Yesterday I returned from a five day trip to Lyon, Ars-sur-Forman and Avignon in southeastern France.

It is not uncommon for Catholics, especially priests, to make pilgrimages to Ars-sur-Forman to visit and pray at the Sanctuary of St. Jean Vianney, the patron saint of diocesan priests (and of our sister parish in Belle Riviere), who was pastor of the city from 1818 to 1859. The sanctuary is basically the Basilica of St. John, an elaborate expansion of the small parish church where the saint heard confessions seventeen hours a day, and the rectory where he lived. I attended mass at the basilica on the Feast of All Saints. It was packed and I had to take a seat in the back of the original church. There was something special about attending mass in the actual church where the great saint preached and celebrated the sacraments.

Avignon was the residence of seven consecutive French popes (French popes created lots of French cardinals who kept electing French popes) between 1309 and 1376 during the so-called “Babylonian Captivity” of the Church. I spent two solid, fascinating hours roaming around the old papal palace. My only regret is that I didn’t allow enough time to see more of the city. Nevertheless, a day well spent, very well spent. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Lyon, by itself, would have been worth a trip. This is a city of second and third century martyrs, the most famous of which was the Church Father Irenaeus. They are all well remembered in statues, paintings and, of course, street and district names. For visitors the big attraction is the Old City (Vieux-Lyon) with its huge Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere, a Marian shrine that attracts a million and a half visitors a year (I attended mass there Saturday evening), a medieval cathedral , two Roman amphitheaters, one of which is so well preserved that even today it’s still used for concerts, and a museum about the  Roman presence in southeastern France. Lyon was the capitol of the Roman province of Gaul. Not surprisingly, the Romans left a lot behind.

Tuesday before I left, we all said mass at the Catacombs of Priscilla where many of the Roman martyrs and seven of the early popes were buried. The catacombs weren’t really hiding places. That’s a Hollywood invention. They were just underground cemeteries- perhaps today we would call them mausoleums – where the early Christians gathered to remember and pray for those who had gone before them. Cremation was the common practice in ancient Rome, but because of their belief in the resurrection of the body, the early Christians resisted that practice. Add to that the fact that the ancient Romans did not allow ground level cemeteries and you get the catacombs. The chapel where we said mass was an actual chapel used by the early Christians and not a facility built centuries later for the use of pilgrims and other visitors like the ones you see in some of the catacombs. I really liked that. Later that evening we were all treated to a feast at the Maryknoll Rome Office by Fr. Clyde Phillips, the community’s liaison with the Holy See.

Tomorrow morning we have a group tour scheduled for the Vatican Gardens. I have never seen the gardens and am very much looking forward to the tour. My plans for tomorrow night are to go to bed very early, get up at 4:00 a.m. our time (10:00 p.m. your time) and watch the election returns on CNN. Wednesday morning I leave for nine days in Poland.

Peace,

Father Steve