The Via Francigena and the Idea of a Pilgrimage
The Via Francigena is an ancient pilgrim route to Rome, spanning hundreds of miles from England, through France, over the Alps, and south through Italy. Like the Camino de Santiago, the Via Francigena is seeing a resurgence of pilgrim travel. Modern pilgrims who follow the Via Francigena walk in the footsteps of generations before them who sought a path to Rome, drawn by the idea of a pilgrimage, and by the Eternal City herself.
It is awe-inspiring to know that the British Library preserves a thousand-year-old journal kept by a pilgrim on the Via Francigena. This is Sigeric’s diary, recording his path to Rome in 990 to receive his pallium as the newly consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury[i]. Sigeric’s journal confirms that the modern pilgrim on the Via Francigena is indeed following ancient footsteps.
A modern pilgrim on the Via Francigena will make his way over the Appenine mountains via the Cisa Pass[ii]. There are better blazes now to mark the trail, both red and white stripes, and the modern Via Francigena emblem in yellow and blue. At the Cisa Pass, a café purveys plum torte, gelato, panini, prosecco, beer, and coffee for the weary pilgrim. A pilgrim hostel provides beds down the road. And just past the arch marking the border between Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, stands the pilgrim church with its confessionals and pilgrim walk around the apse behind the tabernacle. All this is new, but the modern pilgrim still looks on the same hills as his predecessor Sigeric.
The modern pilgrim will stop where Sigeric stopped in the medieval city of Pontremoli. For sleeping quarters, a pilgrim can stay with the Capuchins just outside Pontremoli or sleep at the medieval Piagnaro castle overlooking the city. In the morning, he can hear 8 AM mass in the cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. Sigeric named eighty stops in all, many of which may be familiar, such as Lucca, Siena, or Viterbo[iii]. As the modern pilgrim approaches Rome, he will climb Mons Gaudii, Mount Joy, from which one looks down on the city herself. He will make his way south, along the gates of Vatican City, through the Porta Angelica, out into the wide and magnificent piazza of St. Peter’s.
Sigeric went to meet with Pope John XV and to receive his pallium, as part of assuming his new role as Archbishop of Canterbury. However, as Veronica Ortenberg suggests, this former monk and abbot was doing more than completing a mere administrative requirement. Both Rome itself and the path to Rome were a source of devotion[iv]. Moreover, as Ortenberg notes, Sigeric used the “significant word dominus” indicating that the Pope “personified” St. Peter himself[v]. Like pilgrims before and after him, Sigeric was drawn to a personal encounter with the city of Christ’s vicar. Sigeric knew by faith that Peter is the Vicar of Christ: where there is Peter, there is Christ.
It makes sense that modern Catholics of faith would be drawn like Sigeric to Rome. It even makes sense that they are drawn to visit Rome by way of a walking pilgrimage. Hilaire Belloc made a one-month walking pilgrimage from France to Rome, chronicled in his 1902 work The Path to Rome. He later wrote about “The Idea of Pilgrimage” in an essay by the same name. Here, he wrote that pilgrimage must include “something a little difficult to show at what a price I hold communion” with the sacred person or events associated with the pilgrimage site[vi]. So, like Sigeric, a modern Catholic pilgrim might brave the obstacles of weariness, hunger, or discomfort.
However, modern pilgrims also include people of others faiths or no faith at all. This raises an interesting question. After a period of disuse and in a time of considerably easier methods of travel, why are people without faith in Peter or even in Christ interested in making a foot pilgrimage to the Eternal City?
The answer might be found in an idea which Belloc examines. Belloc described how the pilgrim brushes away ugly experiences, fixing his eyes on the great goal. The pilgrim treasures only the beautiful things made by man or God which he experiences on his way: “This is what children do, and to get the heart of a child is the end surely of any act of religion.”[vii] For Belloc, pilgrimage is deeply connected to becoming as a little child. This idea gives us the key to understanding secular interest in pilgrimage.
For there is nothing like a walking pilgrimage to put one face to face with the truth of one’s condition. We live in a culture which condemns need. The worst thing is to be “a burden.” Adults with work and good health, can convince themselves that they no longer have needs. Our culture’s intolerance for needs makes us very good at denying or hiding our needs while feverishly trying to merit acceptance. However, this is less in accordance with our nature, than in accordance with that ancient temptation “to be as gods.” And it can be exhausting because we are all creatures of need. Adults, like children, need food, clothing, and shelter; we, too, need affection, attention, and comfort.
So the attraction of the Via Francigena might be, not just the greatness of the sought place, nor the interesting experiences, but also this: for a Catholic or person of no faith, a pilgrimage might be one of the last places where it acceptable to reveal one’s needs. On the Via Francigena, it is permitted to be human, to need and accept help, in all its bodily and spiritual forms. On the Via Francigena, it is permitted, indeed necessary, to become again a child of God.
