Around Europe in 30 days #19: A brush with faith (Italy)

In 2008, when I was 21, I came up with the idea of booking an Interrail ticket and touring Europe for a month. I decided travel to Paris, Madrid, Granada, Barcelona, Venice, Rome, Athens, Istanbul and Vienna. And I felt the strong urge to do this tour alone.


Day 18 – Travel from Rome to Bari (Italy)

Route from Rome to Bari (Italy)

A Catholic priest, a Vatican assistant and a German backpacker are sitting on a train… Sounds like the beginning of a (potentially inappropriate) joke. But it actually happened.

The next leg of my journey was going to be two days of travel from Rome (Italy) to Athens (Greece). For that, I took a train from the Italian capital to Bari, where I was going to catch an overnight ferry to Greece and then catch another train to Athens.

On the train to Bari, I was sharing a compartment with a Catholic priest. He had a warm smile and quickly initiated a friendly conversation with me, inquiring about my trip so far and how I had enjoyed the Holy City.

He was very pleasant, but I have to admit that I felt a little awkward around him. Even though I had been baptized in the Protestant faith as a baby and been confirmed when I was 14 in Southern Germany, my teenage years in Atheist and worldly Berlin had very much turned me away from any form of church or faith and left me highly skeptical of anything or anyone tied to it. That had only been further ingrained in me during my time in Florida (USA). At 16, I kept being shocked and offended by people’s common use of phrases like “God bless you” and “God be with you” without inquiring of my beliefs. To me, that felt deeply offensive and like people’s faith was being pushed on me against my will.

Nevertheless, I did not want to come across as rude or even offend him with my attitude. Also, I was actually very curious. How and why does somebody decide to dedicate their life to such an old institution that to me was surrounded by mystery and controversy?

While still in Rome, a middle aged man in a suit joined our compartment and our conversation. He turned out to be an assistant to Pope Benedict XVI and, while keeping the Pontifex’ privacy and dignity, was able to shed some light on the Holy Father’s day to day and behind the scenes. I was truly fascinated. They further shared some details about their lives and church careers. To both of these men, these descriptions and look behind the curtain seemed like the most commonday accounts. Working for the Catholic church in Italy, they were very much used to these types of exchanges.

And somehow I got be a more or less silent and curious observer of the relaxed exchange going on between these two men. It was deeply interesting and much less “preachy” than I would have expected. They did not seem brainwashed or like they were ready to convert me with all their might. Instead they were fully accepting, even of my confession that, even though I was officially part of the Protestant church, I was not sure what to believe in (I did not dare to actually out myself as an Atheist to them). They did not meet my negative view of people of faith. And honestly, I don’t know many opportunities where this type of encounters would have happened. But it did back then… on a train in Italy. And it is one of the many reasons that I love that country.

How about you?
How do you feel about religious interactions and discussions?


Cover picture was taken in Rome (Italy) in Feb 2017

Missing the beginning of this story?
Around Europe in 30 days #1: Forming a plan

7 thoughts on “Around Europe in 30 days #19: A brush with faith (Italy)

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  1. How fascinating and quite extraordinary to meet one of the Pope’s assistants….on a train!! You have had some interesting encounters.
    Like you I’m atheist, but I have a deep rooted fascination for religion and I do confess (sorry for the pun) that certain hymns and Christmas carols make me cry. Although atheist, I attend church services whenever I have the opportunity, and it’s no matter to me which denomination it is…I just enjoy the peace, community of spirit, the rituals and the emotions they evoke. When I walked The Pilgrim’s Way the priests at Winchester Cathedral said a prayer and a blessing, as well as when I reached my journey end at Canterbury Cathedral. I found it strangely comforting and reassuring that these people’s faith was so strong and even though I don’t subscribe to their religion, I do believe in the Universe and that what you put out, returns.
    Have you seen the film ‘The Two Popes’? Its about Benedict XVI and The current Pope, Francis. It was fascinating and I cried copiously at the end…simply because it must be so incredibly amazing to have a faith so strong in something that we have no idea really exists, that they dedicate their whole lives to that belief.
    It’s still my dream to one day visit Rome and hear the Pope speak the Vatican…..the atmosphere must be so powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your intricate description. I love your approach and hope that you will get to make your dream a reality 🥰 I did watch “The Two Popes” and very much enjoyed the portrayal of these two powerful and devoted men with their different approaches and philosophies. Such a fascinating take.
      My personal beliefs are actually very similar to yours. I figured out a couple of years ago that even though I am not religious or affiliated with any church, I believe and enjoy spirituality and believe that there are higher powers and/energies holding everything together. Whenever I enter a place of worship – church, temple, mosque – I feel this strong sense of peace and calm and I love to linger in that energy. I also like to join religious ceremonies and enjoy the feeling of community and goal of a greater good. Like you, I find a lot of comfort in the songs and the universal messages 😇

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      1. Awww thank you for your lovely reply ☺ I was worried after I posted my comment that is was too wordy.
        I’m delighted you’ve seen The Two Popes, it really was a very powerful film and beautifully acted. Enjoy your day

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not religious, but I’ve had discussions with those who are. I roomed with three Christians in my final year of university, and even attended a few worship nights with them. They never did try to convert me and were accepting of me being non-religious, but I still definitely felt a bit awkward when they spoke passionately about God and Him being good…but as they respected my right not to believe in God, I respect their right to believe in Him. It’s funny how you mentioned Americans saying “God bless you” and all of that; I grew up in the US and people who say that don’t really bother me, because it’s just a natural thing to say in our culture. There are many Americans who are religious, whether Christian, Catholic, Jewish…so I can imagine that it must’ve been very disconcerting for you to hear the word “God” being thrown around so casually. Even our Pledge of Allegiance states “God” in it…and sometimes, I catch myself swearing “God!” or “Godammit!” when I’m frustrated. It’s really cool to learn about these cultural exchanges and learn about the nuances of different cultures and beliefs!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How interesting, thank you for sharing 🤩 Being faced with people’s open display and proclamation of faith in the U.S. was definitely a culture shock. In Germany, it is treated as a very personal and private thing. It is not part of the public discussion. Nevertheless, we tend to use religious symbolism in figures of speech and expressions. Calling out “Gott sei Dank” ( Thank God), “Zum Teufel nochmal” (to the devil/hell), “Gott verdammt” (God damn) etc. are very commonly used but don’t usually hold the literal meaning anymore. Meeting people in the U.S. who use religious wording with such vigour and on a common basis is very different from that 😅
      Personally, I got more religious and open regarding other people’s beliefs and faith in general through my significant other. He is a Christian and has actually been training to become a priest in the Episcopal Church. When he initially told me that, I was a little bit taken aback and was confronted with my own prejudice. But he has never tried to convert me or anyone else and is instead very open-minded and ready to address any question or topic that might come up. Our deep and respectful discussions have broadend my horizon immeasurably and put me in touch with my actual spirituality. It’s been a fascinating personal journey ever since we met.

      Liked by 1 person

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