Monday, April 23, 2012

Christmas in Italy: Christmas Day in Rome

After a full and eventful Christmas Eve, we slept in a little and had a leisurely start to our day on Christmas morning.  But alas, we were in Rome, so that was the end of our leisure.  After breakfast it was full speed ahead again.  There are just too many wonderful sights to see in Rome. 

The first of our many wonderful sights to see: The Basilica of Saint Paul!  After living down the road from Saint Paul's hometown, Tarsus, we have a great love for him.  It's possible that Saint Paul crossed right through our backyard during one of his missionary journeys!  I've also noticed that Peter has a special connection with Saint Paul, who has become his favorite Saint.

The Basilica of Saint Paul is the most unique of the four major basilicas in Rome.  His basilica is outside of the city boundaries, and is hence sometimes referred to as "Saint Paul's Outside the Walls".  There are tall palm trees surrounding the basilica, which looks a little out of place in Rome.  When I visited Saint Paul's in high school, I thought this basilica surrounded by palm trees looked a little funny.  But now, after visiting Saint Paul's palm tree-lined hometown in Turkey, it feels just right.  It is a gorgeous basilica and it reflects the uniqueness of Saint Paul.

St. Paul holds a sword because this was the instrument of his death by beheading.
The inside of Saint Paul's Basilica was spectacular as well.  We entered quietly, as there was Christmas Day Mass taking place.  Because of the Mass, we were unable to visit Saint Paul's tomb, which was in front of the main altar.  Fortunately, we had the opportunity to return the next day! 

Midnight Mass with Pope Benedict left a big impression on Peter.  Since we weren't able to take any gifts on the plane with us, we told Peter he could pick out a gift to celebrate Christmas.  When asked what he wanted to buy in Rome, he responded "Pope Ne'nict book".  We found a little Pope Benedict calendar and holy card for Peter, which he treasured.

Peter and Pope "Ne'nict"

Next, we stopped at the Colosseum!  What an incredible place with so much history.  It was so powerful to think of the blood of martyrs being spilled for the Faith in this very spot. 

After the Colosseum, we walked through the streets of Rome, taking in all of its sights and sounds.  The streets were alive with street vendors, music, and entertainers.

The Roman Forum

The Tiber River

The Basilica of Saint Bartholomew which was closed!  We would visit again in a couple days...

Our last stop of the day was very special to us, especially Dan.  We visited the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, adjacent to the Roman Forum.  After living in Turkey for awhile, Dan became interested in researching the Saints and martyrs from this country.  After endless research and late nights on the computer, Dan discovered a treasure trove of Saints and martyrs that lived in the region of Turkey where we live.  One of the most incredible discoveries was that Saints Cosmas and Damian (famous Saints mentioned in the Litany of the Saints and Eucharistic Prayer 1 at Mass) were from a little coastal town just an hour down the road from us!  We had visited this town several times and had swam in the sea there.  We felt a bond with these heroic Saints.

Saints Cosmas and Damian were twins born in Syria who later moved to the bustling coastal port city, Aegea (now the present day town of Yumurtalik, Turkey).  The twins were strong Christians who practiced the art of healing in the name of Christ and healed many people.  Upon being arrested by Roman authorities, the two men were exposed to tortures of fire and water, crucifixion, and finally beheading.  Their fame grew over centuries and they became two of the most famous Saints in the Eastern and Western Worlds.

Tragically, nothing remains in their hometown to commemorate these great churches, no statues, no plaques...nothing.  Their memory, however, continues to live on and whenever we visit Yumurtalik, we think of them fondly and are proud to be some of the select few people in the world that travel to their hometown where they were martyred to honor them.

Now, in Rome, we were at last able to see where our close spiritual friends from Turkey finally came to rest!
The Basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian is a beautiful, small basilica with stunning art.  The mosaic over the main altar shows Sts. Peter and Paul presenting the two martyrs to Christ.

