The St. Mungo Singers have a long standing tradition of going on pilgrimage every 2 years. So far the places visited have included Rome, the Holy Land, Malta, Salamanca, Orvieto, Assisi and Siena, and – nearer home – Dublin, York, St. Asaph and Iona. This year the destination was again Italy, with our base in Sorrento which gave easy access to a number of important sites including Naples, Monte Cassino and Amalfi.
Forty seven choir members, family and friends set out on 4th October. The following day (Saturday) was planned as a day of leisure to get our bearings but the weather had other ideas. We were greeted by torrential rain – perhaps they were trying to make us feel at home! So most of the day was spent avoiding the downpour and getting to grips with the local cuisine. Fortunately by evening the rain had eased and we made our way to the beautiful Franciscan church of San Francesco for Vigil Mass.
We were a little disappointed to learn that the community, having just spent €50,000 on refurbishment of their organ, were not inclined to let us use it, so a choir member was pressed into service to give the starting notes and, nothing daunted, the choir proved it could sing equally well a capella. The joyful and prayerful singing clearly had the required effect as we were then invited to use the organ at the end of Mass to
accompany our final motet. An even greater compliment was the comment of one of the Franciscans that the choir not only knew how to sing but also how to really pray.
Our first trip was to the beautiful and historic city of Naples. In the time available, we could only have a taster of the city, its long history and its treasures, but it was enough to make us want to come back again. We had been lucky in the weather for our visit but on our return to Sorrento, we were treated to a thunderstorm and watched with some trepidation as the lights of Sorrento became more like the flashing illuminations of Blackpool.
Fortunately the power cuts did not set off the fire alarms at our hotel and the next morning saw us up bright – well, reasonably bright – and early to travel on the next stage of our pilgrimage, to the famous abbey of Monte Cassino. Our early start was to enable us to join another English-speaking group for Mass in the Abbey crypt. The rain had cleared but the low lying mist made for interesting driving as we climbed ever higher and eventually found ourselves above the clouds on the final approach to the abbey on its hilltop.
The London group were very welcoming. Their leader, Fr. Umberto, said life is full of surprises and this was a nice one. Again we had no organ and, after consultation with Fr. Umberto to ensure as much participation of both groups as possible, the choir led the joint group in the music of the liturgy. At the end of Mass, Fr. Umberto expressed his thanks to the choir for enhancing his group’s experience of the Liturgy and sending them off to Rome, their next stop, on a high note.
We then had an opportunity to go with our guide round the abbey and its surrounding cloisters, which had been so well restored after its destruction in World War II, and to enjoy the stunning views from its terraces, now that the mists had cleared. The sense of peace on the hilltop was palpable and the attraction of the abbey for pilgrims was clear. As Fr. Umberto had said in his homily at Mass, “why do people come to Monte Cassino? They come to find God.”
After lunch, we had quite a different pilgrimage to make, to the UK and Commonwealth military cemetery outside Cassino where the bodies of those who had died in the battles around Monte Cassino were buried. The cemetery is beautifully tended and the atmosphere is peaceful but there was a feeling of sadness for so many lives cut short, some as young as 16 years of age, and it was with emotion that we prayed for them and took some time out to meditate.
The following day had been intended as a day of rest but some of our choir felt the urge to visit Herculaneum, the ancient Roman site which had been destroyed in 79AD during an eruption of Vesuvius. We left Sorrento in torrential rain (again) and wondered if we had made the right decision but when we reached the site, the sun came out and we enjoyed the experience. When we returned to Sorrento, we learned that we had indeed been fortunate as it had continued to rain heavily there, and fellow guests who had gone to the site of Pompeii had also been washed out. Clearly someone had been looking after us.
Our final excursion involved a drive down the glorious Amalfi coast. One of the choir members had found out that the Cathedral in Amalfi is dedicated to St. Andrew and houses his relics, brought from Constantinople. Our very helpful tour company representative furnished us with a contact number for the Cathedral office and the Cathedral staff indicated they would be very happy to have a Scottish group celebrate Mass there.
The drive to Amalfi was stunning with lots of hairpin curves climbing up into the hills, and plenty of photo opportunities – the weather was kind this time. On arriving at the lovely town of Amalfi, our hearts did quail a little at the sight of the flight of over 60 steps up to the Cathedral but the climb was worth it. Again there was no organ but by now we were taking this in our stride and thoroughly enjoyed the Mass. There was only one hymn on which to end it – “When Christ our Lord to Andrew Cried”, sung with gusto.
As the weather was holding, we piled into a boat for a sail round the coastline and a closer look at the beautiful buildings which seemed almost to have grown from the rocks on which they were built. Then it was off to lunch in the little town of Scala, high in the mountains, before heading to Ravello where we had some time to enjoy the scenery before making our way back to Sorrento – and more thunderstorms.
Our final day in Sorrento was one for doing shopping for presents, catching up on individual sightseeing – Capri, Ischia or Vesuvius – or simply indulging in the favourite Italian sport of people-watching.
Arrangements had been made for our final Mass to be held in the Cathedral of Sorrento (dedicated to Sts. Philip and James). We had been congratulating ourselves on how fortunate we had been with the weather, which had not really held us back, but Sorrento decided to give us a good Scottish weather send-off and the heavens opened as we made our way to the Cathedral. We arrived looking distinctly drookit; however it takes more than rain to dampen the spirits of the St. Mungo Singers – we are used to it – and there was a bonus awaiting us. We had an organ and our organist, Jane, finally got to exercise her own special music ministry for the whole Mass!
The acoustics were great and the atmosphere felt really warm and prayerful as we sat together in the Sanctuary. Fr. Gerry reflected on the comment of the Franciscan priest at the beginning of the week – that our choir prays, and welcomed this confirmation of the function of our choir – helping people to pray. As is our tradition whenever we are away, we remembered in the Intercessions those who had been unable to come with us, and those members, family and friends who had died. It was a truly fitting end to our pilgrimage.
It was still raining as we left the Cathedral but it didn’t seem to matter. We hurried back to our hotel and ate to the accompaniment of lightning flashes and rumbles of thunder, but the lights stayed on and we were thrilled and really touched to find that the hotel had decorated a beautiful cake with the choir’s name. Then it was off to bed reasonably early for a 5.45 am start next morning for our flight back to Glasgow (and dry weather!)