By Tom Yoder Neufeld, Tour Leader
Friday, June 15. After a restful night on the ferry, we landed in Bari on the Adriatic coast of Italy, where we met our escort Ben, a very friendly American opera singer turned Italian tour escort. He even spoke with a bit of an Italian accent after 20 years of living in Italy. Wonderful to get his take on Italy. Our first day came to a remarkable climax with a tour of the famous city of Pompeii. While we barely scratched the surface, as an archaeologist might put it, it gave us an insight into how homes were organized as mini-economies, helping us imagine Pauline house-churches, much as the Ephesians terrace houses did.
The next day, Saturday, we visited the small fishing town of Pozzuoli, or, as Acts 28 calls it, Puteoli, where Paul landed under guard on his way to Rome. The amphitheatre, with its strikingly well preserved underground rooms, brought to mind the suffering of countless gladiators, animals, and Christians who awaited their deaths. At the harbour we found a plaque marking the arrival of Paul in Italy. In the afternoon, we made a brief stop at a little visited excavation at Minturno, or, as it was known in Paul’s day, when he travelled through town along the Appian way, Minturnae. It was enjoyable to be the only ones at this site, being able to put our growing knowledge to work at analyzing what we were seeing. The time on the bus afforded opportunity to reflect deeply on Paul’s letter to the Romans, written from Corinth. The evening had us arriving at a rather rustic hotel in the country side.
On Sunday, June 17, we entered the “eternal city,” Rome, for a four day and very rich visit. It began with the Colosseum. Whereas we had been largely on our own for several sites on our way to Rome, we now joined the vast throngs, many of whom were thrilled to have such a glorious backdrop for their selfies! We passed by the Circus Maximus, the chariot race track which was the site of many executions during Paul’s day. A slow stroll through the forum reminded us of the meaning of the “pax Romana,” the Roman notion of peace connected inseparably from war and conquest. For example, the arch of Titus celebrates the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Close by is the temple of Peace celebrating that victory. It is adjacent to Augustus’ temple to Mars Ultor, the god of war and vengeance, which celebrates his victory over his rivals to power. We also visited Augustus’ altar to peace, the Ara Pacis, which was erected on the “field of Mars,” where soldiers trained for war. It was sobering to reflect on the stark contrast to Paul’s understanding of peace as we find it so brilliantly expressed in his letter to the Romans, where God is a lover of enemies (Romans 5), one who seeks reconciliation with his enemies, not their demise or destruction.
Our excellent guides, Luca and Susanna, led us through sites and museums with insight and sensitivity. Both have both a Catholic and a Protestant parent, giving them an insight to the kinds of questions or responses we might have. Susanna led us through both the Capitoline and the Vatican museums, overwhelming and crowded, but breathtaking all the same. It is impossible not to be awestruck by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
On our last day, Wednesday, June 20, Luca guided us through some deeply moving sites related to Paul. The church of Saint Prisca reminded us of the powerful women Paul counted as co-workers. We also saw the immense church which houses, according to tradition, Paul’s tomb, as well as the Trappist abbey with the “Three Fountains” church commemorating the site of Paul’s execution by beheading. But the most moving for our group was to have special permission to go underground to a home at the level of the first century. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, we sensed a connection to the believers of the first century among whom Paul stayed. We sang “I have decided to follow Jesus,” and prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for the courageous witness of our forebears. The day ended, as did our tour, with a visit to the catacomb of Domitilla. It is difficult to put into words what it means to see evidence of the lives of early believers, and also to see the very first Christian art on the walls deep underground.
We used evenings at the hotel for Bible study, and then enjoyed a “last supper” together on Wednesday evening. A delicious meal was followed by moving testimonies from tour participants of what the tour had come to mean for them. As tour leader I am deeply grateful for everyone who was on the tour, for Audrey’s caring and expert attentiveness, for excellent guides, for the bonds of friendship forged, and for the Spirit’s enlivening of our faith and deeping of our resolve to “follow Jesus.”
Thanks be to God!