Reflections on the MSSJ Pilgrimage to Rome

Pope small

The Pope delivers his Urbi et Orbi address and blessing in April 2017

On Easter Monday 2017, the Mormon Society of St. James commenced its fifth major pilgrimage, this time to Rome. It was actually our third stage on the Via Francigena which we started in 2015 by walking from Canterbury to Dover and then through Switzerland to Great Saint Bernard Pass. 

Before taking the train to our point of departure about 125 kilometres from Rome, however, many of us met in The Eternal City on Easter Sunday to hear Pope Francis deliver his Urbi et Orbi address and blessing.

It was a stirring feeling to be among the capacity throng—around 90,000 people—on St. Peter’s Square that day. I’d watched it on television before, but of course it was different being there with the assembled faithful, the tourists—to be honest, I felt more like a tourist than a pilgrim at the time, though I did put on a pair of pants to show a little respect—and the purveyors of selfie sticks. With all the Italian I have scraped together over a decade of vacationing there, I understood elements that were familiar [1]:

Today, throughout the world, the Church echoes once more the astonishing message of the first disciples: “Jesus is risen!” – “He is truly risen, as he said!”

as well as topical:

May the Good Shepherd come to the aid of Ukraine, still beset by conflict and bloodshed, to regain social harmony. May he accompany every effort to alleviate the tragic sufferings of those affected by the conflict.

This passage was particularly meaningful to me for a couple of reasons. I serve in the church with a man who has played a key role in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine since it was deployed in 2014. And I had arrived that morning on the night train from Vienna sharing a compartment with two Russians and a Ukrainian. The atmosphere had been frosty at first, but when the train pulled out of the station the tradition of sharing one’s food on long journeys overcame political differences as grocery sacks full of oranges, sausages, bread and alcohol were produced from under the seats and shared generously. Although the experience of those living along the lines of conflict in eastern Ukraine suggests otherwise, I hoped that what I had observed on a small scale in that compartment might be replicated on a larger scale.

After the Pope finished, I had an opportunity to put those thoughts into words when a CBS camera crew spotted our group and asked us for comments that would be sent to our respective affiliates back home. I don’t know if mine were aired, but a Utah station did broadcast a clip of two locals in our party.

St. Peter small

The next morning the group met in Viterbo. There were twelve of us, mostly from the US, though the UK, Austria, France and Russia were also represented. We followed a scenic route through the countryside to Vetralla, Sutri, Campagnano di Roma and La Storta. From there it was long a walk through the surprisingly leafy Roman suburbs to the Vatican, which we reached on Friday. You can catch a glimpse of the way through the slideshow below.

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German speakers are fond of the proverb “Der Weg ist das Ziel (The journey is the destination)” and I found that to be particularly fitting on this pilgrimage. For one, arriving in Rome was somewhat anti-climactic following the pageantry of Easter Sunday. A week later, the Vatican was back to business as usual with a gauntlet of street vendors to be run for the last few hundred meters and incredibly long lines of people waiting to enter the basilica upon arriving.

Another reason was personal; in years past I’d been weighed down by secret sorrows and looking for answers to knotty problems, but this year there was an unusual spring in my step following some good news I’d received in the days before beginning my journey. And so I was content to renew old friendships and make new acquaintances along the way rather than pursue any particular path of enlightenment. I’m sure the need to do so will reassert itself sooner than later; in the meantime, spending time with good friends was a valuable way to gird up my loins for the challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead.

For next year we are planning on shifting our focus to the United States, so check back for more information as plans coalesce.

[1]: The gaps in my listening comprehension were filled with the English translation of the Pope’s address here.



  1. Aaron Brown says:

    Sorry to have missed it this year. Sounds like another great experience.

    Aaron B

  2. Next year we’re looking at the west coast.

  3. Wonderful thoughts and photographs. Thank you. I was so glad to do this with you again.

  4. Kirsten Barksdale says:

    Thank you Peter for the write up, the beautiful photography and for your company in this marvelous experience. I’ll never forget when you got locked out of the church where we were staying one night. Good times.

  5. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, Peter. One of these years I really do hope to join you.

  6. Kevin Barney says:


  7. A. LeBaron says:

    Peter: Reading your experiences as a pilgrim made me realize a pilgrimage would be a helpful thing for me. My two daughters and I just returned from the Camino de Santiago. It was the best 35 days of our lives. Thank you!

  8. A.LeBaron, good to hear it! Where did you start?

  9. A. LeBaron says:

    We started in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. We took rest days in Burgos and Leon and had our packs transported 3 times to conserve our health.

  10. Tumbleweed says:

    peterllc on another thread: “I put far more time and energy into my pilgrimage posts, for example, and the response is pretty much just tumbleweeds blowing down empty streets with the forlorn sound of a train whistle in the distance.”
    I couldn’t let this go by, without commenting that I love the pilgrimage posts. The pilgrimages sound wonderful. I wish I could go. I’ve never been a speedy hiker and I’m much slower after last year’s knee surgeries. I’ll have to continue appreciating the pilgrimages vicariously. Thanks.

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