Shortly after graduation this year, Father Kerry led 17 students on a nine-day pilgrimage to the heart of Catholicism: Rome, Italy. Before we entered the hustle and bustle of this ancient yet metropolitan city, we started in Assisi, two and a half hours northeast of Rome, to have a few days of relaxation after finals and to learn more about our current pope’s namesake.
In all, our pilgrimage provided a priceless opportunity to walk with our martyred brothers and sisters in Christ through the catacombs, run the race up one steep hill in Assisi, receive our Holy Father’s blessing, and experience the sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and tactile experiences of our living, breathing, wonderful Church. Most importantly, this trip demonstrated that our Church is alive and, even more than that, is thriving. Those who made the pilgrimage embarked on it with the expectation of spreading this good news and the blessings they received to the world upon their return. The trip may have lasted for nine days, but its impact will last far longer. We would like to give our sincere gratitude to all who supported our students to make this trip possible.
Day 1 (May 12) – Tulsa → Chicago → Rome
Our travels began with the source and summit of our faith: the Eucharist. After gathering for Mass in the morning, we ate a quick lunch before boarding a shuttle for the Tulsa airport. Little did we know, as a thunderstorm rolled in right as we carried our bags to the car, that rain would be a companion on our journey. Storms spanned from Oklahoma to Illinois, causing our first flight to take twice as long as scheduled and giving us a hearty workout running through O’Hare’s terminals to make our connection in time. Our cardio ended up being unnecessary as our Chicago to Rome flight was delayed for three and a half hours due to – you guessed it – more rain. We finally boarded nearer normal sleeping time than we had planned; this change in plans helped some of our pilgrims get some sleep on our way across the Atlantic.
Day 2 (May 13) – arrival in Rome, shuttle to Assisi
We arrived in Rome with all of our baggage (a welcome blessing, especially after last year’s luggage delays). Immediately we met our tour guide, Daniela, and boarded for a two-and-a-half hour ride through the countryside of Lazio (Rome’s province) and Umbria (Assisi’s province). Fr. Kerry kept everyone awake to help the jet lag and we were all grateful for a rest stop halfway through, where we had our first frothy Italian cappuccinos and crispy pressed prosciutto panini. Revived and caffeinated, we resumed our drive and prayed Evening Prayer all together. We visited Saint Mary of the Angels and the Porziuncola chapel, celebrated Mass in a tiny stone side chapel, explored a hidden gem of a ceramics factory, and trekked through Assisi sans shuttle (due to its narrow streets). Here we had our last rainfall of the trip – it followed us from Oklahoma and then left us to have a trip blessed by abundant sunshine. After a hearty welcoming dinner at our hotel’s restaurant, we called it an early night.
Day 3 (May 14) – Assisi, Basilicas of Saint Francis and Saint Clare
We were up and at ’em early for our first full day of visiting pilgrimage sites. After cappuccinos and a delicious breakfast, we visited the Basilica of Saint Francis, where we prayed Morning Prayer and celebrated Mass in a small chapel open to the hillside and its cool breezes. Next, we took a guided tour of the not one but two churches of the Basilica – one stacked on top of each other. The beautiful paintings – including some of Giotto’s first public works – and ornate decorations served great purpose for all the residents of Assisi, illustrating the life of Christ and serving as the “Bible of the illiterate,” while a small museum room housed a collection of the Saint’s clothes and personal belongings. We venerated the great saint himself from afar, as Mass was being said at his tomb when we visited, and then crossed town to visit St. Francis’ birthplace and the Basilica of Saint Clare. Within its pink and white striped marble walls, we knelt for silent prayer and then visited the underground crypt, where we were able to pray before Saint Clare’s tomb and see many of her relics.