We were very excited to be inside the church, but...where were the Saints' remains?  Where was their tomb?  We couldn't find anything in the main church that looked like a reliquary holding the Saints' bones.  We walked around for awhile and met one of the staff members at the church--she was a beautiful Filipino woman who spoke Italian and English.  I told her that we had come from the region where Sts. Cosmas and Damian lived and that we were interested in seeing their tomb if she could point it out to us.  She was excited to show us, however, their tomb was located in the crypt in the basement.  She told us that in order to go down into the crypt, we had to make an appointment with the priest in charge of the church.  At that time, the priest was away.  She gave us the phone number to the basilica and asked us to call back tomorrow to set up an appointment.  We thanked her and she asked us if we had seen the inside of the basilica yet...we told her that we had, but she insisted on showing us around more in depth.  She took us back into the church and gave us a short tour about the highlights of the basilica and its history.  After talking with her for awhile, we became very good friends with her and we were inspired by her pure spirituality and Catholic faith.  She LOVED Peter...  :-)

After about 20 minutes of talking with her, she said that she wanted to check to see if the priest in charge was back yet.  She went to check...and he was!  He was a kind, elderly priest...our guide spoke to him in Italian and told him where we had come from and that we wanted to visit Sts. Cosmas and Damian in the crypt below.  The priest smiled and said something in Italian.  Our guide told us that she would give us a personal tour of the crypt and take our family down to see Sts. Cosmas and Damian!

We went down into the crypt and walked into a small chapel.  Under the altar of the chapel was the tomb of the famous martyrs, Sts. Cosmas and Damian!  What a Christmas gift from our God to receive a personal visitation with such distinguished Saints who we had such closeness to!  We said some prayers and touched some Sts. Cosmas and Damian medals we had brought with us to their tomb.  We gave one to our guide as a token of our deep appreciation...she treasured it greatly.

It's hard to describe in words how miraculous and beautiful it was to have the honor of seeing the final resting place of these holy was one of the greatest Christmas gifts we have ever received!

After profusely thanking our friend and the religious at the Basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian for their generosity, we left the basilica and set out on a new mission:  FIND CHRISTMAS DINNER IN ROME!  This was actually much more difficult than you would anticipate.  Most of the restaurants in Rome were CLOSED for Christmas!  After walking around for awhile we found a quaint restaurant with some charming old waiters who had fun making Peter laugh.  We sat down after another busy day and had a delicious Italian dinner.

After dinner, we went back outside and enjoyed views of the Roman Forum majestically lit up at was beautiful.

We took the metro back to our hotel and settled in for a long winter's had been a Christmas we would never forget...

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Christmas in Italy: Christmas Eve in Rome (& Midnight Mass with the Pope!)

Christmas Eve!  It was finally here!  We munched on our hotel's breakfast while listening to classic Christmas songs and anticipating our big day.  First stop on the agenda: the Vatican Museum! 

After having a little trouble finding the entrance (it's actually around the corner and down the street from Saint Peter's Basilica...who knew?  Well...I guess I should have known since I had been there before...but my teenage mind must've been more focused on boys and gelato...) we finally stumbled upon it, along with a loooong line.  We were able to cut ahead a little since we bought our tickets in advance on-line, but still had to mill through crowds and crowds of people and endless security checks. 

Once inside, we quickly breezed through the museum, as is custom for the toddler-toting Beaudoin's.  We stopped only when necessary and continually tried to convince Peter that this was a reeeaaally fun activity.  He didn't buy it. 

We walked under the ornate, golden ceilings and past the beautiful paintings until we reached the Sistine Chapel.  So beautiful!  No pictures allowed inside the chapel though!

The Beaudoin's at the Vatican Museum with St. Peter's Basilica in the background
After the Vatican Museum, we grabbed some lunch and stopped inside of Saint Peter's Basilica again (we couldn't resist!).  It would soon be closing for the afternoon to prepare for Midnight Mass. We took a shot of the Papal altar where Mass would be celebrated that night.

