Family, friends, clergy and staff of the diocesan offices gathered to wish us well. There were tears, laughter and an abundance of nervous energy. This was going to be big and not for the faint-hearted. The thing that struck me was the genuine love and support of all those gathered to farewell us – their embrace was warm and welcome as we boarded what would be the first of many buses.
It is a long way to Europe. The pilgrims who have experienced the long haul flight knew what lay ahead, but for those of us who have never travelled to Europe, including many of the students, we were in for a rude awakening!
It took 32 hours from leaving Newcastle West to our arrival in Venice. Few of us slept for more than 3 hours in total. We watched a lot of movies, gathered in small groups around the galley to stretch and laugh. We admired families travelling with babies and children and some of us shared some amazing conversations with people we didn’t really know, but already consider a treasured friend. An open heart and economy class seats can certainly expedite friendships!
We stopped for a short time in Bangkok to refuel and share our collective horror that we still had 23 hours to endure. We then flew to Dubai which is clearly the hottest place in the world, with a dawn temperature of 39 degrees. The heat seeped into our bones, uninvited. Finally we were on our last leg of the journey, Italy becoming tantalisingly closer with every hour.
Nothing can prepare you for your first glimpse of Venice. We weary pilgrims realised that though the flight is long and full of discomfort, it is worth every second to see such a place.
We were taken by boat from the airport into Venice, with our guides, Salvatore and Silvio, pointing out all the famous landmarks along the way – our history lessons had begun. Our group stayed in two separate hotels and after settling in our rooms, we met for dinner at a local restaurant for pizza (of course). Some pilgrims almost fell asleep in their dinner, but it was a great start to the pilgrimage and most managed to sleep well that first night. The lack of cars in Venice made it easy for us to sleep – for such a busy city it is wonderfully quiet at night.
Our full day in Venice was magical from start to finish. We walked to St Mark’s Square and were taken on a guided tour of the magnificent basilica, where the floors undulate and the walls are literally covered in gold. The history of the recovery of St Mark’s remains by two Venetian merchants was fascinating.
Everywhere we went was a feast for the senses. It was hard to know where to look, but having expert guides show us through key landmarks brings the ancient stories to life. After the basilica we toured the Doges Palace and walked across the Bridge of Sighs. Again, the sheer scale of the place, the history within every room and the art left us awestruck. The stories of the doges and the people who met their death from the prisons next door were fascinating.
The afternoon and evening were spent enjoying all the wonderful things this great city has to offer, such as gondola rides, Italian food and exploring the alleys, bridges and shops. Most pilgrims reported over 20,000 steps for the day. We have to work off those gelatos somehow!
A highlight for pilgrims was Mass, celebrated in the crypt of St Mark’s, an ancient place where you could smell the water seeping ever upward, where the sounds of our worship echoed through the chambers. It was a privilege to see a part of this amazing church that so few are able to enjoy and a moment that pilgrims won’t forget. Bishop Bill took the opportunity to give thanks for our safe journey and remind us that in this Year of Mercy we are being asked to find that mercy within our own hearts and actively show this to others.
Leaving Venice on Sunday was difficult. It is a place of such beauty and of course most of us felt we had barely scratched the surface. But more wonderful things await and we can always return again (as if we needed an excuse).
Remember to keep an eye out for photos of our pilgrimage mascot, Murray the kangaroo, known to all as Muzza, enjoying special adventures.
OBSERVATIONS: The trip over
“The flight to Europe reminded me of bungy jumping – something I’m happy I did, but am in no hurry to repeat!”
“The flight is an endurance test, although it’s better to endure the flight than swim to Europe.”
Fr Peter Street
“If you have insomnia, it sucks.”
OBSERVATIONS: Looking forward
“I’m most looking forward to the opening Mass at WYD; just being with millions of others celebrating our faith together. We can just be ourselves and nurture our faith.”
“I’m really looking forward to visiting the places of the saints, especially St Anthony”.
“I’m really looking forward to following the footsteps of the saints throughout Italy. I’m especially fascinated by the story of St Francis and St Clare as their charism really resonates with me.”
“I really loved the Bridge of Sighs. I realised how much we take our lives for granted because I was picturing what prisoners condemned to die would have felt. Being there helped me realise how important it is to live life to the full.”
“I really enjoyed Venice – all the architecture, history, the gondolas; it is just beautiful.”
“We were lucky enough to be in Venice for the Festival of the Redeemer, a favourite of Venetians. It is the annual celebration of the end of the plague and fireworks lit up the sky. They create a bridge across the Grand Canal joining the Church of the Redeemer (Spinster’s Church) with the Holy Spirit Church and you can walk across only once a year. The canal was full of decorated boats and the crowds were everywhere; it was a wonderful celebratory vibe.”