May 15, 2014

Trip to Rome: An encounter with St Paul

My one and only desire when I went to Rome recently was to witness the canonisation and go to the tomb of St John Paul II to say hello. I've never met him. I'm dying to meet him. By hook or by crook. But unfortunately, no hook nor crook was of help. He was so near and yet so far. In the end, we ended up visiting other places.

I am very thankful to God that we met Fr Peter Hwang, a priest from Bintulu (a town in Sarawak) studying in Rome. He told us that there was another more important and significant historical site than St Peter's Basilica. Of course, I doubted him at first. Why not, since my heart, mind and (most probably) soul, too, wanted to go to St Peter's Basilica only.

It was the Church of St Paul's martyrdom - San Paolo alle Tre Fontane (Church of St Paul at the Three Fountains), taken care by the Trappist monks. Fr Peter brought us into the first Church where St Paul was imprisoned. St Paul managed to write his last letter there, which was to Timothy.

An altar built in front of the cell where St Paul was imprisoned (right)
"That small window (on the right) was the only access to the cell. Imagine how St Paul's persecutors pushed him into the cell and then dragged him out through that little window," Fr Peter explained to us.

I poked my head in to see how it was like. To my horror, it was very cold inside. The ground was rough and uneven. "Oh my gosh..." I heard myself said. "How can anyone sleep in this kind of condition?"

The cell where St Paul was imprisoned
"Yes, it is cold. This is not even winter and it's already so cold. Can you imagine what winter's like inside there?" said Fr Peter. "Yet, St Paul was able to finish his letter to Timothy. He even convinced the person next door to convert and become a Christian."

I felt something stirring deep down inside. 

Before we left the Church, Fr Peter led us in a prayer asking St Paul to intercede for us and to help us be faithful to Christ, just like he did. I guess this place must have meant a lot to Fr Peter somehow.

Out of the chapel we needed to walk along a tar-sealed pathway leading to another church, the site which marked St Paul's beheading (see photo on the left). St Paul could have been dragged all the way from his prison to the place of his execution through that pathway. Certainly, the pathway would not possibly be tar-sealed and smooth like it is today. It could have been rocky, with shrubs and thorns and buttress roots. Perhaps, he could have endured some cuts on his body due to a few falls as he was being forced to the place of 'slaughter'.

How very brutal and inhumane people can be! We wouldn't mind wiping out our enemies as long as they don't stand in our way. But at the same time, we profess our belief in God (regardless of religion). I shuddered at that thought.

"Don't tell me about your God with your words. Show me about your God with your actions" (Steve Maraboli, author of the book Life, the Truth and Being Free). So who is this God you believe in? Pertaining to the persecution of Christians happening recently in this country, I would like to direct this very question to all those who are involved - directly or indirectly.

Church of the Martyrdom of St Paul
Tradition has it that when St Paul was beheaded, his head bounced three times on the sloping ground and at each spot his head landed a spring of water appeared miraculously. The spring of water, which is still flowing today, is called the "Water of Salvation". It was also said that a lot of people who came here to obtain the water received miraculous healing, even until today. Because of the tres fontes (the three fountains) and St Paul's death, Christianity bloomed. However, the Enemy was always present. There were people who wanted to poison the spring of water in attempt to destroy Christianity.

The column on which St Paul was beheaded
Stepping into the next church (i.e. the Church of the Martyrdom of St Paul), there is a column believed to be where the beheading took place, and three 'monuments' (I'm not sure what to call them) under which the "Water of Salvation" (the spring of water) flows. 

I placed my ear near the opening of one of the monuments, trying to hear if there is any sound of flowing water. Nothing. Just the sound of the other visitors' footsteps and voices. I was slightly disappointed when Fr Peter said he could hear the sound of water!

While waiting for the Sacristan Sister to help us get some of the "Water of Salvation" (which were all taken by the group of pilgrims before us), I sat down in front of one of the monuments and had a short conversation with St Paul.

Dearest St Paul, you died defending the faith I so often took for granted. In front of you, I am so ashamed of myself for having so proudly declared that I am a Catholic when my actions did not reflect the identity. Forgive me for all my negligence. Forgive me for taking you for granted as well. Thank you for all you have done for Christ and for his Church. Please pray for us and all the Christians facing persecution all over the world today. And please help me to be faithful to Christ just as you are faithful to him.

'Monument' with water flowing below
Tears were welling up and almost fell. I rubbed my eyes, pretending to feel tired and sleepy as I joined Fr Peter and my friends who were just a few steps away. They were chatting away while waiting for the Sister who promised to bring us some "Water of Salvation".

Fr Peter was right. This is a more important Church that holds the evidence of St Paul's love for Christ. St Paul is more real than ever for me now. He was just one of those biblical authors whom I didn't really bother (for me, the texts were more important, not the authors). But during that visit, a special 'bond of friendship' was formed between St Paul and I (or maybe just me). 

It was an emotional visit, although I did not tell anyone about it, including Fr Peter.

Perhaps, I need to thank John Paul II too. I firmly believe it was through his intercession that we made it to Rome and we were able to save a lot during the trip. Who knows, it was him, too, who sent us Fr Peter to bring us to this Three Fountains Church - to make sure that we don't go to Rome solely for him, but also to get to know The Apostle St Paul and learn from him how to fight a good fight, to finish the course and keep the faith burning for the love of Christ.
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