Free time before our next excursion meant one thing: gelato! After having our dessert first, we bussed out to a rolling vineyard outside the city walls to lunch on Umbrian classics and taste three local wines. After a brief siesta, down the hillside we went to visit the church of San Damiano, where Saint Francis heard God’s commission to rebuild the Church. While there, we gathered in a courtyard filled with geraniums and rose bushes to pray Evening Prayer together. One very long, very steep climb back up the hill later, we had our first pizza of the trip at an 18-person round table tucked around a corner from Assisi’s town square. We enjoyed our last night of quiet, peaceful Umbria sitting in the square, gelato in hand, listening to the square’s fountain.
Day 4 (May 15) – arrival in Rome, Catacombs of Santa Priscilla, Vatican Scavi
During our early morning bus ride back to Rome, we prayed a Rosary and Morning Prayer together. Our first sights of Rome were a paradigm shift from Assisi; welcome to the hustle and bustle of an urban environment. First on the agenda: a subterranean journey through the Catacombs of Santa Priscilla to see the final resting place of thousands of early Christians. Far below Rome’s traffic and noise, the catacombs provided an experience to feel an intimate connection to the first few generations of our siblings in Christ, to see amazing Church and art history, and to trust fully in God’s protection and guidance as we wound our way through tight passages and dim walkways. We celebrated Mass deep in the labyrinth, with the responsorial psalm “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord” (Ps 89) both a reminder to be thankful for our opportunity and a timeless challenge, as much to those in the first century as to us, to forever seek God’s providence and glory.
We quickly deposited our luggage in our hotel near Vatican City and were off again, hurrying to be on time to our next tour. As we followed Daniela’s blue jacket (nearly the same shade as our dear TU blue), we scarcely realized we were near Saint Peter’s Basilica until we were passing it! The arms of the colonnade welcomed us in as we hurried through to our tour of the Scavi, the excavations beneath St. Peter’s. As we wound our way through mausoleums and necropoli, guided by friendly and knowledgeable seminarians from the Pontifical North American College and the Venerable English College, we drew ever closer to the climax of our tour: venerating the bones of St. Peter, housed and honored deep below the main altar of the current basilica. As we prayed before this physical connection to the beginning of Apostolic Succession and contemporary (better yet: friend!) of Jesus Christ himself, we meditated over this passage:
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”They replied, “Some say John the Baptist,others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. [Matthew 16:13-20]
Our day concluded with a hearty dinner and Evening Prayer prayed on the steps of the colonnade at Saint Peter’s, awash in moonlight and with the familiar gurgle of fountains in the square reminding us of Assisi.
Day 5 (May 16) – Vatican Museums, Colosseum, Roman Forum, Saint Peter in Chains
Our halfway point of the trip was also our most physically taxing day, but well worth it. Our morning was spent on a four-hour guided tour of the Vatican Museums by the absolutely phenomenal Elizabeth Lev, whose knowledge of art history and Church history seemed boundless and whose inspiring faith shone through her words. The tour of the Museums was named as the highlight of the trip for several of the pilgrims, as our guide wove together Greek and Roman influences with the early history we had seen in the catacombs and scavi and progressed on through time from the Renaissance to the present. We marveled at the Sistine Chapel, got up close to a detailed replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta, and came away with a far deeper and richer understanding of the good, the beautiful, and the true.
After a subway ride across town, we visited the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, where we saw the heart of ancient civic life. The sight of a cross standing where the Emperor once watched over gladiator battles spoke to the triumph of Christ over death and truly asked “Oh, death, where is your sting?” Our sightseeing concluded with Evening Prayer and Mass at Saint Peter in Chains, where the chains that once imprisoned the first pope now rest in a reliquary; legend has it that the chains from his first and second imprisonments fused together when brought close to each other.
We wrapped up our busy but amazing day with a pizza dinner on the roof of the Pontifical North American College, thanks to the great hospitality of Tulsa seminarian Sean O’Brien, who studies at the NAC.
