On Feb. 7, six students, two relatives and four Paul VI staff members set off on the school’s first pilgrimage to Rome, led by Mike and Sue Denz of St. Gemma’s Catholic Pilgrimages. Stepping off of the plane and greeted by sunshine and much milder weather, the 12 pilgrims began their spiritual walking journey to St. Peter’s Square. Lead tour guide David Martinez assisted the Denzes, welcomed us to Vatican City and told us that St. Peter’s Basilica is “our” Church. It is the universal Church for all Catholics.
Every moment of each day was filled with the Holy Spirit and amazing blessings. For Sunday Mass, the Rev. Michael Kelly, school chaplain, was concelebrant for the 10:30 a.m. Mass on the main altar at St. Peter’s. Bridget Hone read the Second Reading, and Audra Garcia ‘15, Katie Gibbs ‘14, Jackie Johnson ‘14 and Taylor Clouse ‘15 brought up the gifts.
“Mass at St. Peter’s was the best part of the pilgrimage,” said Clouse.
For Pope Francis’ general audience on Wednesday, the group got first row seats. Pope Francis is charismatic and his love for people is evident. We also happened to see Bishop Loverde heading up to be seated for the pope’s general audience, and he came over and gave us a blessing as well.
Many of us felt that the Holy Stairs were the most memorable moments during our pilgrimage. The Holy Stairs are the same stairs that Jesus walked up, after being scourged, to face His sentence by Pilate. The marble staircase has been protected by being covered in wood with open slates for one to actually view the steps. There are three windows where one can see Jesus’ blood stains. One may only go up the stairs on her or his knees; it is a powerful religious experience.
Gibbs said that she was surprised that a group of people who didn’t really know each other at the beginning of the pilgrimage could become such close friends after sharing these experiences. The six Paul VI students on the pilgrimage allowed themselves and all of us to be led by the Holy Spirit.
What follows is Campus Ministry Coordinator Mrs. Joyce Krolicki’s first person account:
Walking into the gift shop outside of Vatican City, seeing all the beautiful icons and pray cards, rosaries of every color, beautiful gifts – wanting to bring back something to our loved ones, the students, the faculty – to give them a piece of what we experienced, some part of our trip. We walked around for what seemed like hours. Father Kelly really wanted to find the perfect gift for everyone. Feeling afterwards like we had settled. There is no way to capture or bring back a piece of a pilgrimage. These were not souvenirs. This was not a tour – this time was a blessed piece of what makes each of us as Catholics what we are, where we come from and the foundation of our being. We took these items with us to the audience with the Pope in St Peters square. I stood there and felt that I wanted to take in the blessing and bring it back to everyone. We were so close to the Holy Father – right in the front row. He is so peaceful, so warm and kind. He is love. And I wanted to tell everyone about our church. Vatican City isn’t a place far away. It belongs to all of us. It is ours.
Martinez, our lead tour guide, took us below St. Peter’s on the Scavi tour, to the streets of Rome during the time of St Peter. We saw the bones of St Peter. Our students gazed in completed silence and awe. We were amazed to find ourselves walking on holy ground where so many first Christians were martyred – where the circus took place. All this is beneath St. Peter’s.
I have told stories of the places where we went and what we saw, things that we did and places that we went, hoping to give everyone a glimpse of our trip and a bit of the wonder and joy we felt. We wanted all our PVI family to be with us. But I feel inadequate sharing these memories. There is no way to describe it all. No words to explain or describe.
One night we went out for gelato, and on our walk, stopped into a church. There was a group of young people enjoying an evening of prayer and devotion. Their gathering was joyful as they laughed and sang. We felt drawn in. Here was a local parish full of life – our church is alive.
Relics of St. Padre Pio, St Jude, St. Clare, St. Francis, the tombs of saints and disciples were discovered as we ducked into churches and found one after another full of beauty and art and history. The relics of the altar used by St. Pete, the holy crib, tombs of saints, the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum and the Basilica of St. Bartholomew all held treasures and blessing for our students. Did you hear our PVI students reciting the rosary in Latin on Vatican Radio?
The Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel hold so many treasures all created to love and honor God. They reflect worship and praise to God. As we stood and gazed up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, many people were ushered out. It was strange but we were left to take it all in as long as we wished. The guards knew we were there to praise, not as tourists. Each step we took was part of the journey, a part of our prayers.
We visited San Damiano in Assisi, St Paul outside the Wall, St. Mary Major, the Basilica of St. Joseph, St. Cecilia’s home and church, the Basilica of St. Augustine beside the Piazza Narvona and the Basilica of Holy Angels, with the most amazing statue of St. Michael. We ate fabulous food, met people that treated us like family after just a few minutes of conversation, saw artwork and sculpture that drew us in and took our breath away.
St. John Lateran and the Santa Scala (Holy Steps) was the place that will stay with me forever. Walking away from this beautiful, holy place, I felt the love and mercy of our Lord like I have never felt it before. I climbed the steps on my knees and heard God whisper to me as I contemplated the suffering and death of Jesus. This was so spiritually painful but full of affirmation that I belong to Jesus. Brendan McAlevey ’14 and I felt the holiness in a profound way and shared the power of the Holy Steps at lunch that afternoon.
How we wish more of our students could have been with us. It was amazing to share this with the group right before Lent.
On our last day, Father Nick Barnes ’03 celebrated Mass with us. He is attending the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He gave us a tour of the college, and then we went to get a view like no other on the roof. On the elevator on our way up to the roof, we again saw Bishop Loverde who was there visiting with our diocesan priests at the college.
Our daily Mass was offered for our families, teachers and staff, our Paul VI Community. The prayer book that we have at PVI in our Chapel was carried with us from place to place. Candles were lit for loved ones, for prayers carried – many, many candles. The tomb of Paul VI was a special place for us to visit. Father Kelly knelt and was visibly moved by the presence of this holy, holy Pope. Once again we moved through the tombs of Popes and Saints in silence and respect for the power that surrounded us
The trip home was quiet. We sat in the airport waiting for our delayed plane and shared our favorite memories. Thinking about our trip and just how we would bring back the stories, the beauty, the tastes and sights of Rome. No classroom could ever teach us more history, art, english, language, and theology than this trip. Every Catholic who loves their faith, who wants to grow in their faith, who has questions who is sure of everything they believe – every Christian should take a trip to this Holy City and gaze upon the Church that belongs to us.