Busy working father Mark Sylvester explains why he felt compelled to tackle the arduous 1,000-mile ancient pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome
The light was fading as I climbed the steps leading to the little sanctuary chapel of Madonna della Guardia. It was the first day of June, but at Cisa, the 3,500-foot high pass over Italy's Apennine mountains, the wind was cold and blew icy rain into my eyes.
Unlike so many doors of isolated churches in Britain this one was open and inside all was candle-lit calm. I bent my knee before the altar and said a Hail Mary as untold numbers of pilgrims before me had done. I thought of the Church Fathers who knew that the simple act of travelling to holy places was only half the story; St Augustine had cautioned pilgrims: "Go back into yourself: the truth lives in the person's heart."
And it was in that little chapel hallowed by the prayers of the faithful, as a storm brewed outside its walls, that I became aware that my own physical pilgrimage through space and time had finally joined hands with my spiritual journey.
Cisa is the highest point in Italy on the Via Francigena, the old pilgrim road to Rome which is experiencing a revival after more than 400 years of slow decline.
One reason for the route's renaissance can be traced to the work of Italian road archaeologist Giovanni Caselli. In 1985 he reconstructed the journey from England to Rome taken in 989 by English churchman Sigeric, who was invested as Archbishop of Canterbury and received his cope and pallium from John XV.
In 1994 the Via was incorporated into the list of cultural routes launched seven years earlier by the Council of Europe, which in turn prompted the formation of the Association Internationale Via Francigena (AIVF). In 2001 the Via received the patronage of the Holy See.
The Italian government has been keen to re-awaken interest in a route that was described in 2006 by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People as one that had helped "give a face to Europe".
Last October, outside the castle of Monteriggioni in Tuscany, Italian Premier Romano Prodi unveiled the first of 1,544 new signposts to help breathe life into the motto of the AIVF: Omnes Viae Romam Perducunt (all roads lead to Rome).
Sigeric took 80 days on horseback to reach Rome from Canterbury. But with a wife in London and the modern demands of work I had just one week on the Via, by bike. I flew to Milan before picking up the pilgrim route at Pavia, a little over 370 miles from Rome. Church authorities require a cyclist to ride at least 250 miles to qualify for a pilgrim Testimonium on arrival at St Peter's (walkers must cover at least 80 miles).
My journey followed as closely as possible that of Sigeric: after Pavia on to Piacenza, Fornovo, Lucca, Siena, San Quirico. Bolsena, Viterbo and then Rome.
The path was ancient by Sigeric's time, having been established by the legions of
republican Rome heading north towards the Alps and over what was later to be called the Great St Bernard Pass into Gaul and beyond.
When exactly it became a Christian pilgrim route is impossible to say, but thirdcentury graffiti in the catacombs makes it clear that martyrs in Rome were being venerated at the very dawn of the Church's history.
Pilgrimage touches closely upon two phenomena which appear almost hard-wired into the Christian psyche — the desire to worship at those places sanctified by Christ, His saints and martyrs, and a restless need to journey. The incar
nation of Christ was itself a journey and His ministry a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the cross. His disciples were sent out into the world, and the early days of the Church are a story of constant movement.
Rome, site of the martyrdom of the two greatest Apostles, Peter and Paul, was a magnet for the faithful from the earliest times. Pilgrims increased sharply after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century and the recovery from the Holy Land of important relics of Christ's Passion by Constantine's mother St Helena.
Pilgrimage reached its zenith in the Middle Ages, before the shadow of the Reformation was cast across northern Europe. Those medieval pilgrims travelled ad limina apostolorum (towards the threshold of the apostles) to be in the presence of the holy martyrs and for the atonement of their sins.
The penalties for sin were never far from the medieval mind, but as my bicycle wheels headed out of Pavia and turned south across the flat plains of Lombardy I thought again about what motivated me and other pilgrims in the 21st century.
Ringing in my ears were the words of the 13th-century French priest and theologian Jacques de Vitry: "Lighthearted and inquisitive persons go on pilgrimages not out of devotion but out of mere curiosity and love of novelty."
Steeped in the culture of tourism, the modern pilgrim fords it difficult not to be simply curious and inquisitive. Inside the church of San Michele Maggiore in Pavia I had stared like any sightseer at a tiny fragment of medieval fresco depicting the Madonna, and cycling through the Po valley towards Piacenza I was lost in the beauty of my surroundings.
It was only on that second evening in Cisa that I felt my holiday end and my pilgrimage begin. Perhaps it was the physical effort of the climb, or the sight of a humble, rockstrewn path next to the chapel marked by the pilgrim symbol of the Via Francigena. Or perhaps it was the simple peace of that place dedicated to the Mother of Our Lord.
Pilgrimage takes you away from the normal flux of life, helping to allow that internal journey toward a closer intimacy with God, supported by the example of the saints.
I swept down from the Apennines into the green heart of Tuscany invigorated and eager to touch those places rich in the story and symbolism of the Catholic faith. And on this journey there are many.
The following day, in the half-light of the cathedral of San Martino in Lucca, I prayed before the Volk) Santo, the Sacred Countenance, a cedarwood crucifix bearing an image of Christ said to have been carved by Nicodemus, the Pharisee who, according to the Gospel of St John, showed sympathy to Jesus.
At Bolsena the priest of the church of Santa Cristina showed me into the little Cappella del Miracolo where in 1263 a monk, doubting the presence of Christ in the Host, saw blood dripping from the Eucharist.
Even having to negotiate the tangle of the modern roads of its suburbs cannot dull the experience of arriving at Rome, the heart of the Universal Church, on pilgrimage. In the footsteps of generations of pilgrims I visited the Seven Churches — San Paolo Fuori le Mure, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (with its relics of the Passion), San Lorenzo, San Sebastian° and then, finally, San Pietro St Peter's itself.
In the great basilica built. upon the tomb of the Prince of Apostles I attended Mass in the Cappela del Santissimo Sacramento. Then, clutching my "pilgrim passport" provided by the AIVF — stamped each day at churches on the Via — I presented myself at the sacristy and was given the Testimonium Peregrinationis Peractae Ad Limina Petri.
On special occasions, such as the Jubilee Year in 2000, the Holy Father grants plenary indulgences to pilgrims. But by experiencing one of the great traditions of the Catholic Church, visiting sites important to the Church's own journey, any pilgrimage can help deepen faith on life's path to Christ.
Before leaving San Pietro I kissed the pilgrim-worn right foot of Arnolfo de Cambio's bronze statue of St Peter in benediction and thought of King David's prayer to the Lord: "We are strangers before you, pilgrims only as were our ancestors." Then I walked out into the light and warmth of a Roman morning.