It’s been over 2 weeks since I’ve been able to write a blog post, but not for lack of desire to do so. Today marks day 15 of the Benedictine College whirlwind Europe tour in which we are following the steps of the apostles and more. We’re actually in Rome right now and were just standing in St. Peter’s Basilica yesterday, but I want to work chronologically to share our group’s experiences with you. The first 10 days of the trip consisted in an amazing land and sea tour of Greece and Turkey. Among our group were people ranging from under one year old to over seventy, including six Benedictine College students, my immediate family of four, my parents, one student’s grandmother, and a few family members of another student. The map below traces our itinerary.
As the title of this post indicates, we have seen several key sites in the early Church over the past couple weeks. We began in Athens, where we were able to preach from the Acts of the Apostles on the very spot where Paul proclaimed Christ’s resurrection to the Gentiles (Acts 17). We immersed ourselves in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, site of ecumenical councils and for centuries the most exquisite church in the world. We prayed the rosary in the very house where Mary lived in Ephesus, and we stood inside the cave on Patmos where St. John wrote Revelation. We basked in the sun on a beach at Rhodes, near the very place where St. Paul was shipwrecked (a different kind of experience, granted!).
As if this was not enough, the trip was actually more than a pilgrimage. I was asked a great question by one traveler: “What would you say is the highlight or main point of the trip?” As I see it, this particular trip had not one but three focuses due to the uniqueness of the sites we encountered: First, it was a pilgrimage of faith in which we set ourselves in the very places some of the apostles lived and prayed for their intercession. We also arranged masses and talks from local priests who shared their insights into the Church in Greece and Turkey, the relationship of Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy, and the life of Christians in their region today. Like other pilgrims, we had to battle elements such as the heat, seasickness, long days, small quarters, and–in the case of my family–tired and needy children. As with other pilgrimages, I think much fruit came about through these trials. I get so much joy from witnessing the wonder and edification of pilgrims in these places. Second, it was an academic experience that put us in touch with the roots of Greek culture, the Church, and Western civilization which was born through the fusing of the two. When we stood on Athens’ acropolis and in its agora, we were retracing the steps of those whom we have to thank for democracy and philosophy. In preparation for the trip, students read Greek myths in order to comprehend the significance of the temples and statues we saw, and they read the philosophy of Plato and Socrates to examine their critiques of these myths. They then read from the Acts of the Apostles to get a grasp of Paul’s journeys and preaching in addition to the Pauline epistles associated with the sites we visited (Ephesians, 1-2 Corinthians, Revelation). By this time they were probably tired of reading, but I had them next read some works of St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp of Smyrna since we docked in nearby Smyrna (modern day Izmir). These men were “apostolic fathers,” meaning that their lives and writings show us what Christianity looked like in the generation following the apostles. Polycarp, for example, was a disciple of John, and if you read the epistles of Ignatius they sound a lot like Paul â€“ as well as Catholicism today!
But the intellectual significance of these sites does not stop here. Students also read and heard about the ecumenical councils of Nicea, Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), and Ephesus. We owe our articulation of the Creed itself to the work of the Fathers at these councils. I was particularly moved when standing in the sites where the early Church labored and gave birth to the doctrines we still profess every day today. Finally, students read from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the principal liturgy of Greek Orthodoxy which has remained fundamentally unchanged for centuries upon centuries. This gave those who read from it the ability to better appreciate the similarities and differences between Eastern and Western Christianity as well as their respective beauties. During the trip, my wife and I also took many opportunities to admire the iconography of the Greek churches and to unfold its meaning to the group. I also, of course, had to buy a couple inexpensive icons along the way. Third, the trip was just plain fun. It so happens that the only way you can really get to all the sites we visited with a group is to take a cruise. Thus we got to enjoy the thrills of group meetings on the deck overlooking the crystal blue Aegean sea, astoundingly beautiful arrivals into some of the greatest ports in the world, and having a glass of wine next to a pool (I hardly drank any, but the wine was actually much cheaper than the beer–can you believe it?). The cruise was also great because we traveled while we slept at night and would often arrive in port at our next destination at 6:30 in the morning ready for another full day. It was also a life-saver because we didn’t have to change hotels and carry around our 3-month supply of goods needed for a small family’s survival.
Oh, and did I mention that, since we took the cruise, we “had to” stop at a couple places for their beaches and vistas? Santorini, for example, is the quintessential Greek isle. When we were there we felt like we were in a postcard–because that’s where all the postcard pictures actually come from. When we tendered back through the center of the island which has been all water since the volcano blew its top a few thousand years ago, we could see the sun setting on one side and the moon rising on the other. We were sitting above a live volcano, one which once witnessed one of the greatest explosions of earth’s history whose ashes reached all the way to Greenland. I couldn’t help but think both, ” hope this experience will never end” and “Get us outta here before she blows again!” With that said, this post has gone on long enough and the reader who has come this far is probably likewise ready to move on from here. Over the coming days and weeks I will be posting a lot of pictures from this trip and from our experience in Italy.