Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Aeroflot Experience: Part I

An Aeroflot A321 flying as SU2401, FCO-SVO, Oct. 29, 2015
Rome to Moscow, SU 2401, Thursday, October 29, 2015.

Months ago, I was looking for an affordable one-way trip from Italy to the US in late October. The SkyTeam majors: Delta, KLM, Air France and Alitalia, like so many other major carriers, tend to have exorbitant one way fares. However SkyTeam member Aeroflot, the Russian airline, offered a very affordable one-way fare, and that too in their new Comfort Class (a separate Premium Economy product, such as the cabins onboard Alitalia and Air France). Aeroflot has decent reviews, and is a far cry from its Soviet days, and it seemed like a fun new aviation experience, so I booked the ticket.

[I actually have flown Aeroflot once before, in fact precisely during the Soviet era, back when I was in high school (1989, to be precise). That has to be a blog for another day, however. Also, I need to find the few photos I have from that trip for a TBT post!]

Eucharistic Miracles: A visit to Lanciano

Monstrance containing the miraculous Host, Lanciano
In the High Middle Ages, a veritable explosion of Eucharistic miracles occurred. (This site lists all the known ones -- and they date back to the earliest years of the faith, and have continued to occur into our own day and age.) It seems that Providence responded to increasing doubt about the Real Presence with such singular interventions. The practice of Eucharistic Adoration grew at least in part in response to this wave of doubt, and in 1264, Pope Urban IV established the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, for the public veneration of the Consecrated Host, and the Angelic Doctor himself composed the liturgical office for the feast. Here's a map (PDF link) of all the known Eucharistic miracles in Italy.

Raphael: "The Mass at Bolsena" (Wikimedia) 
Lanciano, near the southeastern Adriatic coast of Italy houses one of the earliest such miracle (PDF link) known, precipitated by the doubt of a Basilian Monk in the 8th century (some 400 years prior to the other famous Italian ones). While celebrating Mass, the Host turned into flesh and dripped blood. The miraculous product was carefully preserved. In the 13th century, the care of the church passed to the (relatively) newly established Franciscan Friars, the Conventual branch of which continues the custody of the miracle. The present monstrance housing the miracle dates from the middle of the 18th century. In the 1970s, scientific tests done established that the miracle is indeed human flesh, a bit of heart tissue, with the blood group AB. Pilgrims continue to be drawn to this, and other, miraculous sites. Last week (Monday, October 26), I had the opportunity to visit Lanciano.

Close up of the miraculous Host
A beautiful, quiet and uneventful 2h40m drive — leaving the chaotic morning traffic of Rome, and the nondescript suburbs of the Eternal City, followed by a slow climb to the Apennines, the central spine of the Italian peninsula, breathtaking views, and many tunnels cutting through the mountain rock — and one is on the Adriatic coast. Highway A50 runs fairly close to the shore between Pescara and Bari, and periodically the shimmering blue of the sea peeks through the hills and pastures.

Lanciano is a picturesque hilltop town, with winding, cobbled streets in the historic Centro. I find an easy parking spot in the main square, not a hundred yards from the Church of St. Francis, the site of the miracle. A large group if Italian pilgrims arrives at the same time. Inside the main church, Mass is underway — in English! I find the sacristan who informs me that there are three English-speaking groups in the church right now. The Italians will have Mass in the crypt (the site of the miracle itself). There is an Indonesian group expected in about 20 minutes, and I could concelebrate with them. The Church closes at 12:30 for the afternoon. I go and wait and pray in the chapel of St. Clare, right behind the display containing the monstrance with the miracle. A large group of Filipinos arrive — they kneel and bow and sign themselves in front of the monstrance. Several pray and touch the glass case reverently. Tablets and phones and cameras appear.. The Americans and Irish finish their Mass. The Indonesians don’t show up. An elderly Franciscan friar sets up the altar in the same chapel for me to say Mass.

Of course, since the altar is set up versus populum, I end up offering the Holy Sacrifice with my back to the miraculous host behind me. Idiotic! However, given the time crunch, I didn’t want to try and explain to the elderly Franciscan that I’d like to reverse the altar settings.

The Franciscans had everything set up for a Mass in English for the Indonesians — however, their photocopy of the Missal was of the now superseded 1970 ICEL translation. So, for the first time that I can recall, I offered Mass using the text of the current (2010) edition of the Roman Missal in English found on the iMissal app on my phone! [If I’d known this was going to be the case, I’d have asked for an Italian Missal. The Sacristan seemed a little surprised at my request for a Latin Missal …]  The Mass was for, appropriately, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.

Offering Mass using my phone to get the correct translation!
It was such a joy and blessing to offer the Holy Sacrifice at this sacred place, where the Lord’s mercy powerfully intervened to strengthen the Church’s belief in His abiding and Real Presence in the Eucharist!

After Mass, I had a few minutes to visit the crypt (where the miracle actually took place), in the excavated ruins of the original Basilian Church — it was a bare room with stone walls, and a stylized modern cross and square altar added recently.

Remains of the 8th century chapel where the miracle occurred. 

I have now had the privilege of visiting the sites of two Eucharistic miracles: Balsenna-Orvieto (with the Atlanta NACers in 2012), and now Lanciano.