Since the line for Midnight Mass had not started to form yet, we decided to spend a few hours exploring Rome before returning to Saint Peter's Basilica. When we got off of the metro, it began to rain! Before long, the little sprinkles turned into a downpour. We stopped by a street vendor and reluctantly bought two unbrellas (ours were at the hotel). We continued on our journey to the Trevi Fountain. The rain let up enough for us to take some pictures and toss a coin into the fountain.

It is said that if you toss a coin into the fountain, you'll be able to return to Rome one day. It worked the first time I was there as a 16 year-old, so it was worth a shot to try it again!

Do we get bonus points for doing it with style and flair? : )

Next, we had a decision to make.  Dan had a few more stops he wanted to hit on his itinerary, but it was starting to sprinkle again and Peter was getting hungry.  We decided to divide and conquer.  Dan would conquer his list of stops.  Meanwhile, I found a warm, dry cafe with Peter and helped him conquer a cheeseburger and hot chocolate.  (The  hot chocolates in Italy are intensely thick and rich, by the way.  It tasted like a warm, oozing river of melted chocolate.  I didn't complain.) 

While Peter and I were snacking on Italy's delicious indulgences, Dan explored more of Rome.  First he stopped at the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, which is built over an old temple of Minerva.  Saint Catherine of Siena is buried here.  Next, he visited the Pantheon, which was the largest concrete structure in the world until the 20th Century.  It was built by the Romans as a temple to all of the gods, then later converted into a church. 

Soon, Dan picked us up from the cafe and we made one more little stop before arriving at Saint Peter's Basilica.  We stopped at the Basilica of the Twelve Holy Apostles.  The tomb of the Apostles St. Philip and St. James the Less is located inside of the basilica!  We arrived to find that the basilica was closed and would not open for another 30 minutes.  We stood at the gate, a little deflated, when it suddenly started raining again and Peter began holding his stomach and crying.  Dan and I looked at the "closed" sign and then at our seemingly sick child and both felt a little defeated and overwhelmed. 

As always, God was taking care of us.  A friar who worked at the basilica unlocked the gate and hurried us inside to a parlor room.  He gestured for us to sit on the soft couches with our crying boy.  He disappeared for a moment, then returned with some delicious chocolates.  He smiled, and with his limited English, he pointed to us and said "like the Holy Family...on Christmas Eve".  My eyes filled up with tears and I wanted to hug this kind stranger.  Though we are far from being comparable to the Holy Family, I felt like I could relate a little more to Joseph and Mary's suffering as they searched in the night, far from home, for shelter on the first Christmas Eve.  My exhaustion and overwhelmed feelings soon lessened thanks to the generosity of this kind soul and a soft couch to rest on.  Peter soon stopped crying as well, and seemed to not be sick after all.  Praise God!  Soon, the doors of the Basilica of the Twelve Holy Apostles were opened and we had the chance to visit the tomb of Sts. Philip and James and ask for their prayers. 

It was very exciting to visit the final resting place of St. Philip, specifically.  In December of 2010 we traveled to Pamukkale, Turkey (the ancient city of Hieropolis) and saw the remains of a great basilica built on top of the hill where St. Philip was crucified.  It was amazing to finally visit the Apostle and see the place where his remains came to rest.
The tomb of Saints Phillip and James the Less

Next, feeling revived and reenergized, we took off for our great adventure: Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at the Vatican!  We wanted to arrive extra early.  Though we did already have tickets, which ensured we could join the Holy Father for Mass, those tickets did not guarantee where we would be.  The hearty pilgrims that braved the long wait in line had a chance at being inside of Saint Peter's Basilica for Mass.  Once the basilica filled up, the remaining ticket-holders had to stand outside in Saint Peter's Square and watch the Mass on large screens.  We eagerly rushed to Saint Peter's to grab a spot in line and begin our long wait, hoping for a chance to be inside of the basilica!

