“In the Footsteps,” A Teaching Journey in Rome

In an article in the New York Times, and in his PBS television documentary, Bruce Feiler writes about the allure of sacred pilgrimages, and concludes:

“At its core it’s a gesture of action. In a world in which more and more things are artificial and ephemeral, a sacred journey gives the pilgrim the chance to experience something both physical and real.”


For the past several years, Father David Gentry-Akin, my faculty-colleague at Saint Mary’s College of California, and I have taught a “faith-based travel course” during January Term. In January of 2015 we set off for Rome with 17 undergraduates, and Ginny Prior, a journalism professor, travel writer and the editor of our course blog.

“Walking in the Footsteps of the Early Christians” provides students an opportunity to travel to Rome and examine first-hand the “symbolic inventory” of an “eternal city” filled with ancient ruins, obelisks, catacombs, churches, and museums.

This course may be one example of how “youth evangelization” finds its way into the curriculum of Catholic colleges and universities; and, at a time when we see the need to rediscover our educational mission, this course provides a vibrant experience of church and community. Additionally our course has been a model and a take off point in discussions with faculty colleagues and administrators at other Catholic institutions.

Most of all, “Walking in the Footsteps,” has given voice to the “living stones” of witnesses that inhabit Rome today; they are the personal examples and “gesture of action” that give us hope in this time of Pope Francis’ pontificate.

In our pilgrimage, we visit an array of women and men: Deacon Kevin Kilgore and the seminarians at the North American College who welcomed us to Vespers, and later shared pizza, and their personal faith-testimony; Sister Yudith Pereira-Rico, RJM whose organization Solidarity for South Sudan trains teachers and health care workers in that war-torn Africa country; American Brother Robert Schieler, FSC, the recently elected Superior General of the De La Salle Christian Brothers; and Sister Patricia Murray, IBVM, the Superior General of the International Union of Women Religious, whose years in Rome have given her the wisdom and know how to work with the Roman curia.

As old as stories from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” or the recent film “The Way,” by Emilo Estevez, a pilgrimage can interrupt our lives to inspire us, help us to express our own faith and, along the way, give us the opportunity to interact with a rich tapestry of people who embody the spirit of the Catholic Church.

Hope Blain, one of our students, says one such interaction was with the Brothers who hosted our group in Assisi. “We were having a four course meal with these two Franciscan friars, Brothers Gregory and Johnny — one’s playing the accordion, and the other’s telling jokes. That sense of community and friendship was there so quickly, that showed the vibrancy of the church.”

Heather March when seeing underground site of the Scavi, where Saint Peter is buried, remarked: “There’s this undeniable presence. Especially the community being together and just seeing his remains… and the kind of realization that these are the bones of someone who saw Jesus.”

So much of our journey depends on close collaboration with friends in Rome. Donna Orsuto and Robert White of the Lay Centre (Foyer Unitas) are Americans who have lived and worked in Rome for many years and have become the invaluable guides for our pilgrimages. Whether it’s their theological background on the specific architecture of a church or how to get in touch with a particular person at the Vatican, they have provided us the with the “keys to the city”.

In addition, our three weeks in Rome is spent living in community at the Villa Irlanda of the Irish Pontifical College, nearby the Coliseum. We are the guests of the rector, Msgr. Ciaran O’Carroll and Alison Mills, the director of the pensione. It is from this vantage point that our experience of Rome unfolds in conversations about the day’s activities, assigned readings, prayer and daily Mass.

Our goldenrod-colored tickets to Pope Francis’s General Audience for Wednesday, January 28th were not the best seats in the house, but then again, the gospel tells us: “the first shall be last, and the last first.” At a papal audience, it’s best to be on the aisle, for the best possible opportunity for a “close encounter” with the pope. However, the aisle seats were filled to capacity.

After hours of waiting outside — under the Bernini columns, with the security checks and x-ray machines, and the hustle of 10,000 people – a crowd that could fill twenty Boeing 747-400 jumbo jets – the masses pushed past police and the Swiss Guards, and once behind the Vatican gates, we filed into the Paul VI Audience Hall.

Our group from Saint Mary’s College was seated close to the exit doors. We had come to Rome to study its history and theology, but also to do what thousands of people from around the globe come to do – try to meet the pope.

Anticipation of the pope’s arrival hung over the crowd. We gazed at the giant television screens in the hall that magnified every movement in that vast space. Then, a band began playing music, and onto this sacred stage came a carnival act with jugglers, tumblers, and, more amazingly, colorful burlesque “quick change artists” who switched from costume to costume. Clearly, as an “opening act” to warm up the crowd that day, they set the tempo and the tone for the papal audience.

Once at his seat, at the very center of the stage, Pope Francis laughed at the merriment and the festive spirit of the carnival troupe. It may have been the closest the Catholic Church ever comes to the “Ed Sullivan Show;” and perhaps, the very “Joy of the Gospel” itself.

The pope must have enjoyed himself since even after the formal audience he stayed with the crowd moving from person to person — for over an hour and a half. Two of our students made it to the aisle and waited it out among the crowd– and finally handed a letter to the friendly, smiling pope.  Meaghan Osborne told us: “I am still in shock that I met Pope Francis, who embodies the love and kindness of Christ Jesus in the world today.”

Later that week, we had a conversation with Archbishop David Moxon, he told us: “Pope Francis has become the parish-priest of the world.” David Moxon, a New Zealander, is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Holy See.

Moxon went on to say that in contrast to most world leaders, Francis’ unconventional personal style makes him stand out as truly authentic to the young people waiting for his personal touch at the weekly audiences; and most comforting when visiting the “orphans of the storm” in such places as the island of Lampedusa, the refugee center off the coast of Sicily.

In light of so many seemingly insolvable global issues, can the pope’s moral authority run aground in a sea of good intentions and futile efforts? According to Moxon, in the wake of so much human suffering with wars, injustice, poverty — people around the world want to know “What is the pope thinking?”

Here, the pope’s ability to identify pressing moral issues such as modern slavery and human trafficking has resulted in reaching out to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury with their joint effort of a “Global Freedom Network,” an ecumenical and interfaith alliance.

Their “Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Modern Slavery” of March 17, 2014, has drawn support from leaders of all faith traditions to join in spiritual and practical action to end this crime against humanity. Moxon enlisted our help to tell the story and join in this important action on behalf of suffering humanity.

We are back from Rome now, and in California, and have come together to share stories, listen to one another, and ask what impact the course may have had on each of us.

Matt Magnaghi told us that the trip meant so much to him that once home he telephoned his grandfather. Together they spoke for over an hour about Rome, the course, and its impact on his Catholic faith. This is an all-important dialogue from generation to generation, heart to heart.

Jacquelyn O’Neill commented: “Our class just had such a sense of community. We could all open up to each other and talk together and eat together and have fun together…that was the coolest part of the trip.” Yes, the pilgrimage was about building the faith-community.

Lastly, the author of the course, Father David Gentry-Akin expressed his admiration for his student-pilgrims past and present: “It’s a learning experience for all of us. People ask me ‘why I would go again?’ Because every time I go, I have this wonderful experience all over again, and yet in a fresh, new way, because I see it in your eyes.”

Read more about the course, meet our students, watch their videos and hear our podcasts


Father Mike Russo teaches political communication and the news of religion at Saint Mary’s College of California, Moraga.









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