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by: M.J.O. Velasquez

“...but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40:31

The pilgrimage to Europe was actually my mother’s desire. She wanted to gift herself for her 50th birthday. After several years of tedious work and the occurrence of the pandemic, she needed to recharge, reflect, renew, and heal spiritually. Then, suddenly, she decided to bring me along with her.

The road to the pilgrimage began with securing the Schengen Visa first. It would be the ticket to our entry to the countries where we will have our pilgrimage tour namely, Italy, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. We got extremely excited when on July 21st, the Pilgrimage Center, the agency that took charge of the pilgrimage informed us that our visas were granted. Hallelujah!

Next came the time to prepare for the trip. Since it was a two-week event, my mother decided that we wear a uniform to identify us wherever we were. She ordered 15 sets of unique, beautifully designed custom-made sports shirts with patches of our company VER1REV Enterprises Corporation’s tag-lines namely “Caring Most Dearly”, “Tubig at Mineral ni Waterdok”, and “Preciously Cares For You”. Because of the wearing of various designed uniforms each day of the pilgrimage, together with the Waterdok, we were tagged as “The Triplets”.

We began our journey on the midnight of September 13th. We took the flight Emirates Airline heading to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The group consisted of 42 pilgrims. The flight took eight hours and 35 minutes. We overlaid at the Dubai International Airport for four hours prior to getting the connecting flight to Rome, Italy, also through Emirates Airline. The flight consisted of six hours and 35 minutes and we arrived in Rome on September 14th at 3:15 PM. The entire flight was very, lengthy and very tiring of course.

After being cleared through immigration and customs, we proceeded to the tour bus and had our initial tour around Rome. The first time I stepped on Rome, I was in deep awe. The hot weather was filled with a cold breeze just like the cold vibes felt in October here in our country. The Sycamore trees, the little cars, the Sampietrini, which are small box-like road pavement all over Rome and St. Peter Square, the availability of drinking water fountains, water posts and faucets, and the millennial-old architectures and tourist spots were all amazing. I had the impression of what a first world looked like and the fact that it was my first time to be in a European country made it all wonderful.

We visited Sao Paolo alle Tre Fontane or the Church of St. Paul at the Three Fountains, the church in dedication to the martyrdom of St. Paul the Apostle. We also toured around Campo dei Fiori, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum. The Colosseum was a mesmerizing architecture to view. After the short tour, we headed to the hotel and had an Italian dinner consisting of an appetizer, main entree, and dessert.

On the third day, September 15, we had the best exercise. Since most spots were visited on foot, we easily achieved almost 15,000 steps that day visiting the Basilica of St. Paul, Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, inside the Vatican City, Pantheon, and Piazza Navona. All the Basilicas I went to showed wonderful, amazing works of art and architectures. They were filled with Roman or Baroque style arts and designs which were, in themselves, seeming very alive because they encompassed the action or drama of the Saints in sculptures or paintings. Famous and renowned artists, such as Michaelangelo created masterpieces on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which is treated as a holy place today. I felt honored when entering the Vatican City, which itself is one of the wonders of the world. One of my childhood dreams was personally seeing the Sistine Chapel. Doing it for the very first time, I truly felt magical. I was fascinated by the centuries-filled preservation that remained so intact and beautiful. Bernini and Borromini with their masterpieces in Piazza Navona were treated with the most importance of Baroque squares worldwide.

On the fourth day, September 16, we went around the Basilica of St. John Lateran; Scala Santa (Holy Stairs); Basilica of Sta. Maria Maggiore; Basilica of Sta. Praxedes; Cappella di San Zenone; Church of St. Alphonsus where there were relics of the Passion of Christ; Basilica of St. Peter; and Pieta by Michaelangelo. This day was one of the most memorable days because we visited the Scala Santa. Located here are the well-preserved 28 wooden steps that Jesus Christ walked through for His trial by Pontius Pilate. The stairs are to be climbed kneeling down, instead of walking through them, while saying a set of prayers – Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. For those who cannot navigate the flight of stairs kneeling, alternate stairs are available. Prayers said at every step may be dedicated to a loved one or anyone of your choice. I did this with my fellow pilgrims, and I felt every healing, every person I have prayed for, and wished them all the blessings and prayers I have within my heart.

September 17 was our last day in Rome. Then, we visited Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis Assisi and St. Clare.It was here where the Franciscan order was found. We toured the Town of Assisi, the Basilica of Sta. Maria degdi Angeli, Porzuincula where St. Francis spent most of his life, and 13th Century Basilica of St. Francis. The place had a suburb feeling and it appeared more peaceful looking than Rome but it was still filled with beautiful historical architecture.

On September 18, we proceeded to Loreto. We visited the Holy House inside a large basilica which was the home where the Virgin Mary lived, conceived, and raised Jesus. Being inside the Holy House felt holy, serene, and full of spiritual energy. As I touched the house, I felt the remnant of the past that was strongly very present today.

On September 19, we went to San Giovanni Rotondo to visit the Sanctuary of St. Pio of Pietrelcina. It is the church where Padre Pio held his mass and where his books and clothing are contained. We then proceeded to Sala San Francesco, the site where St. Pio greeted the faithful. Another very memorable visit was to the Church of St. Pio of Pietrelcina, also called Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church, which had a new crypt containing the Saint’s tomb. When I saw his body, it was incredible how it was well preserved, and this is true for all the Saints’ tombs that we visited, where a basilica or shrine is made for them. All the spiritual energy inside the church was evidently felt, especially from pilgrims and residents showing respect. We were also able to watch a short documentary film about the life of St. Pio.

