ROME — It is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to ever top the events of this week in Rome and the time that I spent in Assisi and Siena.
From start to finish, the ad limina pilgrimage has been a privilege and the most intense personal experience and professional assignment I have ever accepted.
Most days were 20 hours long, spent walking close to 10 miles a day and also riding in multiple forms of transportation in a country that has an "organized chaos" approach to traffic, especially in Rome.
To say that it has been a whirlwind is an understatement.
But amidst the intensity of the travel, the sightseeing, the interviewing, the blogging, the photography, the sleep deprivation and the attempt to overcome the language barrier, there has been great joy and a sense of purpose in being able to share with the rest of the world what it is like to go to "the threshold of the Apostles."
My joy has been twofold, as not only did I enjoy the company of my fellow pilgrims on the journey, but I also had the amazing opportunity to accompany the 15 bishops of Region XIV to the Apostolic Palace for their meeting with the Holy Father and attend Mass with them each day, photographing them as they came together to celebrate the Eucharist at the Tomb of St. Peter and in the most sacred of churches in Rome.
I am in awe at the priceless gift that has been given me by Divine Providence.
To travel the Italian countryside, walk the streets of cities I have pined to see for decades, and take in the culture of the "country of saints" in the company of my brothers and sisters in Christ has enriched my faith and made it come alive.
To spend time in prayer at the tombs of my beloved Sts. Francis and Clare gave me great peace of heart.
To see Rome for the first time, to run up the Via della Conciliazione in the rain, just in time to see the Holy Father pray the Regina Coeli and greet pilgrims from his window was so surreal.
To step into St. Peter's Basilica early in the morning to witness the priests heading to the altars around the church, then hearing the sweet sound of bells tinkling softly during the consecration and small groups of people singing during the Masses and receiving the Eucharist was truly heaven on earth.
To witness our bishops process through the most beautiful churches in all of Christendom, to listen to their homilies, observe them in prayer, and watch them grow in holiness was a great grace.
To pray at the tombs of the Apostles -- St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John and the popes, especially Blessed John Paul II -- was a very moving experience for me.
To contemplate images of Our Lady -- in roadside shrines, in public squares and depicted in artwork and statuary all over the churches we visited in Italy -- was like being in her embrace everywhere we went.
And lastly, like a gorgeous jewel in the crown of grace, to experience the joy of seeing our beloved "Papa" face to face, to actually look him in the eyes, was a moment that rendered me speechless, like a child happily gazing into the face of her father whom she deeply loves.
This ad limina pilgrimage has truly been a once in a lifetime journey, a most blessed gift, which I will remember for the rest of my life.
— SueAnn Howell, staff writer
Read more about the whole trip in SueAnn's blog: charlotteadlimina.tumblr.com