Perhaps my favorite aspect about living in Rome is the exposure to the Vatican, and the renewed sense of faith and prayer it gives me. Every day when I walk around Rome, I pass by nuns, priests, seminarians, friars, brothers, and many more, all simply living in community with each other. It truly is a beautiful thing, and acts as a constant reminder to anyone who is dwindling in their faith that there are still many faithful servants to the church. This semester I was blessed with an amazing campus ministry, led by our Father Al, that organized many events that got other students and I out into the Vatican to explore our faith a little deeper. As a practicing Catholic, it is very important for me to find a community where I can grow in faith and love, and I found that here more than I ever expected. Whether it be from church crawls, adoration and praise, Holy Week activities, to even a pilgrimage to the town of Assisi, the campus ministry here at the John Felice Rome Center has blessed me with extremely meaningful opportunities for me to develop my spiritual life in more ways than I ever imagined.
The first of these opportunities that I want to mention is mass at the Station Churches of Rome. Now, Rome has over 800 churches, meaning that obviously not all of them can function all the time because of lack of staff and parishioners, especially since some streets have three to four churches on them alone! Therefore, every Lent, each of these churches open their doors to a mass for one day each. On these days, Catholic pilgrims travel to that one church for mass. These churches are called “Station Churches”, and are mostly attended to by American Catholics living or studying in Rome. Unfortunately the masses were held at 7 am, meaning that I would have to leave my campus at 5:30 am to make it on time. Needless to say, I only went to a few of them! However, the few I went to were very special to me. I went with my friend and fellow crusader, Nik Churik, for two Thursdays in Lent. I never expected myself to be waking up at 5 am, walking around a major city during sunrise, all to attend just one simple mass. But in Rome, I did, and I would gladly do it again. The mass itself was very powerful because everyone truly made an effort to be there, and it was extremely refreshing hearing the singing and responses of such an exuberant and passionate congregation. Due to the campus ministry here, we became good friends with some seminarians from the North American Pontifical College (NAC). Both times we met up with these seminarians there for mass, and then followed them after for a classic Roman breakfast of a cappuccino and cornetto. After breakfast, Nik and I would walk back to the bus stop and go back to campus, energized and ready to start the day while everyone else was still struggling to get up. I will truly miss and cherish these mornings the most out of my time in Rome, because they are ones that I did not expect to have at all, yet have brought me so much happiness.
Besides the Station Churches, our campus ministry did lots of other activities with the seminarians from the NAC. We went with them on a church crawl to around seven major churches of Rome, including the church of St. Cecilia that has her remains underneath. We also went to the town of Assisi with the seminarians, who helped us experience a day of quiet reflection, prayer, and mass in the home town of St. Francis. More importantly, however, we shared with these seminarians good food throughout Rome! We would often times go out as a group to a restaurant and share great conversations ranging from funny jokes to more deep conversations about religion, which always ended with abundant wine and a glass of limoncello.
As for the Vatican itself, I made multiple visits inside St. Peter’s Basilica. It is by far the most amazing church I have ever seen, and remains to be the only building that single-handedly moved me to tears. I had the amazing opportunity to have mass in the crypts below the basilica, in the Polish Grotto. Shockingly, we were actually a few rooms away from the closest you can get to the remains of St. Peter himself. Throughout the semester we went to numerous beautiful churches, such as the Church of Saint Ignatius and the Gesu (the main Jesuit church), but Saint Peter’s remains to be my favorite.
The culmination of all this involvement with campus ministry was Holy Week, the week of the Easter Tridium: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. And what better place to spend it than in Rome! Holy Week has always meant a lot to me ever since I could remember. In grade school, I remember learning about the Easter Tridium and why it is so important, and I even remember small things like my mom stopping me from using electronics on Good Friday from 12 to 3. But this year, I really got a new understanding of what Holy Week is, and that’s because I spent it in Rome. While the buses might have been extremely packed for these few days, the atmosphere was so peaceful and the amount of dedicated Catholics here was so powerful that it created a spiritual environment unlike any other.
The week started with Palm Sunday, where I had mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Florence. The events of Holy Thursday began with a mass in our school. Holy Thursday mass has for a long time been my favorite mass, especially because of the symbolism of a feast in lieu of such pain, a celebration in the church before a stripping of the church. After mass, the campus ministry and I met up with other study abroad students from Duquesne University and did a church crawl through one of the main streets of Rome, Via del Corso. We visited several beautiful churches, each with the Eucharist in repose for the Passion. This Holy Thursday church crawl is an American custom, so there were many Americans in Rome who joined us. We all held candles with red holders, and while they were all lit, the candles created a sea of light in the dark Roman night. Normally the street we were walking on is fully congested with cars and bikers, but that night it was dominated by pilgrims holding candles and entering churches. We culminated the night by going to one of our favorite restaurants (by that point we were regulars) and had delicious rigatoni with pear and cheese filling.
