A free Fitbit came with my recent phone upgrade the month before our family (8 out of 12 of us) flew to Rome. For the uninformed, it looks like a digital watch but also counts steps, mileage and lots more if you want to obsess about things like calories and how much water you drank. I don’t. I’m an adherent of the dust-unto dust mindset: take care of your body but your soul comes first. But counting steps–why not?
Rome is ground zero for Catholic roots and relics. It is also a place that puts a Fitbit into high gear, racking up thousands of steps on cobblestone roads from the Coliseum and the Pantheon, to the Vatican and St. Peter’s and 900 mind-blowing-awesome churches throughout Rome. (Not that I can vouch for all 900.)
I could not help but to enjoy seeing that my Fitbit was counting 7-9 miles a day, often over 20,000 steps. But with the modern-day tool for physical obsession around my wrist, I was peering into a past of decadence—Rome’s rise and fall—and the emergence of Christianity—from martyrdom, growth to unimaginable treasures of art and history. It often invited introspection and contrast as my number of steps racked up.
A Step that Really Counted
We visited a seminarian from our Bismarck diocese, Jordon Dosch, who is attending the Pontifical North American College. He also graduated from high school with one of my sons. Jordon was so gracious to take us to some of his favorite churches. One of them was San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini (Saint John the Baptist of the Florentines) just east of the Vatican (a thousand steps or so J). It is a typical church in Rome, overwhelming the senses with earthly beauty while lifting one’s soul and eyes upward with breathtaking ceilings.
He took us to a shrine to the left of the main sanctuary and pointed out a relic of St Mary Magdalene’s foot. “It was her foot that first stepped into the tomb of the risen Christ,” Jordon commented. What a step! She, who once lived a life of sin, converted and became a follower of Christ’s. St. Mary Magdalene is a powerful example of God’s mercy. He did not just forgive her sins, she became the first person to step into the tomb and discover that Jesus had resurrected.
We visited many other churches with relics of saints, went to Mass at St. Peter’s, received a blessing from Pope Francis during the Sunday Angelus, and generally walked among the giants of our faith past and present. My daughter Teresa, who also has a Fitbit, beat me in steps by a long shot on Sunday. While splitting from us to visit a couple of friends who were studying in Rome, she also stumbled into the Rome March for Life and walked along with an estimated 40,000 others. Again, those were steps of value, marching in defense of innocent life.
Shroud of Turin
The highlight of my steps in Italy was our trip to Turin for three days. We viewed the Shroud, which is believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus. The first evening after waiting in line with a ticket we had around 3 minutes to stand before it. Then, the following two mornings, we attended Mass in the church of St. John the Baptist where the Shroud is displayed behind the altar.
It has only been on display 5 times in the last 100 years. Pope Francis wanted to venerate it, so has been brought out this year from April 19, 2015 through June 24, 2015. The cloth depicts a man who has gone through everything Jesus went through—scourging, beatings, crowning with thorns, and nails through wrist and feet. No one has been able to explain how the 3-dimensional image was imprinted as if from a burst of radiation, and no one has been able to replicate it.
Around one hundred fifty people came for Mass each morning. Viewing the cloth with the imprints of suffering beyond our comprehension deepened the Mass experience. There before us was the body and blood of Jesus Christ. When we went of to receive Communion, it was before the very imprints of the body and blood given up for us so that we can have life within us.
All before the Shroud was visibly moved and could not take their eyes off of it. It is such a close encounter with our Lord, and yet, he is even closer when we receive him in Communion. Still, to see him with our eyes was a blessing. The marks of his suffering are captivating—visible testimony to how much he loved us. He was God. He created us. And he suffered beyond our imagination to save us.
I thought of his steps to Calvary, each one excruciatingly painful. Each one taken for us. Compared to Jesus suffering and death and compared to the lives of the saints, my Fitbit is just a silly little computer. And yet, it was my Fitbit that turned my attention on steps and in that way, I experienced some of the steps taken in our Catholic faith in a profound new way.
Photo by Mark Armstrong