Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Pilgrimage Posts: Saint Catherine's Siena

Rome is a spectacular city and it is always hard for me to leave there. I think Pier Giorgio must have liked Rome, too. He once had a friend from Vienna named Maria Fischer who visited the piazza of St. Peter’s but did not like it. He teased her about this and never let her forget it!

The day we left Rome was Monday, June 29th, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. These great saints, in addition to being important to Pier Giorgio, are also the patron saints of the city of Rome. In honor of their feast day, nearly everything in Rome is closed on June 29th. However, it was also the day for the new cardinals to receive the pallium from the Holy Father, so there was a lot of religious activity. The pope gave a special Angelus address that day.

In the morning, we had another short visit from Wanda Gawronska who surprised us by showing up at our hotel during breakfast. Our driver for the rest of our journey met us with our bus. His name was Rosario. It was comforting to have a busdriver whose name means rosary! We headed off to Siena – home of St. Catherine.

It was fitting that we would begin our journey to Pier Giorgio’s home in northern Italy on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. During the last week of his life, it was this same day that he began his journey to his eternal homeland and began showing the early signs of the polio that would ravage his strong body. According to his sister’s beautiful book, My Brother Pier Giorgio: His Last Days, he was still in good spirits on that day and joked with the family maid to bring him two cigars: “One for St. Peter and one for St. Paul; it’s a double feast today!”

We arrived in Siena a little behind schedule but were still able to say Mass in the chapel in the basilica of San Domenico. This chapel is a special place because it is located directly behind the head of St. Catherine. I know it is hard to believe that there was a time when it seemed appropriate to separate the relics of saints but, nonetheless, it is a part of our church history. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the body of St. Catherine is in Rome at the basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Her incorrupt head, however, is on display in Siena at the church of San Domenico. The sacristan who helped us prepare for Mass in the chapel there explained that three separate keys are required to open up the reliquary and remove her head.

(As an aside, bathrooms in Italy are always an adventure and Siena was no exception. We had to pay 50 centesimi to use the “WC.” You enter the ladies room through a turnstile after depositing your coin!)

After Mass, we went to visit the home of St. Catherine and were able to see the place where she slept, the family’s former kitchen and other places of interest. We were also able to visit the chapel where the Crucifix is the very one that St. Catherine was praying in front of when she first received the stigmata. This did not take place in Siena but the Crucifix is there now.

Siena is a lovely town to visit. We came here because of Pier Giorgio’s great devotion to St. Catherine. He was reading her book, The Dialogues, during the last week of his life and found great consolation in it. In fact, on June 30th, 1925, four days before his death, he visited a friend and read a page from St. Catherine’s account of a meeting she had with Christ. Pier Giorgio exclaimed how fortunate St. Catherine was to see Jesus while she was alive and said that he envied her. As it turned out, it wouldn’t be very long after making that comment that he would be seeing Jesus.

An unexpected bonus for our trip to Siena was that we happened to arrive just days before the running of the famous horserace – “Il Palio.” In Siena, each person is born into one of 17 regions and has a lifetime affiliation with that region. Flags from each region fly all over the town and depict the mascot for the region. Near St. Catherine’s home, the banners of her region, Oca, proudly bear the symbol of a goose. Prior to the Palio, each region’s horse is brought into church to be blessed. As our luck would have it, when we came out of the gift shop next to St. Catherine’s house, a large crowd was in the courtyard. They were wearing the bandana of the Oca clan. The horse they would enter in the race was being led in a circle and cheered for. How fun to see St. Catherine’s team horse!

One of the most famous piazzas in all of Italy is located in Sienathe Piazza del Campo. Among other things, it is noted for its unique shape. On the day we spent in Sienna, the Piazza was prepared for the horse race and the atmosphere was extra festive. We had a nice Italian lunch while watching more of the preparations being made. It was strange to be walking on top of horseprints in the Piazza!

The only time we had a bit of bad weather was toward the end of our visit in Siena. It started to rain as we were walking back toward the church of San Domenico. Several of us were caught under the eaves of a building and had to make a dash through the rain to get back to the bus. It was fun getting slightly soaked in Siena! Pier Giorgio would have loved it! We left after a great day and headed to Florence where we would continue our wonderful journey in Pier Giorgio’s footsteps. Until tomorrow…Verso l’alto!


Michele said...

Siena was my favorite city, though I truly enjoyed all the cities we visited. I think I loved being somewhere I know was meaningful to Pier Giorgio, but also I felt like we had stepped backwards hundreds of years in time in some way. I could almost feel the presence of those who lived in the time of St. Catherine as we "rubbed shoulders" with so many other visitors and with those who live in Siena. Catherine's writings have come alive in a new way which I am still exploring.

Anonymous said...

Ah Siena...the artist in me truly appreciates the uniqueness of this city. It is not the typical medieval (gothic)designs that I remember from my arts history classes. It gave of a more lively feel. Everything seems to be alive in this city. Seeing the house where St. Catherine used to live was my favorite part in our trip here as well as her head in the San Domineco Church. My least favorite part? When I got sick after it rained:) We had to half walked and half ran to get to the bus. But the rain came from GOD so it is a grace. Or it maybe St. Catherine's tears as we left Siena :)