I suppose like many of us I have a group of friends that are very dear to me. They are the type of friends that you may not see for a while but when you get together it’s as if you’ve never been apart. My relationship with them began through Cursillo, as a fourth day group. It started back in 1993 when I was assigned to St. John’s Student Center at Idaho State University. It has been almost 30 years that we have been together.
One time we took a trip to Europe. Our destination was Rome. Our goal, to attend Pentecost Mass at the Vatican and to get as close to John Paul the II as we could.
Instead of flying into Rome and taking the train, we decided to rent a motor home. And the only place we could find one to rent was in Munich, Germany. And so begins the story about “the Narrow Gate” that Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel. It never occurred to us that a motor home is hard to navigate in the older parts and historic centers of European cities.
We picked up the motor home in Munich, and it came with an old Garmin Navigation System, that, of course, only spoke German. After a tour of the city and the obligatory stop at the famous Munich Beer Gardens we took off. As we were driving we saw the sign for Dachau; the first of the Concentration Camps set up in Germany. It is now a monument to the millions that were killed during the Second World War. I did not know this but Dachau had a special “priest block.” Of the 2,720 priests of all religions, 2,579 were Catholic. Of those held in Dachau, 1,034 Catholic priests did not survive.
The gates to Dachau are not narrow at all. They are large enough for a train and railroad cars to pass through. And on the gate it says “Work will make you free.”
Turning south to Rome we saw the beautiful castles in Germany. We parked at the bottom of the hill because there was no way we could drive a motor home up to the gates of a German castle.
We passed through Salzburg, the city center which is pedestrian only. Because we had to go to our hotel in the city center we got to drive through the narrow gates. My friend who was driving ran into a tourist bus and tore off the mirror. We had to call the insurance company which was located in New Jersey. They couldn’t believe we had actually rented a motor home for a trip in Europe.
Each city, be it there or here, has a sign or monument that tells you that you have arrived. Look at Moscow. On the south end there is a sculpture of a seed or legume welcoming you to the Palouse. On the north, an arrow or dart… I am not sure. Wherever we go, we hear the words of our Lord… “The gate is open, it is narrow, but it is open.”
The Shroud of Turin was easy to get to, it is such a famous pilgrimage site. Located near the Cathedral in Turin, some believe it is fake. But if you see it, you are humbled. All you need to do is drop your secular baggage at the door. A door that is narrow, but open. You don’t need a passport, visa, green card, work permit, refugee travel document or a re-entry permit. Isaiah says: “Thus saith the Lord: I know their works and their thoughts, and I come to gather them from all nations of every language. They shall come and see my glory.”
When we got to Florence, for some reason the Garmin Lady finally switched to Italian but we found a way to switch her back to English. which didn’t help, because the gates to Florence are so narrow there is a giant parking lot at the train station that everyone has to use. Narrow, but open. We stayed up the hill in Fiesole at an old Jesuit Monastery and had plenty of room to park. We switched to the local bus system. We were slow learners.
The word “discipline” used in today’s reading from St. Paul to the Hebrews doesn’t mean being chastised or corrected or forced into doing something because you were bad. The reading is actually very comforting when read in the original language. In Greek, “discipline” means training, correction, guidance. In Paul’s case, he presents the word “discipline” as a continuous workout for the spiritual life, life-long training that might even help with our suffering, following the road to Calvary.
Further south, as beautiful, holy and spiritual the town of Assisi is, don’t even think about driving there. Assisi is meant for walking the streets just as St. Francis and St. Clare did.
The mountain town of Siena is on the pilgrimage route to Rome. The relics of St. Catherine of Siena can be found both in Siena (her head) and in Rome (her body). It is a long story and continuing saga (!) which you can even find on Google today.
On the last leg of our pilgrimage to Rome , we made it with three days to spare before Pentecost. We were trying to get to the convent in which we were staying, but just couldn’t make it. We saw the street, but we were always on the wrong side of the road. My friend kept saying… “There’s the street we want. There’s Senso Unico Street. That’s the one we should be on.” So my friend driving, ignoring all the advice of the Gamin lady, just jumped the curb and the median, in the motor home. We did end up on Senso Unico Street. We soon found out that Senso Unico means “one way.”
The nuns at the convent were scandalized by the motor home, but they let us park it in the back. You could see the dome of St. Peter’s from the patio of the convent. We had almost reached our destination. Jerusalem, the holy mountain, the new Temple.
We had not lost heart. The gates to the holy city were open. After more than a week, we could walk to St. Peter’s in five minutes. As Isaiah said: “I shall bring all my brothers and sisters from all the nations and present them as an offering of the Lord.”
Going to the North American College, which both Fr. Chase and I attended, we picked up our tickets for the Pentecost Mass. As we knocked on the door of the College we hoped that they wouldn’t say, just like Jesus in the Gospel “Go away, I don’t know where you are from!”
Our pilgrimage ended as it does for so many others: standing at the doors at St. Peter’s. They are gigantic, and far from narrow. If anything they are intimidating and a bit humbling. But they were open and we walked in.
The next day on Pentecost, my deacon friend and I met Fr. Ron Wekerle in the Chapel of the Holy Eucharist inside St. Peter’s. It is where all the priests and deacons vest for mass.
My other friends were waiting outside and when the seating opened they walked right into the Diplomatic Section and sat down, just like they belonged there!
That day, during Mass with a future saint we all rejoiced that we were able to live out the gospel as Jesus had called us to do. To strive to go through the narrow gate… for it is always open for those who are strong.
Even though the trip began in a motor home, it was the Holy Spirit that made it a pilgrimage. As the Gospel says today: “And people will come from the east and the west, and from the north and the south…” and with a little bit of discipline, guidance and suffering “…they will recline at the table in the Kingdom of God. For behold! Some are last who will be first and some are first who shall be last.”