Day 6 (May 17) – St. Paul Outside the Walls, San Clemente, St. Mary Major, Piazza Navona
This day was all about basilicas. We first visited the tomb of St. Paul at his basilica, where we celebrated Mass. Besides St. Paul’s tomb, St. Paul Outside the Walls is best known for the portraits of all 266 popes that line its walls. Legend has it that when all the portrait medallions are filled, the world will come to an end; no worries, though, as there were 26 empty spots and still room for more. Our next destination, San Clemente, took us into a layered structure dating from the 12th century AD (the top-most sanctuary) to the 6th century AD (the middle layer, where an octagonal baptismal font large enough for immersing adults still stands) to the 3rd century BC (the base, originally a temple to the Zoroastrian god Mithra, later converted to a Christian church).
Next up: the basilica of Saint Mary Major, which houses relics of the manger that once cradled newborn Jesus. After free time in the afternoon, when many of us visited the Trevi Fountain and nearby churches such as the Gesù, we reconvened for a jovial dinner near Vatican City. In the evening, Father Kerry took us out to experience a bit of Rome’s lively weekend evening scene at the Piazza Navona. Gelato in hand, we wrapped up the evening with the Examen while lounging on the steps of the Basilica of St. Augustine.
Day 7 (May 18) – St. Peter’s Basilica, the Angelus with Pope Francis, St. John Lateran, the Holy Stairs, and Holy Cross of Jerusalem
Deep within St. Peter’s Basilica, below the main floor, the Papal Grottoes house tombs of many popes and a multitude of small chapels. Here, in the Polish Chapel, we celebrated Sunday Mass bright and early, literally physically surrounded by the Church. Gathering for Mass early gave us an opportunity to see St. Peter’s at a more peaceful and prayerful time than usual, which we all appreciated. A few hours later, gathered in Saint Peter’s Square, we anxiously awaited a view of Pope Francis along with several thousand of our closest friends. Precisely at noon, our Holy Father appeared at a high-up window; after leading the Angelus, he made a few remarks in Italian and blessed all those in attendance.
We spent the afternoon on a whirlwind tour of St. John Lateran, the Holy Stairs, and Holy Cross of Jerusalem. At the Lateran – the official seat of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome – we visited the main church as well as the adjacent baptistry, where we walked into the middle of a child’s baptism (complete with a glorious and professional-sounding choir). Just across the street from St. John Lateran, we meditated on Christ’s suffering, passion, and death as we climbed the Holy Stairs (believed to be the stairs Jesus climbed up to Pilate’s palace, brought to Rome by St. Helena in the 300s) on our knees. Our final stop was Holy Cross of Jerusalem, where two thorns, the INRI sign, and a nail from Christ’s crucifixion are housed.
Day 8 (May 19) – Free Day, San Joachim in Prati
This day was ours to explore, with no set plans before the late afternoon. Some of our group climbed to the top of the dome at St. Peter’s, others returned to sites like the Gesù or the Church of St. Augustine, still others mailed postcards at the Vatican Post Office, and many made last trips to favorite pizzerias and gelaterias. We reconvened for Evening Prayer and Mass at San Joachim in Prati, just a five minutes’ walk from our hotel. Our way back to the hotel turned into a tour of Italian department stores as Father Kerry went on a hunt for the perfect sport coat. It was surely a sight to see 17 American college students tricked out in walking shoes and crossbody bags trailing after a priest in clerics through the aisles of upscale stores!
The highlight of our day was our farewell dinner, complete with live music and delicious food. We were in high spirits as we returned for one final night at our hotel.
Day 9 (May 20) – Rome → Chicago → Tulsa
The time finally came to return home to America and, though our itinerary hadn’t arranged for Mass at a church before our departure, that didn’t stop Father Kerry. Some of our men volunteered their hotel room for a makeshift chapel and at 6:45a we gathered in their room, beds pushed to the walls and space at a premium, to celebrate Mass before traveling. This final Eucharistic celebration spoke to the universality of the Church; Christ is made fully present in the Eucharist at every Mass, whether celebrated in the splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica or in a tiny corner hotel room. After an uneventful, if long, day of travel, we landed in Tulsa. Before going our separate ways, we prayed Evening Prayer together. We were left with the words of the evening’s reading, guiding us back into our daily lives with the charge to
“Take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.” [Deuteronomy 4:9]