Piazza near the Church of St. Francis, Lanciano

Corporal with miraculous Precious Blood, from the Miracle at Bolsena, Cathedral of Orvieto (2012).

[There has also been a Eucharistic Miracle in India -- in 2001, in the Archdiocese of Trivandrum, Kerala! And a very famous one in Buenos Aires in 1996, the former See of the current Pope.]

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Air Choice One Travel Report: Chicago O'Hare to Burlington, IA

[Ignore what Google says about the cost. My ticket cost $56!]
UPDATE: Landing Video on YouTube now.

On a trip to visit classmates from seminary across the Midwest, I stumbled across Air Choice One, a small, regional communter airline, that offers flights to regional airports under the Essential Air Service program. For about $56, I was booked on a flight from O'Hare to Burlington, IA, on a little Cessna Caravan.

In the weeks leading up to the flight, I enjoyed some reports from previous travelers: this blog, and this video, for instance.

On the day of the flight. I called the number listed for Chicago operations, and was told that the flight was on time. I showed up at Terminal 3 of O'Hare at about 5:40 pm for a 7:00 pm departure to Burlington. Air Choice One's check-in counter is located at the far left end of the terminal, next to Spirit Airlines. There was no one ahead of me at the counter. Check-in was routine (except I was asked my weight). A carry on tag was added to my backpack, and a regular baggage tag for my check-in luggage.

The check-in bag had to be dropped off at a nearby TSA X-ray screening point, after which I entered the long line for security (a rarity for me, since I am normally TSA Pre-Checked when I fly Delta). By about 6:15 pm, I cleared security and visited the restroom, as the airline's website advises. At counter L10B (next to a crowded Spirit Airlines boarding area), I was told to wait next to doorway 9. They were waiting for a connecting passenger to come through, and would start boarding as soon as she showed up.

The crowded Spirit Airlines boarding area, from doorway L9, ORD Terminal 3
At about 6:50 pm, an agent lined up all the passengers on the two Air Choice One flights (going to Burlington, IA and Decatur, IL), in order of seating, Row 1, Row 2, Row 3 and Row 4, and then lead us down a set of stairs to the tarmac. There were two Cessna Caravans parked next to each other. The Burlington passengers were directed in to the one on the left. You drop your bigger carry-on bag before boarding (my backpack, but not my camera bag. Others carried purses, or any smaller hand-held personal item). We climbed up the narrow stairs, in order of seating, by row.

Walking on the tarmac 

Blurry photo of the boarding process 

The pilots were already in their seats. The captain turned to us to give a very brief welcome and safety message -- pointing out the exits, their heights off the ground, the location of the fire extinguisher, the flight time to Burlington (about 90 min with headwinds), and that it would be bumpy at take off and landing because of headwinds. He was interrupted by the ramp agent yelling weight distribution issues through the window. Then she turned to me and said,, "You ... sir ... yes, you, the heavy set guy in Row 3, we need you to switch seats with the lady in Row 2." Gee thanks. "That would be me!" I said, and raised my hand, eliciting chuckles from my fellow travelers. Unfortunately, Row 2 faced the rear of the aircraft, so I didn't have a clear view of the pilots and the instrument panel. The seat did swivel (but did not recline), so during the flight, I could crane my neck to get a forward view.

View from my window [Before being moved to Row 2].

The seats are nice and wide, and plush leather. 
A few minutes after 7, the door was closed, the engine started, and we were off! We taxiied about 10 minutes and then lined up onto runway 28R. The single prop engine roared to full thrust, and we hurtled down the runway, taking off after a short take-off roll. Take off was indeed bumpy, and we lurched and bounced, gaining altitude as the airport slowly receded. Flaps went up at 1000 feet, and a few minutes later, we stabilized at our cruising altitude of  6,000 feet. From that point on the flight was quite uneventful. The twinkling lights of Chicagoland gave way to the relative darkness of northern and central Illinois, punctuated by small clusters of light. The seat recline was either broken, or disabled, so I didn't try to sleep (also, given the face-to-face seating, I didn't really have much space to stretch my legs). All my fellow passengers slept. I read a book, and periodically twisted around to get as much of a view of the instrument panel as I could.

Missing recline button. 
[Cropped close up of the instrument panel. It took several shots on my Nikon D5300, set to manual focus (not wanting the autofocus light to distract or draw attention to me!), to get this shot. You can see the altimeter reading 6000 feet.]

About 10 minutes prior to landing, the Captain announced our descent and approach into Burlington. We slowly lost altitude. I craned forward, and saw as the runway (12/30? I can't be sure), came into view, as we bumped and bounced out of the night sky, lined up, and coasted past the threshold onto the runway (altitude, if I recall correctly, around 700' MSL). We turned off the runway to park in front of the tiny terminal building. The Captain thanked us for our business, and asked us to remain seated until the door was opened, after which we disembarked, picked up our carry on baggage, and walked to the terminal. Barely five minutes later, our checked-in bags were delivered to the terminal door.

All in all, it was a fun ride. Everyone was courteous, but, at least to me, seemed functional, efficient and somewhat cold. I missed Southern warmth!

On the ground in Burlington!

The deserted terminal at Southeast Iowa Regional Airport (KBRL) 
View of the terminal from the parking lot