It was Sister Irene McGrath's first trip to Italy, and, as fate would have it, she couldn't have picked a better time.
On Oct. 19, McGrath found herself in St. Peter's Square, among 300,000 other faithful who had come to witness Pope John Paul II's beatification of Mother Teresa.
It was a moment that McGrath, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth for 59 years, won't forget.
"It was great. Seeing all those people, you realize what the kingdom of God is like -- people from all over, speaking different languages," she said.
McGrath was one of 37 people who participated in a pilgrimage to holy places Oct. 14-24 in Italy, sponsored by St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 1234 Ky.
The trip initially was planned to focus on the lives and spiritual good works of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare and Padre Pio, who was canonized by the pope in 2002 as Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. But, when the Vatican announced that Mother Teresa would be beatified Oct. 19 -- the last step before the canonization of a candidate for sainthood -- the organizers of the pilgrimage immediately realized that they would be able to incorporate that historic event into the group's travels in Italy.
The group's trip abroad also happened to coincide with Vatican celebrations of the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's pontificate and the pope's naming of new cardinals from around the world.
Members of the St. John group were among the hundreds of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square for the beatification ceremony and a Mass at which the pope was the main celebrant.
"It was really just a matter of luck," said Dave Guth, who joined the pilgrimage with his wife, Kathy. "We had the trip all planned out, and then they set out the beatification schedule. What a coincidence."
Visiting holy places
The trip to Italy was the third major pilgrimage that a group from St. John has taken in recent years. In October 2000, the St. John group visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe near Mexico City. In 2001, the group's trip was dubbed "Pubs and Prayers," featuring a visit to Ireland's national Marian shrine, Our Lady of Knock, in County Mayo.
The latest pilgrimage turned out to be the biggest one yet, according to Judy Brzoska, a longtime member of St. John who has organized each trip.
The original purpose of the pilgrimage to Italy was to follow in the footsteps, and visit the holy places, of St. Francis, St. Clare and Padre Pio. Then the Vatican announced the beatification date of Mother Teresa, the Albanian nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity, an order based in Calcutta, India, in 1949. Brzoska and the Rev. Charles Polifka, St. John's pastor, decided to alter the group's itinerary so the group would have the opportunity to be in Rome Oct. 19.
While in Rome, the group visited the city's four major basilicas: St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. John Latern, St. Mary's Major and St. Peter's.
The group also visited the catacombs where early Christians were buried in underground tombs.
Elsewhere in Italy, the group's travels included visits to sites such as: San Giovanni Rotondo, the place where Padre Pio lived and worked; Assisi, where St. Francis started the Franciscan Order and St. Clare began an order known today as The Poor Clares; and Monte San Angelo, a town in which Catholics believe the Archangel Michael appeared.
"You could do this pilgrimage on your own, but I'm not sure you'd know what you were seeing. Father Charles keeps stressing during the Masses and the rosaries the theme of the pilgrimage. It's not just a trip -- it's got a different purpose," Brzoska said.
Tears streaming down face
Witnessing Mother Teresa's beatification, and getting to see the pope, were among the highlights of the pilgrimage.
"We had a beautiful morning (in St. Peter's Square), and it was a gorgeous celebration," Polifka said. "But I think all of us were very saddened by the pope. He's extremely frail. As we were leaving, we realized it was his last blessing we would receive -- kind of an emotional moment for everybody."
A Capuchin Franciscan friar, Polifka had been to beatifications and canonizations at the Vatican before.
"I had two opportunities to be personally introduced to the pope in 1988 and 1994, and I have pictures of that. But just to see him then and to see him now -- it made a strong impression on all of us," he said.
Brzoska was similarly moved by the experience.
"It was a really beautiful ceremony, done in different languages. They had this huge picture of Mother Teresa that they unveiled when she was beatified. When the pope came out, they all shouted, 'Viva il papa!' (Long live the pope)" she said.
"I went with the idea of 'I'm going to just observe all this,' but when the pope came out, I put my camera on autofocus, because I had tears streaming down my face, and I couldn't see. And I wasn't the only one who felt that way."