the sea of red hats thinking that this was everything I love and hate about the Catholic Church. We have a tribal loyalty to it and there is much to be proud of in its work on social justice issues. There is also much with which I am at odds and the lack of equality for women tops that list. Loyalty to the tradition of the church has meant until now the exclusively male establishment has resisted women priests. I think that loyalty to Jesus Christ who is the embodiment of equality is more important. Tribal loyalty to the institution has led to a lack of democracy, transparency, financial corruption and the gravest crime of all the desecration of children by priests and even worse the manipulative covering up of these crimes by the senior management of the Church. In this respect loyalty to the institution be damned. This is the time for it to stop. Bishops are not competent to investigate or deal with these matters and it must be a legal as well as moral obligation on them to call the police when there is any suspicion a child is being harmed by a priest or anyone else. In the many hours of discussion on these church matters on our pilgrimages the Big Man often says, "what would the simple man of Gallilee say or do?" Jesus told us exactly what he advocates for those who harm children and it does not involve phoning the diocesan lawyers and insurers first. The sad fact is that many of these abusers were themselves abused in church junior seminaries as they trained for the priesthood. It has been systemic and has been going on for generations. Of course the perpetrators must be punished but the establishment of a Truth Commission as they had in South Africa may be the only way to shed light on this evil, to understand it and to root it out.
So with all of this intense stuff being discussed as the days progress towards Rome and with the exhausting mountains we have climbed we packed up and headed for the river crossing that would finally take us to the steep climb to the Sanctuario.
"Cross the stepping stones" the guidebook advised. I looked. The river was in spate and had burst its banks. Crossing impossible. We dithered and thought and looked at the map and the time and the amount of daylight left. We flagged down the only car which approached. The driver spoke English. "You can cross at another place 2kms from here but at this time it may be better to just follow the road ahead". Off she went and we started walking. The sign said "14 kms" as we walked however the reality dawned that this was now 14 kms up the mountain by road. It was pretty at first, then after an hour or so the sun moved down in the sky. After 7 kms I was becoming increasingly concerned. Earlier we had phoned the hostal where we had booked but the older person we spoke to seemed not to understand anything and put down the phone. "Phone them again," I urged the Big Man. Just then we saw headlights rounding the bend. This was Daniel from the hostal. He knew the river was high and as time went on wondered if all was well. "We can't keep getting lifts the last few kilometres every day", said the Big Man. "Oh yes we can", was the only reply.
Up and up we drove. What would have taken hours more on foot we covered in 10 minutes. Just as well because Daniel explained we had little time to visit the Santuario before it closed. On foot we raced up another hill for another kilometre. It was late but the Franciscans welcomed us warmly. We saw the basilica and the places Saint Francis had been, the relic of his Franciscan habit. We received their sello in the Sacristy and then we were shown down to the Chapel of the Stigmata. I have been in many holy places but this exuded a sense of peace and purity which was tangible. This cynic and doubter was forced on both knees. No wonder in solemn procession the Franciscans go there twice everyday to pray.
We were both drawn to silence as we made our way out into the freezing cold and down the slippery cobbled street to our hostal. Over dinner we talked...about the church, Santiago and our work there and the difficulties to be overcome, how the Camino Chaplaincy might develop and the obstacles being put in its way. Mostly we spoke about Francis. It us likely that in his day compared to now he had his fare share of a corrupt church, fat Bishops, uncaring clergy, tin pot cathedral dictators and lavish clerical living while the poor starved. What did he do? He gave up all material things and went to help lepers. In doing so he drew close to the example Christ himself gave and became our example. And yet it took all of these centuries for a Pope to take his name. Thank God we have one now.
We awoke this morning to freezing mist and frost. The route presented few challenges or difficulties compared to the last few days. The snow was crisp and the path heavy underfoot in places but after a couple of hours the sun shone and we had a very pleasant walk to Pieve Santo Stefano.
As if in answer to my doubts and dilemas the first waymark we saw was the yellow arrow and the yellow tau cross. They have been with us all day and the direction of travel is clear.
And now I'll be quiet. I probably won't blog again for a while. There is a time to talk and a time to pray.