On September 20, we visited the Sanctuary of St. Michael, the Archangel. It was a sacred cave that Archangel Michael was believed to have appeared in 490, 492, and 1656 to which he consecrated the said shrine. It was truly an amazing sight to see, a cave where a sanctuary was built, and it was a very spiritually enlightening experience to have attended a mass there. Later that evening, we headed to Bari Port for an overnight ferry ride to Split, Croatia. The Bari Port had an amazing view.

On September 21, we arrived at Split, Croatia. We walked around the inner city with the tour guide describing the history of the architecture built around the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Palace, and we witnessed the Roman heritage of Split, the structures of Renaissance, Gothic structures, Jupiter’s temple, Peristyle, and Cathedral. We saw the Split waterfront or Riva. Being in Split was an unforgettable experience for it gave the near-the-sea vibes with beautiful birds, busy townsfolk, the food, the distinct Croatian designs of the establishments, and the lovely cold breeze. This was the day our flock, Group 7, was tasked to lead the group during mass, entertainment, and other activities that would prevent the pilgrims from having a lengthy boring trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia.

On September 22, we toured around Old Dubrovnik, had witnessed its medieval walls, Large Onofrio’s Fountain, Franciscan Monastery, Clocktower, Sponza Palace, Rector's Palace, Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgen Mary, and Church of St. Blaise. The place gave distinct historical vibes merged with modern architecture, and the interesting information I remembered was the tradition on the Clocktower, where at 11 pm, two statured armies struck the bell and the townsfolk gathered in front of it and sang. While touring, we ate gelato (ice cream), roamed around stores, and admired the beauty of the place. In the afternoon, we traveled to Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, known for the apparition of the Virgin Mary. Our Virgin Mary first appeared on June 24, 1981, to six visionaries from the village and announced to them that she chose the parish in a special way and wished to lead it with a mission of peace and love, and that God exists. We must return to Him for fullness and peace of life.

On September 23, we toured around Medjugorje. It was more rural than the rest of the places we visited earlier but the solemnity of the place was vibrantly felt. We visited the Risen Christ Statue, Apparition Hill, and Blue Cross. Climbing the Apparition Hill was indeed a tedious yet fulfilling adventure. The rocks were steep and edgy, and it was surprising that some pilgrims climbed the hill barefoot. It gave me the impression that every pilgrim on that hill was true to their heartfelt intentions and dedicated to seeing Our Lady. We prayed on the Joyful Mystery of the Holy Rosary led by Fr. Joel Jason while ascending the hill. We saw Our Lady and the Risen Christ when we reached the hilltop. I prayed solemnly. It was indeed a sight to see at the top where numerous pilgrims from all over the world were seen praying sincerely and heartfully. Some related their strange experience. An example was Tita Maya. She described the constant changing of the colors of the surroundings and related how she saw the sun dancing in the sky. I felt the most spiritual energy there and I felt the most assurance that my prayers were heard when I touched the Risen Jesus. After that, proceeded to the Blue Cross to pray for great healing and graces. At night, we attended the Holy Rosary prayer and Holy Mass each for an hour, presided by all their priests. It was astonishing to witness that the church, inside and outside, was filled with many pilgrims from across the world and churchgoers from Medjugorje, which impacted me that they are true, dedicated, and sincere to their religious traditions.

On September 24, the last day in Medjugorje, we went to the Way of the Cross where we prayed the stations of the cross. Then, we headed to Mother’s Village, established by Fr. Slavko Barbaric, which is a solemn place where wounded children needing protection and care stayed during and after the war. This was where we held our last pilgrim mass. Then, we went to Cenacolo Community Center, founded by Sister Elvira, which houses the youth who lost their way in life before looking for a way home to freedom and peace with God as they open themselves to Him and feel His healing. We watched a documentary film about the community center itself, and we placed prayer intentions that are to be sent to the Apparition Hill. In the afternoon, we had our revelation, revealing who our prayer partners were. After knowing who he/she was, we exchanged tokens to remember us when we parted ways after the pilgrimage. All 42 of us shared and hugged one another at the end of the activity.

On September 25, we began our flight back home. After breakfast, we headed to the Sarajevo International Airport, a travel time of about three hours. Our layover was in Dubai once again and after a very lengthy flight, we finally reached home.

I remember that I was all in awe with the paintings, the 2D to 3D structural designs, the mind-blowing preservation of the architectures, and all the solemn, full of spiritual energy, and holiness of the basilicas and shrines we went to. I got accustomed to the daily activities we engaged in, such as the long but fulfilling walks, the daily mass, the morning prayers as a group, and the praying of the rosary in the afternoon. Indeed, when I came back, I truly felt the spiritual renewal in me, got spiritually energized, and constantly prayed for my loved ones. I truly feel blessed and grateful for the experience I had with the 14-day pilgrimage trip to Italy, Croatia, and Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

I am very thankful to my pilgrim group whom I made friends who were kind and thoughtful every trip day and to have learned more insights with them too; for my mom and Doc Rhen, who brought me along on this pilgrimage trip, and made sure I am taken care of and getting the full experience; and most especially to God, for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that He allowed me to experience and which served as an avenue to strengthen my faith more. With this, a new spiritual journey and mission have been instilled in me, to spread the word about the existence of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, that they are very real and protecting us. This serves as a special and precious memory that I will treasure for a lifetime.

“Be an example for the believers, in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12

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