Pilgrim's progress

HOLY LANDS

Pilgrim's progress

Of faith & betrayal An unusual sculpture of Judas kissing Jesus. Photo by author and Mark Antony

Last May, I went to Europe on a wing and a prayer — literally. And I became part of a statistic called the religious tourist. You know, the tourist who’s happy to pose in front of the Eiffel Tower but happier to kneel down at the grotto of Our Lady at Lourdes. Apparently, this kind of tourist is on the rise.

Ask Melvin Fernandez, head of operations (Europe), Bible Tours. The company (bibletours.in) started out offering pilgrimages to the Holy Land in Mideast Asia since the hostility there made it difficult for individuals to travel on their own. Five thousand pilgrims later, they added the European pilgrimage, subsidising costs to reach out to even middle and lower middle income groups. And it looked like none of them had heard about the recession. In fact, pilgrims “were more keen to go to holy places to be rid of the recession curse,” says Melvin.

Creswell F Weightman, director (finance and operations), Axis Holidays, agrees this sector is recession-proof. The company deals with pilgrimages and specialised trips for educational institutions. They’ve been flooded with enquiries for their Lenten pilgrimage to Holy Land in February, to be led by Fr Adolf Washington. And in May, they will be organising a trip to Europe for 100 priests from Bangalore.
Pilgrims are mostly retired and middle-aged professionals. J A Lourdraj and A Sophie Lourdraj, a retired couple, made the Holy Land trip last year and the Europe pilgrimage this year. For them, “it was a dream come true” and they are happy that their finances and health helped them make it.

The European pilgrimage focuses on the places where Mother Mary appeared — Lourdes and Fatima — churches dedicated to famous saints and, of course, Rome and Vatican City. There are some secular sights thrown in too. This is the route we took:

France
We started our tour with a taste of Paris, just a taste. We climbed the Eiffel Tower, took in the Champs Elysses, the most expensive bit of real estate on the Continent, and Concorde Square, had a good look at the Louvre (from the bus!) and enjoyed a cruise along the River Seine.

But we were in for some bad luck. We were there on May 1, Labour Day, and were forced to wrap up our tour early since the French are very, very active on days that hint at revolution (they make up by being laidback the rest of the year but then, who are we to complain!) Paris also meant a visit to the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal.
We travelled from Paris to Lourdes on the TGV, the fastest train, but I must confess that the speed didn’t exactly leave me gasping. Lourdes is a charming little town where Mother Mary appeared to a 14-year-old, asthmatic peasant girl called Bernadette Soubirous in the 19th century.
The impressive church is built on a rock and you’ll see a long line of people on wheelchairs and stretchers making their way to the grotto.
Also famous is the spring which Mother Mary asked Bernadette to dig up. This stream is known for its healing qualities and millions flock here for a dip in the holy pond and in the hope of a cure.

Portugal
We spent two days in Fatima, another little town where several Marian apparitions took place in the early 20th century. Here, Mother Mary appeared to three shepherd children — Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco. The Chapel of Apparitions stands at the exact spot where Our Lady is said to have appeared.
Fatima is quieter than Lourdes but the crowds well up during the candle-light procession every evening. Mark Antony, a 20-something pilgrim and the youngest in his group, was thrilled when asked to carry Our Lady’s statue during the procession. “It was the icing on the cake,” he says. “It was the greatest achievement for me and the pilgrimage itself is something I will not forget till my dying day.”
 While travelling through Lisbon, we visited the church where St Anthony was baptized. One of our Portuguese guides grumbled that the Italians had usurped their saint! But to see St Anthony’s famous shrine in Padua, we had to wait to get to Italy.

Italy
Our first stop was Rome. We were lucky to be in Vatican City on a Wednesday, the day the Pope addresses general audiences. Of course, you can barely see the Pope but giant screens ensure you don’t miss much.
 
At the Vatican Museum, be prepared to walk and be awed. My favourites: ‘The Sistine Chapel’ with 12,000 sq ft of the ceiling painted by Michelangelo, the ‘Pieta’ and ‘The Last Judgement’. The latter’s nude figures created quite a stir then and were later covered up by Daniele da Volterra, cheekily referred to as ‘Il Braghettone’ or the painter of breeches! Other sites to see at Rome: The Holy Steps, Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum.

While in Italy, we also visited Assisi, a beautiful town in the mountains where St Francis founded the Franciscan order. And in Padua is the basilica dedicated to St Anthony, also a Franciscan and the patron saint for lost or stolen stuff. You’ll find his relics in the Treasury Chapel — his incorruptible tongue, jaw and the cartilage of his larynx. Interestingly, these are parts used for speech. And St Anthony was a powerful speaker, so powerful that even the fish headed to the shore to listen to his sermon!

Our final stop was Venice — glorious Venice! — 121 islets, 435 bridges, canals, gondalas, piazzas and churches. We took a walking tour through St Marks’ Island with its magnificent basilica and square and street vendors trying to peddle fake Louis Vuitton bags when the polizia were not looking!

We shopped and even stained our souls by buying some of the illegal stuff. The pilgrims had progressed but a bit of retail therapy is always welcome!

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