By Adelaide Patrignani
Most people get there in a few hours by plane. Vincent walked. It took him 37 days. He left Rome on 1 June and arrived on 7 July in his home town of Gruyère, a green mountain region near Freiburg.
He chose to follow the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim route that connects Canterbury, in the south of England, to the Eternal City. For him, it represented the harmonious conclusion of a period of his life spent in the service of the Holy Father. Three years earlier, he had travelled the same road on his way to Rome. A simple pilgrimage, repeated like a refrain. "Now that it's done”, says Vincent, “I realize this way of returning home was like a therapy for me. It was very difficult to leave Rome, the Vatican, the Swiss Guards and the Holy Father. I don't think I could have dealt with a sudden return in one day. Returning home on foot gives you a lot of time to sum up what you have experienced”. Something Pope Francis said at World Youth Day in Krakow also struck him: "To follow Jesus, you need to have a dose of courage, you need to decide to change the couch for a pair of walking shoes". "I feel I have followed the Pope’s words to the letter by travelling this way", says Vincent.
Leaving Rome on a summer day, Vincent felt torn: "I was sad, of course, because I was leaving behind a life I had loved so much, but also joy, because I was on my way home". For Vincent, the road was an "extension" of his experience as a Swiss Guard, taking him back to his home, “the Swiss Rome, the city of Freiburg". Even though he had experienced pilgrim walks, having done the “Cammino” of Santiago de Compostela, Vincent was hesitant about this new undertaking: “I was anxious. I felt I was doing something too big for me". Still, he set out alone, happy in his loneliness, and abandoning himself to Divine Providence.
The layout of the Via Francigena is based on a description found in a manuscript by Sigéric de Canterbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, who travelled to Rome in the year 990 to receive the pallium from Pope John XV. The route is well signposted and the pilgrim has many guides to help plan the route in detail. But for Vincent, it was important to walk without setting a daily destination, going only as far as he could in a day. He felt that not booking any accommodation in advance was a way to experience poverty and gratitude. "You don't know where you are going to end up, so you learn to rejoice in everything positive, because maybe you won’t find it at your next stop", notes Vincent. He recalls many "memorable encounters", like that with the couple who had welcomed him on his outward journey... and three years later, did the same on his return. "I have to say that walking in the opposite direction arouses curiosity", he observes.
From Tuscany to the Po Valley
The Via Francigena crosses seven regions of Italy (Valle d'Aosta, Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Liguria, Tuscany and Lazio) for just over 1000 km. Vincent was particularly struck by the landscape of Tuscany, especially between the towns of Radicofani and San Miniato. "It is the part of Italy where the landscapes are the most beautiful”, he says. A little further north, these views of paradise become more like purgatory as the road crosses the Po Valley. Between Pavia and Santhià, rice fields extend for as far as the eye can see, offering an "extremely monotonous landscape with very straight lines". The heat and stagnant water in the rice fields attract "lots of mosquitoes", Vincent recalls. These days were "a great test of patience", he adds. Then the landscape becomes mountainous again, up to the slopes of the Valle d'Aosta, and the highest point of the route, the Great St. Bernard Pass in Switzerland (2469 meters above sea level). A few days later, Vincent reached the Canton of Freiburg. Once there, he no longer needed a map as he recognized the familiar mountains of his homeland on the horizon.
A backpack and a Bible
One might think the size and weight of a pilgrim's backpack is proportional to the distance travelled. That isn’t always true, says Vincent. All he carried was some clothes, food and water. “You can go to the end of the world with that little", he explains. And if you are afraid of getting bored, you always have your Rosary or a small Bible to keep you company, he adds. It is easy to pray the Rosary while you are walking, says Vincent, "especially along the least pleasant parts of the route". You can also rely on the intercession of Saint Rocco, patron saint of pilgrims, and Saint Martin and Saint Sebastian, patron saints of the Pontifical Swiss Guard. Even though his backpack didn’t bother him, there was something else that caused Vincent discomfort: his feet. “If it wasn't the left, it was the right! As if one foot wanted to return to Switzerland and the other foot was dragging me back to Rome”.
