Italy is my happy place. It’s not just because of my full-blooded Italian heritage. The beauty, even in the busy and ancient metropolis of Rome, is incomparable. Whether it’s the quaint cobblestone streets lined with lovely shops, bakeries and ristorantes, all of which sit underneath vines; or the tranquil waters of Lake Como set against a dramatic backdrop of mountains and colorful houses, Italy is where I long to be. No matter how many times I get to visit, whenever the plane touches on American soil, I am counting the weeks, the months, the days until my next visit to the Motherland, as I like to call it.
My desire to stay in that happy place was even stronger this time around after recently co-hosting a ten-day women’s pilgrimage to Milan, Siena, Florence and Rome. Even though I was across the pond, I was still very aware of the happenings back in America, especially the challenging news from the bishop’s meeting in Baltimore regarding the ongoing abuse crisis, and the fallout of the midterm elections.
This made me want to stay in my peaceful, happy place. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. But having to go back on the frontlines, given the current state of affairs in the Church and society, was not something I was looking forward to. So, after the lovely, faith-filled sisters headed home, I stayed in Italy for a few extra days. And as my latest visit was drawing to a close, I picked up the phone and suggested to my husband that he hop on the next available Rome flight and we could spend the holiday season happily jaunting from one awesome Italian town to another, since Italy is his happy place as well.
Of course, that wasn’t to be. Deep down we both knew that no matter how much we long to stay in the land of our family roots, there are other roots that take precedent: the roots of faith. Our Catholic faith is another reason why we also love Italy so much. No matter where you go, it packs a powerful punch when it comes to Catholicism, and far beyond the Vatican. In every tiny town and on practically every corner in the larger cities, there is a church that houses the relics of a saint, along with stunning religious art. The influence of the Church is everywhere, and despite the growing relativism and secularism in Europe, celebrating the Faith through festivals and unique regional foods is still a big part of the Italian culture. It doesn’t matter if a tourist has absolutely no interest in religion at all. Images and reminders of God and the Church he founded are inescapable.
Whenever I’m in Italy, I try to visit the churches that house the relics of St. Catherine of Siena, patroness of Italy and Europe and one of my favorite daughters of the Church. And while none of us will hardly ever come remotely close to filling her shoes, if you long to stay in your happy place, you will find yourself in good company with St. Catherine. Catherine’s happy place was far beyond anything we could imagine. After all, she spent a considerable amount of time literally dialoguing with Jesus. Who could blame her if she wasn’t exactly thrilled when the Lord told her that her days of complete solitude with him were over, and it was time for her to go out and make a difference in the Church and the world. And what a difference she made indeed.
St. Catherine and other great saints remind us that our happy place, wherever it may be, is given to us for renewal and spiritual refreshment, enabling us to pack those spiritual bags and travel outward, and to more effectively fulfill God’s plan for our lives, because in the end that’s where true, deep and lasting happiness comes from.