Pilgrimage: The Road to Rome
The highlight for me was discovering about my mum's faith being so strong and really connecting to my family’s history.Les Dennis
Why did you decide to join the pilgrimage?
I did it because I love walking. I have always wanted to go on a walking holiday, but just never got round to it. We've got little kids, so you don't do those things, so that appealed to me massively. And then the idea of being able to go to Rome and also discuss faith with seven other travellers was just too good an opportunity to miss. I get asked to do a lot of reality things but this time, as soon as they asked, I said: "I'm doing that." I wanted to do it.
Is faith something that you've had an interest in?
I don't know what my faith is. I'm not wedded to formal religion but I think there are things that I explored on that journey. But I think that because my mum had lost her faith, it was important for me to kind of explore that and work out why she hadn't instilled faith in us.
Did you feel that growing up?
Well, when we were growing up I knew that my mum had been Catholic, but then she had married my dad who didn't believe particularly. My mum insisted that we were confirmed and also christened. We went to Sunday school a bit, we didn't go to church regularly. We went to Christmas Eve, midnight mass. And I was almost like: "Why? What are we doing this for? I don't want to do this on Christmas Eve." But I think although she had lost her faith, she wanted to connect and wanted us to connect in some way. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic! When she died, even though she'd kind of renounced her faith, she wanted a Catholic burial.
Have you ever taken part in anything like this before?
I've never done anything like this, walking with a backpack, living in hostels. I loved it - we all loved it. I think we all got so much out of it.
Did you prepare in advance for the pilgrimage?
I'd already kind of got a bit fitter. Claire, my wife, the kids and I went to a Greek Island on holidays, sharing with some friends, and my friend Steve and I used to do the croissant run every morning. The villa we were staying in was on a very steep hill. So we used to walk down to the village to do the croissant run and the walk right back up. That was a good five mile round walk, in the heat of the morning and in Greece. Steve kept asking what we’re doing this for and if we can take the car but I was like, no, we’ve got to do it, so we did it every day and then got back to the villa and dived into the pool to cool off.
And then indulged in a croissant to reward yourself?
That was what we did on the pilgrimage trip anyway, we did all that walking and then indulged in lovely Italian food.
What kind of food did you eat?
Wonderful pastas, Italian breads and lovely Italian food. I cooked one night for them. I made 'the Godfather Pasta'. We had some beautiful food on our way.
Were you staying in self-catering accommodation where you could do on cooking?
We were staying in hostels throughout the trip. They varied - sometimes they were awful, others were really nice. We stayed at somebody's house and we were allowed to cook. That was lovely.
Did you find the pilgrimage hard?
Some days you'd get up and think: “Ooh that was a long walk yesterday and we've got to do it again today.” Greg Rutherford would push us to walk sub-three hour 20k.
How did he push you?
He just went: “Come on Les. You can do it. You can do it.” So I went off with the boys and I kept saying: “If I get behind, don't worry,” but then I realised they were going for that time and I didn't want to let them down. So that pushed me. I pushed myself and he helped. He was amazing. He and Brendan said they’d carry my backpack but I said: “No that would be cheating.” So we did it and then I would collapse.
Was that the most challenging part of it?
I think the most challenging part of it was not knowing where you're staying. I like my creature comforts. We were in an open dorm and people in the dorm decided to get up at five o'clock to leave and had no consideration and would talk out loud, so the lack of sleep was the hardest thing.
Did you find it fun?
It was great fun. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I loved it, had a great time and I've kept in touch with everybody. We're all connected and I think we will remain that way because it was a real bonding experience.
What would you say was the highlight of the whole experience?
The highlight for me was discovering about my mum's faith being so strong and really connecting to my family’s history. When you're a kid, you don't really think about your mum's faith. It didn’t hit me until I went to Rome and realised she was one of seven siblings who all were named after saints. And then when she got to naming us, you know, she named my sister Margaret after a saint, but once she lost her faith, we were given names like 'Les' so I realised it was such a massive thing for her. It wasn’t an epiphany, but that was the thing that I've brought back from it.
How did you discover all of this information?
We went to the Basilica, to the statue of St. Peter and I realised they’d all been named after saints. So that was how that came about when I got to the Basilica.
Did you find that emotional?
Yeah, it was very emotional. When we got to meet the Pope, that was incredible for all of us.
Would you say that you are affiliated to any religion?
No. I wasn't brought up Catholic, but I can identify with my mum's faith. I personally believe my faith is me, my family, my friends, and do unto others as you would have done to yourself.
What helps you explain the world?
My faith in human nature. Doing a good deed for somebody else, even the littlest, tiniest good deeds between people. Love is what makes the world go round. I know it's a cliché, but it does.
Has the experience changed or increased your faith?
It hasn't changed my faith but I think it has made me appreciate and not scorn anybody else's faith. Dana has massive faith and I appreciate that she has that. I kind of envy people who have strong faith, I envy them because they don't have doubts.
Has the experience changed you in any way personally?
I understand other people having faith and knowing what they want. I'm more tolerant.
You mentioned that this was a bonding experience for you all. Have you managed to meet up?
I'm very close with Lesley but I knew Lesley before. We all got along great and we are trying like mad to get a reunion together. We've managed a few of us, but not all of us.
So the big grand finale from the series was meeting the Pope. How would you describe that experience?
It was incredible because we didn't believe it was going to happen. Even up until the last minute, I think we all thought we were just going to sit at the back of the Vatican or Saint Mark's Square just watching. Being in a room with him for half an hour was quite incredible. And then he blessed my mum and he kissed me. I thought it was a wonderful thing to have that blessing.
Tell me what happened when you met him.
He just walked in and he's very small and kind of seems at first unassuming but then you realise that he is one of the most powerful men on the planet. I was just really taken with his connection. He gave us all our medals individually. He kissed his all, he hugged us all. It wasn't a stunt. We were there and he wanted to talk to us and wanted to answer the questions that we were asking.
What questions did you ask him?
I just said my mum had lost her faith and how did he feel about people who lost their faith... He was prepared to answer difficult questions and he was prepared to give us more time than I thought we would possibly get. It was an exceptional experience, one that I won't forget. It was life changing and will be etched on my memory.
Would you ever do a pilgrimage or anything like this ever again?
In a heartbeat. I loved it, especially being with those seven people. We were lucky getting on so well with each other. We're all so close. It was an experience I'll never forget and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
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