The faithful Companion
When, finally, he arrived in Freiburg, Vincent says he felt a “strange feeling of loneliness”, as when you make a long trip with friends: once you get back home, each goes their own way. During the five weeks of walking the Via Francigena, Vincent says he experienced “a special closeness to God, like walking with a friend”. This relationship is what helped him abandon himself to Divine Providence. "I had to learn to let go of the itinerary, to stop making calculations and to stop worrying”, he says. Experience forced him to believe and to trust in God, he adds. Vincent has his own advice for anyone trying to do the same: "Do everything you can to hold onto God at any cost, as He were a safety rope… One of the ways we meet Him is precisely when we see our plans going to pieces”, he says. Along the way, the former Swiss Guard says he dared to lose himself “in hope with confidence". God always “saves us from drowning".
The grace to continue
"Man of little faith, why did you doubt?" (Mt 14:31) is Vincent’s favourite Gospel verse, and the one he most associates with his pilgrimage from Rome to Freiburg. On the return journey, he recognized many of the places he had encountered on his way to Rome: "Benches, tree-trunks, roadsides where in moments of doubt and despair I tossed everything onto the ground and sat with my head in my hands". There were times when he was ready to give up and go home, says Vincent. “But luckily I always received the grace to continue”. Returning to these places gave him the chance to examine his conscience, and to strengthen his faith. "In future, I hope to be able to trust and look in the right direction, even if everything tells me that I will sink", says Vincent. "Now I am convinced our only hope is God".
Keeping the door open
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage”. Thus reads Psalm 84 (verse 6). The words of the Psalm sound like an echo of Vincent's itinerary: his pilgrimage along the Via Francigena is over, but the journey revealed to him the infinite horizon of life with God, and in God. A revelation of this kind puts resting on the couch out of the question! Rather, it's about holding onto his Swiss Guard's armour... ready for a spiritual fight. "Arriving back home”, says Vincent, “was like closing the door of my heart to God, the door I had opened to Him while I was walking”. The temptation to "control everything" in our daily life quickly returns. We have to "fight and keep the door open". "We keep it open when we live like a true Christian, moving forward with total confidence in the Father". Vincent’s itinerary showed him how "it is fear that blocks us, the fear of a Love that is so great it could turn our lives upside down".
Projects in progress
In September, the former Swiss Guard enrolled in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Fribourg. He says he wants to build a "solid foundation" to enable him to "talk about God". Vincent feels that "people often reject God because they don't know Him". His choice of studies is another reflection on the pilgrimage experience he lived this summer: "The encounter with God is an invaluable gift”, says Vincent, but we cannot limit ourselves to searching for Him along the road, just because it is there that we dare open our hearts. God is not limited to a pilgrimage route, he adds. Still, Vincent has a new dream: he wants to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. "I don't know when", he says, "but the day the opportunity presents itself, I better have the courage to go. It will be the greatest journey of my life," he adds.
Advice for interested travellers
Vincent has a word of encouragement for his Swiss Guard comrades who may be thinking of returning home from Rome on foot. "If you think about it, even a little, then do it. Go! It's easy. When you exit the Vatican from Saint Anne’s Gate, turn left and keep going. All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other". And what advice does he have for someone wanting to hike their way home? “It is about 1000 km from the Great Saint Bernard Pass to Rome. If you calculate each step as being 70cm, that makes about 1.5 million steps," says Vincent. That's enough to discourage even the most determined. "The only step that really counts, the most difficult to take, is the first. The others will follow", he adds. The only real challenge is learning to lose control: "When things don't go as planned, that’s when you know you are going in the right direction. That is the way God guides us", says Vincent confidently. In other words, he concludes, "set aside your pride": it will mark the beginning a life-giving journey, a journey of humility.
"Go, pilgrim, continue your search; go your way, do not let anything stop you. Take your share of the sun and your share of the dust; with your heart awake, forget the ephemeral. Everything is nothing, and nothing is true except love" (Liturgical hymn, CFC).
«Va, pèlerin, poursuis ta quête; va ton chemin, que rien ne t'arrête. Prends ta part de soleil et ta part de poussière; le cœur en éveil, oublie l'éphémère. Tout est néant, rien n'est vrai que l'amour» (Hymne, CFC).