Every traveler's worst nightmare leads to a divine encounter
Two years ago this month, in Rome for a workshop of the Pontifical Academy for Life, I took advantage of the occasion to take small groups of seminarians including my youngest son, on mini-pilgrimages to the shrines of their favorite (mostly young) saints. We prayed at the relics of Gemma Galgani in Lucca and Catherine in Siena, Maria Goretti in Nettuno, Francis and Clare in Assisi, and over a dozen saints in Rome. On the last day of my trip, we’d planned on visiting Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (Gabriele dell’Addolorata) in Isola del Gran Sasso (Teramo), about two hours northeast of Rome, fairly close to the Adriatic. But nothing about that unforgettable day went as planned.
Not long after leaving Rome, driving a sweet Alfa Romeo Giulietta (with six forward gears!), snow started falling. We’d left the Garmin behind, but “the boys” knew the way, more or less, and one had suggested that while we were near Teramo, we detour an hour and twenty minutes south to visit Manoppello where there is a miraculous image called the “Volto Santo” (Holy Face). By the time we stopped for lunch in L’Aquila, there was four-inch deep slushy snow in the parking lot. The toll road then took us higher and higher into the Abruzzi mountains, through tunnels and valleys shrouded in fog.
The only glitch on our way from L’Aquila to Teramo (having missed the earlier exit for Isola del Gran Sasso) was my not being able to reach the automated ticket dispenser when we got back on the toll road. I had to open the driver-side door in the heavy snow and reach up as far as I could to yank out the toll ticket. It didn’t seem like a big deal until we reached another toll booth where I had to pay. My wallet was gone, along with my driver’s license, all the cash I had, my debit card (foreclosing all hope of getting any more cash) and credit cards, meaning I could no longer pay for anything, including tolls on our return to Rome. It had probably fallen out of my pocket as I dodged the deepest slush in the restaurant parking lot or may fallen out of the car when I opened my door at the first toll booth. We phoned the restaurant and returned to the toll booth without success.
Luckily, before leaving the seminary, one of the boys thought to ask for 20 Euros "emergency" cash. That took care of the very irritated toll guy, but it wouldn’t be enough to take the highway back to Rome. I began to entertain images of sliding off an icy back road in the middle of the night in some remote area of the Abruzzis, missing my flight home the next day or perhaps freezing to death after surviving the crash.
After visiting the shrine of St. Gabriel — the Passionist seminarian who died of tuberculosis at age 24 and soon became a prodigious miracle-worker, as well as patron of youth, students and seminarians — and taking a break to pelt each other with snowballs, the young men and I headed to Manoppello. Another missed turnoff sent us over a mountain where the barely paved one lane road clung to the hillside making a U-turn impossible. The Santuario del Volto Santo (Sanctuary of the Holy Face, elevated by Pope Benedict XVI to a Basilica following his pilgrimage there in September 2006) was closing at 7 p.m. that day and we were losing hope of arriving in time to see the Holy Face.
The rest of the trip alternated between prayers and increasingly desperate suggestions as to how we could raise enough money for tolls and gas to get us back to Rome and get me to the airport in the morning. The most promising idea was to locate a bar and send the seminarians in to explain our plight and pass a hat around. Yeesh.
By some miracle, we arrived at the darkened Basilica and empty parking lot with five minutes to spare. My son and I tried every one of the massive doors to no avail. The other two boys knocked on the front doors of nearby homes where, thankfully, one resident suggested we drive around the back of the Basilica to the residence of the Capuchin friars. By then it was pitch black, but in the headlights we couldn’t miss a very high and very locked fence. The intercom was answered by the Rector, Fr. Domenico, who explained apologetically that the community was about to pray Vespers and have dinner. But then he changed his mind, offering to unlock the gate and meet us at the kitchen door.