This theme plays out in The Path to Rome when Belloc resolves to be in Rome for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul[viii]. In Italy’s Appenine mountains, Belloc experiences both the worst and most exultant moment of his pilgrimage. In the Appenines, Belloc must become as a little child.
When Belloc reaches the Appenines, he has been walking in steady rain from Milan for days[ix]. Rather than take the Via Francigena’s longer but easier southwest loop through the Cisa Pass, Belloc chooses a straight path on the east side of the Appenines. With limited ability to speak Italian, “unkempt, unshaven, in tatters, covered with weeks of travel and mud, and in a suit that originally cost not ten shillings; having slept in leaves and ferns, and forest places,”[x] Belloc was travelling with a “wretched map,”[xi] through a remote part of Italy on a path which demanded the crossing of four mountain spurs and the fording of four rivers.
Each moment leads Belloc to depend on others. When he needs company, he encounters four peasants who have just finished scything. He shares their bread; they share his wine[xii]. When Belloc needs directions, he comes upon a small village grouped around a church, where several men take him to eat with other villagers. After “this Communion,” the oldest villager takes Belloc along a road marked by a series of wayside shrines depicting the mysteries of the Rosary. Here he gives Belloc directions and sets him on his way.[xiii]
When Belloc needs help fording the dangerous mountain rivers, he gets assistance. On one occasion, Belloc is helped by two men, one who carries him, and another who goes before on stilts to pick out the way through the river. When Belloc offers the stilt-man money, the man asks, “What is this for?” And, as if he has not yet earned the money, the stilt-man offers to guide Belloc up the path to his next destination. Andiamo, “Let us go!,” he says genially. Andiamo thinks Belloc, astounded by the graciousness of the stilt-man. On they go, on pilgrimage together. Before parting from this one-time friend met on pilgrimage, Belloc and the stilt-man share a dish of spaghetti and a good red wine.[xiv]
On another occasion, a guide carries Belloc on his back through a river and saves him from drowning. It is strange to think of how humbling it would be to need to cross a river, and only be able to do it by allowing a bigger man to carry you like a child. This is the essence of pilgrimage: to be a human being, a creature of needs, and to accept help for these needs from others. When Belloc reaches the further side of the river, he calls his guide a Saint Christopher[xv]. This is a telling tribute, for the story of Saint Christopher is one which illustrates how Christ did not scorn to undertake the needs and frailties of the human condition. He, too, allowed himself to be carried by others.
On the last part of Belloc’s journey through the Appenines, he experiences his deepest need. He has been awake and walking for almost twenty-four hours. He has climbed two mountain spurs and forded two rivers. Cold and exhausted, he can find no shelter from the icy wind, and everything he touches is “wringing wet with dew.”[xvi] Belloc experiences “a deeper abyss of isolation and despairing fatigue than I had ever known.”[xvii]
Finally, the dawn comes. By the new light, he finds a dry patch beneath a tree. Here he falls into a deep and blessed sleep: “if the last confusion of thought, before sleep possessed me, was a kind of prayer—and certainly I was in the mood of gratitude and of adoration—this prayer was of course to God, from whom every good proceeds.”[xviii] Belloc needed rest, and like the Psalm says, God gives to his beloved sleep (Ps 127:2).
In the wake of powerful needs experienced and met, Belloc crosses the last ridge of the mountains: “I heard the noise of falling waters upon every side . . . the chestnut trees were redolent of evening all around. . . . down still more gently through the narrow upper valley I went between the chestnut trees, and calm went with me for a companion: and the love of men and the expectation of good seemed natural to all that had been made in this blessed place.”[xix] Belloc is received at an inn where he eats and drinks with the people. The moon, stars, and fireflies darting in vineyards and groves, all bring back to him “whatever benediction surrounds our childhood.”[xx] Here, writes Belloc, “was perhaps the highest moment of those seven hundred miles.”[xxi]
In the end, Belloc came to Rome. He did not enter through the traditional gate, but a little northeast, through the gate which leads to the Piazza del Popolo, a gate guarded by Saints Peter and Paul, for whose feast Belloc had walked so many miles: “And so the journey ended.”[xxii]
The attraction of walking the Via Francigena is not only its great and holy destination. The attraction may also be a counter-cultural permission to experience the truth of the human condition and receive charity from others. There is no shame in being a dependent creature, when one’s dependency becomes an occasion for grace, help, hospitality, and camaraderie, for all those moments where people provide directions or food or comfort, and those occasions which confirm that a close and benevolent God is watching over his beloved children. That is the exciting experience which pilgrims have on the Via Francigena over and over.
Whether a pilgrim comes by Belloc’s way through the Piazza del Popolo or through the traditional route of the Via Francigena from Mons Gaudii to the Porta Angelica, the site of St. Peter’s can make one feel small. And this is a good thing. On pilgrimage, you can experience what it is, and how right it is, to be a creature, not a god, but God’s beloved child.