Ever since we visited Saint John Lateran and spoke to the Sisters of Divine Revelation, I wanted to visit their famous Grotto near the Abbazia delle Tre Fontane (Abbey of the Three Fountains). It would be good to visit San Paulo Fuori le Mura (Saint Paul outside the Walls) nearby as well, for it is the year of Saint Paul.
The abbey complex, consisting of the Trappist abbey and two smaller churches, was built on the site of Saint Paul’s martyrdom. Here, it was said, three fountains rose where he died, marking the site as holy ground.
We walked down a shady drive through a eucalyptus forest to the monastery. Pilgrims walked quietly as well, mostly in groups of twenty to thirty, before us and behind us, toward the churches. We visited two of the three shrines, Baroque and mysterious, busy with attendants and pilgrims, and lastly entered the main abbey, a silent, large dim space.
It was 12:15 and bells rang. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that iron grillwork separated the massive choir from the rest of the nave where we knelt alone, except for a single Franciscan. Six white-robed monks soon entered and began to sing, haltingly, with elderly voices, the noon office. One lesson was read, more Psalms and the Gloria Patri sung, and by 12:30 the monks processed out slowly and silently, heading for lunch, one remaining to close up.
We left, thankful for this moment of peace, this moment of touching the lives of these men, who continue the long line of ora and labora, prayer and work, offering it all to the glory of God. I learned later they are cloistered. They make chocolate and a medicinal liqueur for sale in the shop.
We found the Grotto of the Divine Revelation outside the gate of the Monastery, across the highway, and up a forested drive. The Grotto where the Virgin Mary appeared in 1947 to Bruno has been made into a small chapel, covered partially with a tented structure. The grounds are filled with thank you plaques for graces and miracles. The story was so reminiscent of the vision of Bernadette in Lourdes, France, a story I tell in my second novelOfferings, that I was particularly touched. I would like to learn more about Bruno and his three children. Evidently he died in 2001.
We found a taxi and headed for San Paolo, the massive pilgrimage basilica built over the grave of Saint Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. The Pauline epistles, Paul’s letters to the early churches in the first century, explained the Christian creed to a Roman world. A brilliant Jew and a Roman citizen, he bridged the gap between the culture in which Christ was born, lived, died, and rose from the dead and the culture of the classical world.
Second only to San Pietro in size, San Paolo is immense, and today the golden coffered ceiling was lit, the baldachin and High Altar were bright as well, and the vast apsidal mosaic spread across the transept in glory. We walked down the center aisle, craning our necks, to the Saint Paul’s tomb beneath the altar, seen through a panel of glass in the floor.
Thanking God for Paul’s words and images, his commanding rhetoric, his humility in allowing God to work through him to God’s glory, we slipped out a side door and headed back to our hotel.