This was the word from Br Randal Riede, the librarian of the North American College in Rome, and the most courteous and well-read and well-traveled person you’d ever hope to meet. His quote needs to be completed: “…until you’ve been to Sicily.” And that is exactly where our Italy group will be heading as the centerpiece of our pilgrimage.
Sicily conveys all kinds of impressions in people’s minds: mostly, the Mafia! Is this fair? It’s real—I remember asking a man whose family came from Sicily if he wouldn’t want to go back to trace his roots. His response: “No! My family left there for a reason.” Oops!
But we will be going to Sicily (a multiple-time visit, for me)—a wonderful place! There you can experience the beauty of 12th century Norman churches, with frescos done by Christians, and with cool green, abstract designs for the floor and first few feet of walls in wonderful marble—done by Muslim workers (who specialize in beautiful abstract because they, like the Jews, reject the idea of images). Just outside the town of Piazza Armerina you can visit an incredible 4th century Roman villa, once owned by the Father of Maxentius, the great rival to Constantine. And you can see some of the best preserved Greek temple ruins anywhere, especially (but not only) in Agrigento. Sicily (and southern Italy) was once known as “Magna Grecia” (greater Greece—remember Archimedes?), and only in Paestum (south of Naples) can you find better ruins.
But Sicily also offers wonderful natural delights: the beaches of Cefalu are famous, and there is the opportunity to climb an active volcano—Mt Etna. You won’t forget this experience.
The people of Sicily are extremely friendly—warm, courteous, affectionate. They are very family-conscious. But then, that’s what the Mafia was all about, in the beginning: taking care of family.
Did I mention food? You will never get fresher seafood anywhere—most of all, their specialties of swordfish and calamari. They have the most incredible citrus (orange and lemon), as well as great almonds and the best pistachios in the world. Needless to say, when these are used in their gelato it is a very special thing!
There is a sad aspect to Sicily, as well—highlighted by Pope Francis: the desperate situation of refugees fleeing from persecution and risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to get to Sicily and points beyond. The Holy Father’s first pastoral visit was to the island of Lampedusa, just off the Sicilian coast, where he cried for the hundreds who lost their lives in attempting this desperate crossing. If we are brothers and sisters, and if bullies are tormenting my siblings, why would I say I have no interest in defending and protecting them?
This (along with Assisi and Rome) is what some of us will be experiencing from 5 through 17 June. Pray for us, as we will for everyone!