Upon arriving at Saint Peter's Square, we immediately felt a rush of adrenaline.  It was already filled with people and a long line had formed--approximately 2000 people were already in line!  In the center of the square was a life-sized Nativity Scene with a children's choir singing Christmas songs.  The square was alive with excitement and Christmas spirit!  We grabbed our spot in line and were happy to discover that we were right behind four other young Americans.  It's always reassuring to find other Americans when in a foreign country, and we quickly bonded with our fellow pilgrims.  We eagerly debated whether or not we would have a chance at getting inside the basilica for Mass. 

It was around 5:00 pm.  The doors to the basilica would open around 8:30 pm.  "Midnight Mass" actually began at 10:00 pm, rather than midnight, which was so very nice considering we'd be attending with our two year old!  Our waiting time in line had begun.  Dan saved our spot in line while I let Peter walk around the square, exploring the manger scene, the choir, and the fountains. 

 Suddenly, I heard some commotion.  I looked up to see movement and light in the window of the Pope's apartment!  Pope Benedict appeared and the crowd errupted into cheering.  He gave the crowd his blessing and placed a lit candle in the window sill, a symbol that he was with us in spirit as we waited outside on that chilly December Christmas Eve.  I held Peter and excitedly pointed up to the Pope.  I was overcome with a rush of unexpected emotion.  I felt a lump in my throat and tears welled up in my eyes.  I felt a great love for our Holy Father.  I felt a great gratitude for the unceasing prayers he has offered for the Church and his unwavering courage to stand by our Church's counter-cultural and often times unpopular teachings.  Undoubtedly, there is much suffering and sacrifice that is required of our Pope.  I could just feel the love he has for his flock, the Church. 

After seeing the Pope, I rushed back to see Dan in line.  The Pope's appearance had fueled our excitement even more!  I saved our spot in line while Dan took Peter to find some panini's at a nearby cafe.  Our time in line went fairly quickly, and before long it was 7:45 pm.  We decided to stay in line together and stake out our spot, just in case the doors opened early.  Peter had been a happy camper (Praise God!) and we prayed that God would continue to give Him extra graces to continue his excellent behavior.  It began to sprinkle again, so we put Peter back in his stroller, propped up the umbrella, and popped an Elmo DVD into our portable DVD player.  He was waiting in style!

Around 8:30 pm, we began to see commotion at the front of the line.  We all eagerly scooched closer to the person in front of us and peered eagerly to the front.  They let the first large group in, our line scooted up a bit, then we waited.  This repeated several more times.  The suspense and excitement were building.  Would we make it inside of Saint Peter's Basilica for Christmas Eve Mass?!  We would soon find out!

Finally, we were getting close to the front.  We clutched our bags close to us, ready to move forward when we were given the signal.  We had heard that it gets a little chaotic trying to get in (think Black Friday at Walmart times one thousand), so we held Peter tightly as our hearts pounded with excitement and adrenaline.  Suddenly, the security guards let the next section start to move through the security stations.  This is it!  "Let's go!  Stay close!"  announced our American "line buddies" and together we moved forward as quickly as we could, as others tried to push and cut in line.  We pushed through security, then, almost in triumphant slow motion, handed our tickets to the security guard.  He checked our tickets and motioned for us to go ahead.  We did it! 

We rushed ahead to check the stroller at the baggage check and then ran up the stairs to the front doors of the basilica to claim our seats.  We were giddy with excitement as we raced into the basilica past the Swiss Guards and found three seats right in the middle.  It was completely unreal to sit inside of Saint Peter's Basilica, anticipating Midnight Mass.

BIG smiles as we waited for Midnight Mass to begin!

Midnight Mass was incredible!  It felt like Heaven on earth.  We eagerly watched the grand procession of seminarians, priests, bishops, and cardinals enter with the grand music echoing through the church, announcing the birth of our Savior.  Peter excitedly pointed "Look!  Fathers!  Bishops!"  Finally, we saw Pope Benedict enter.  Our Holy Father smiled serenely as he blessed the crowd. 

