While there were thousands of tourists who flocked to see the famous Leaning Tower our mission was slightly more nuanced. About 70 years ago my paternal Grandfather, Alton Peterson, was a soldier in the U.S. Army and he was stationed near Pisa. The Second World War had ended and the American troops were passing through to ensure that there was some semblance of peace and stability in the liberated region. According to the stories that my Grandpa used to tell, he and a military friend decided to enter the Leaning Tower for a view of the city. When they reached the top they were pleasantly surprised to discover some large bells that were tied to prevent them from ringing. Ever the adventurous fellow, my Grandfather and his buddy untied the bells and began to ring them. Upon hearing the sound of the bells, people started streaming from their homes with tears in their eyes, smiles on their faces, and songs on their lips. It turns out that the Nazis had occupied Pisa during the War and were using the Leaning Tower- in actuality, the Bell Tower of the St. Ranieri Catholic Cathedral- for an observation post. When the citizens of Pisa heard the bells ringing for the first time in many years it was a sign that the war was over and a reminder that the Lord Jesus was still with them.
Flash forward to Saturday of this last weekend. Deacon Stueve and I were able to enter the tower and ascend the 296 steps to the top. With endearing thoughts of my Grandpa Peterson- who passed away in October of 2000- and his delightful stories running through my mind I practically bounded up the old stairway. Once we were at the top there was indeed a beautiful panoramic view of Pisa but, sadly, no bells...that is, until the tower guides told us to go up to the final level above! Going up the last few steps my heart began to fill with joy and my eyes with tears as I beheld the bells of the tower. Offering prayers of gratitude for the life of my Grandfather and all the brave soldiers who have served our great nation, I thanked our Heavenly Father for the amazing experiences in Pisa. God willing, Deacon Stueve and I will one day ring out the Good News of our Catholic Christian faith as priests.
While we did not ring the bells like Grandpa Peterson and his friend, the memories from our visit to Pisa will echo in our hearts for many years to come.
Deacon James E. Peterson and Deacon Andrew Stueve are in formation for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. Their home parishes are Mary Queen of Peace in Rogers and St. Hubert's of Chanhassen, respectively.