Our pioneering pilgrims to Rome

By Neil Sayer, Archdiocesan archivist

As early as 1950 the traffic jams in Rome were already legendary. One story in that year tells of an impatient Archbishop, stuck in a tailback, who sent his secretary to ask the car in front to move out of the way. He was given short shrift when it turned out the car in front was occupied by the Italian Prime Minister.
Perhaps Pope Pius XII was only adding to the problems. In 1948 he had announced a jubilee Holy Year for 1950. In doing so, he invited all Catholics to Rome: those who visited and prayed at the four major Basilicas were granted indulgences. A Liverpool Archdiocesan Committee was set up and two Archdiocesan pilgrimages took place, in May (led by Bishop Halsall) and October (led by Archbishop Downey). Papers in the Archdiocesan archives show the meticulous care taken in organising the pilgrimages and report the happy and successful trips that ensued.
The first Liverpool pilgrimage involved over 500 participants; the second was even larger with nearly 900 people trusting to the trains of Europe to deliver them safely there and back. Many of these were visiting Rome for the first time, though as this was before the age of cheap air travel, that’s probably not surprising. A key player in the rise of the package holiday, Thomas Cook, now sadly demised, was engaged to create an itinerary that would include both pilgrimage and sightseeing. The all-inclusive prices varied between £35 and £61, depending on your standard of luxury. Archbishop Downey was delighted to note ‘the happiness which radiated on all sides and the spirit of prayerful devotion’ on the prescribed visits to the four great basilicas of St Peter, St Mary Major, St John Lateran and St Paul Outside the Walls.
Pilgrims were allocated in groups to particular hotels and put under the charge of specially appointed priests. These weren’t all secular priests accompanying the pilgrimage: the organising committee was grateful for assistance from students at the Venerable English College and resident Passionist Fathers, among others. Time was allowed for visits further afield than just Rome, and Nettuno and Assisi were highlights for many: the former being the home of the recently-canonised child saint, Maria Goretti; the latter associated of course with St Francis and St Clare.
The October pilgrims were among a crowd of 60,000 in St Peter’s Square, charmed by the Pope in a memorable audience. The Archbishop and his senior priests were also received informally by the Holy Father at his country residence, Castel Gandolfo. The Pope, said our Archbishop, ‘spoke of his pleasure at seeing such a large number from Liverpool on this our second pilgrimage during the Holy Year’. Many local families may still preserve memories or souvenirs of these pilgrimages. Nostalgia might have kept us going during the pandemic.
Though the Archdiocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes will not take place this year, some of us may be taking a risk and making our own arrangements for foreign travel. Others may be deferring trips abroad, perhaps rediscovering the world on their doorstep. (The Metropolitan Cathedral should of course be on your itinerary if you are coming to Liverpool.) We may not be able to experience the dubious pleasure of being stuck on a coach dodging Italian drivers on the roundabout at the Piazza Venezia, but better times are ahead.