Christmas Mass was absolutely beautiful.  The prayers and readings were spoken in Latin, Italian, English, Korean, and French; a beautiful reminder of our Universal Church.  Peter slept through most of the Mass, another wonderful blessing from God!  Peter awoke just in time to see the Pope process out at the closing of the Mass.  The Pope placed the Baby Jesus in the manger scene in the basilica and exited. 

Pope Benedict among the crowd of pilgrims

The back of the basilica as Pope Benedict left.  There were so many people!

Peter excitedly repeated "Baby Jesus Born!" and "More Pope Ne'nict!" over and over as we left the basilica.  It was a little after midnight and we had one more challenge for the day.  The metro system was now closed for Christmas, and we had heard that it was nearly impossible to find a taxi since there were thousands of others that were also looking for a ride.  It would take over an hour to walk to our hotel.  We placed it in God's hands and asked Him to help us. 

"What should we do?"  I asked Dan, a little nervously. 
"Let's just start walking, it'll be okay" he replied confidently.

So we walked.  And prayed.  And trusted (or at least tried really hard to trust and not worry!).  And within 10 minutes, a taxi appeared!  Almost in shock, we waved it down.  Did God really send us a taxi?  As we walked to the taxi, a pushy Italian woman jumped ahead of us and tried to get into our cab.  My heart sank.  The taxi driver, suddenly animated, yelled "Occupado!  Occupado!  Bambino!"  (Referring to the cab belonging to us and our little bambino, Peter.)  God is good!  God, in His immense love, provides for us even in the smallest details.

We were soon driving back to our hotel.  What another beautiful example of God's providential care for us!  As we drove back to the hotel, I reflected on the incredible day.  This was a Christmas I will never forget. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Christmas in Italy: Arriving in Rome

We started dreaming about spending Christmas in Italy last summer.  After doing a little research and discovering that it was possible to request tickets for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass with the Holy Father, we were hooked on the idea.  It remained a fun dream until October, when everything fell into place for Dan to take leave.  We went on the Vatican website and downloaded our application form for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass.  Then, we said some prayers, went to the community center, and faxed the completed form to the Vatican! 

Then, we waited.  About a month later, as I shuffled through our stack of mail, I came across a letter from Vatican City!  We had three tickets reserved in our name!  It was absolutely thrilling! 

So, a month later when we arrived in Rome, our first order of business was to walk to Saint Peter's Basilica and pick up those tickets!  It was so exciting walking through the busy streets of Rome.  We arrived in the evening, and the whole city seemed alive and lit up with people and activity.  We felt the excitement welling up inside of us; Rome truly was the climax of our trip. 

We walked as quickly as we could to reach our destination.  I had been to Rome in high school, and was eager to see the magnificent Saint Peter's Basilica again.  Dan had never been, so I was eager to join him as he experienced it for the first time. 

When we reached the Basilica, emotion welled up inside of me.  As a Catholic, it feels like coming home.  The grandeur of Saint Peter's Basilica is absolutely breathtaking, lifting your spirit up to Almighty God.  We're here.  I just wanted to soak it all in for as long as possible.  Our dream was being realized.  Dan got the chills when he looked upon St. Peter's for the first time.

After waiting in line and going through security, we made it to the side bronze doors.  Here, the Swiss Guards stood at attention.  We showed our letter from the Vatican to the security guards, who then allowed Dan to go up the stairs and show it to the Swiss Guards, who then let him disappear into the long hall as Peter and I waited anxiously.  In a few minutes, he reemerged, with a big smile on his face and an envelope in his hand. 

Inside of the envelope was our three tickets for Christmas Eve Mass.  We peered at our little treasures in disbelief and excitement.  We were one step closer!

After picking up our tickets, we explored the inside of the Basilica.  The interior is just as incredible and grand as the exterior.  One feels so small inside of its massive walls and beneath its grand beauty.  It is truly an unforgettable feeling. 

There is something magical about Saint Peter's Basilica at night.  It is my favorite time to visit.  It is so peaceful and still, yet so awe-inspiring.