Good Friday began with a prayer service in our chapel. Afterwards we headed down to the Coliseum for the Via Crucis, the Stations of the Cross, with Pope Francis. After waiting there for about four hours, the service started. It was an unforgettable backdrop: we were all standing in front of the Coliseum which was lit up with bright lights from the inside. Next to us was the Arch of Constantine that had a huge lit up cross on it. And in front of us was the edge of the Palatine Hill, where the Pope sat next to a massive gas lit flaming cross in front of the remains of the Basilica Nova, the basilica that Emperor Constantine built after he legalized Christianity. The stations were read in Italian, with each reflection ending with the Our Father in Latin. The weather was perfect and the whole night had the soundtrack of the beautiful Sistine Choir. I simply couldn’t get over where I was, who I was with, and what I was celebrating. With the combination of the Coliseum, where many died and were persecuted for their religion, and the Pope with the Sistine Choir, it was an extremely powerful night that truly exemplified for me the burdens and trials the church has had to overcome.
Easter Morning finally arrived with the glorious bells of St. Peter’s Basilica. In order to get good seats for mass, we got down there and were waiting from 6 am. Although it was a tiresome ordeal, celebrating Easter at the Vatican made it completely worth it. There was such an excitement being there, not to mention beauty. The whole façade of the Basilica was lined with gorgeous white flowers, and had red curtains hanging from the main windows. The sounds of the Vatican on this special day are worth remembering forever: the bells of the basilica, the sound of the band from both the Swiss Guards and the Italian Army, and of course the angelic voices of the Sistine Choir. We ended up getting fantastic seats, and could see the mass perfectly from where we were. The mass was without a doubt the most beautiful mass I have ever been to. Besides having it celebrated by the Pope, it was beautiful for its music and use of difference languages. My favorite was the gospel reading, which the deacon chanted in both Latin and ancient Greek. After mass, the Pope drove around on his pope mobile to address the crowds before giving a small speech from the main window in the Vatican. After his speech, we left to get some Italian pastry and head back to our campus for a nice picnic.
The last event that I shared with the Vatican was the Canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. Millions of pilgrims came from all over the world…and I mean millions, and they filled every corner and crevice that Rome had to offer. Because of the popularity of the event, some friends and I decided to camp out the night before. Rome was so crowded, you couldn’t even leave the campsite for a bathroom break because there was no guarantee you could fit back into the site through the gates. By 7 pm the day before, police blocked off everything, and it became a game of jumping fences and dodging sleeping heads for me and Nik to meet up with our friends. THAT I will never forget! In fact, we even had to bribe someone to let us get past him with a box of pizza we were going to deliver to our friends! Once things settled down, there were groups of people with guitars, singing and clapping to church songs, most popular being “Lord, you have come to the seashore” and even American songs, with “Country Road” being the song of the night! While it was a powerful religious experience itself, it was also a physically exhausting one, since we had to camp out from 5 pm the day before and stand on our feet from 10 pm to the mass at 10 am. Around 7 am, with no food, water, or access to a bathroom, we decided to leave and watch the mass from our lobby. Even though we felt the need to leave, the whole event taught me that what truly matters is your personal spiritual experience there, not being there for the sake of being there. Through this semester I really developed a mature way of looking at my faith: that it is a process, a story of relationship, which only grows when you do things for the right reasons. I now have much more of an appreciation for religion and desire to learn more about it. Being exposed to these events taught me the value of questioning things to truly grasp their meaning, and to make them your own. There will most likely never be an event like the Canonization again in my life time. The sheer amount of people and their dedication, motivation, and occasional shoving, to be present was leaps and bounds bigger than what any other event could draw. I have been to my fair share of concerts, marches, and festivals, but nothing was like this. No secular event, no president’s inauguration, no event for one single man has attracted the crowds like that of the now Saint Pope John Paul II. This is simply a testament to the fact that in this very secular world, the church still holds a good deal of influence that surpasses many others.
The crowd of millions behind us in line towards St. Peter’s Square.
Being a student in Rome has opened me up to so many blessings from the Vatican of which I am extremely grateful, and I hope to always hear those morning bells from the Vatican in my head on many Sundays to come, wherever I am.