In the spring of 2016 I met several times with a group of adults in preparation for a pilgrimage to Italy. With a theme of syncretism, or the blending of faith traditions, I shared with them information about Americans traveling to Italy in the 19th century. Details about popular authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe initiated the discussions. However, lesser-known figures, such as newspaper correspondents Margaret Fuller and Anne Hampton Brewster, added to the diversity of experiences. These writers took to Italy varied views of religious traditions–whether New England Protestantism, the “new” Transcendentalism, or Roman Catholicism. However, all were changed by what they learned of another culture’s traditions while abroad. Something similar was in store for the contemporary group of adults.
A Thematic Itinerary
After the initial gatherings, the group set out on a ten-day trip. A uniquely-organized itinerary distinguished the days from a typical vacation tour. The itinerary’s way points included Rome, La Verna, Ravenna and Venice. Most important, however, was the group’s aim: deepening travelers’ knowledge of western religious traditions and the influences of political situations upon them.
The group journey was co-led with Dr. John White, Professor Emeritus of Loyola University, Chicago. Because his strengths include early Christianity, his insights lead the group to several lesser-visited sites in and around Rome. These included Constantia’s Mausoleum, Santa Pudenziana and San Stefano Rotundo. Their mosaics and architecture reflect beliefs much different from those of religious sites designed in the Renaissance and afterward. The group’s interests in the social activism of Saint Francis of Assisi took us off the beaten path to the Sanctuary La Verna, a site associated with his early spiritual experiences. This mountaintop retreat in Umbria provided a place of respite and reflection following the packed days among Rome’s urban chaos.