Dear Community Members and friends,
I was extremely surprised to receive Fr. Jack’s invitation to join him and Meg Dalmut, the Directress of the Women’s Youth Apostles, on a Pilgrimage to Rome over Pentecost weekend. He explained that Pope Francis had extended a worldwide invitation to members of Movements and Lay Associations within the Church to gather in Rome to celebrate the Year of Faith with him, and Fr. Jack thought it important to have a layman on the trip. OK, I stoically said. If I must represent the lay membership of Youth Apostles on a pilgrimage to the Eternal City, I will. Anything for the needs of my community!
The trip, however, wasn’t exclusively focused on the weekend events with the Holy Father. The Youth Apostles Council has been considering the possibility of changing our Canonical status in the Church. What we have as a Mixed Public Association (Priests, Consecrated and Lay members all in one community) works well and fits perfectly with our charism as Youth Apostles, but others have been suggesting we explore other possible structures within the Church to aid future expansion. So, after debating the issue, our Directors decided it was time to visit Rome and get some expert advice. And, at the same time, Youth Apostles would have the opportunity to connect with other communities like our own, to both learn from and share with others what we are and how we live our vocations.
Thursday, May 16
After a long but largely uneventful flight from the States we arrived in Rome tired, but excited about the days ahead. After quickly settling into our hotel in the Trastevere section of Rome (about 15 minutes by foot south of St. Peter’s Basilica), run by a group of Sacred Heart Sisters, we set off to make our appointments at the Pontifical Council of the Laity. Canon Lawyer Dr. Philip Milligan graciously welcomed us to his office, and he gave us some sound advice about how to help Youth Apostles grow. In short, he encouraged us to keep living our charism as Youth Apostles and not to worry too much about our canonical status. The good work we do, he noted, will go on and will thrive regardless of how we organize ourselves within the Church, since the Holy Spirit is in charge – an appropriate comment, I thought, for Pentecost weekend.
We then met with Fr. Eric Jacquinet, Head of the Youth Section of the Council. Fr. Eric was very interested in learning about Youth Apostles and he was very pleased to hear about our apostolate to youth. He was especially happy to hear that we both educate and support our membership. He lamented that today so many young youth ministers are not properly trained for their positions, and may leave all too quickly. I was very proud at that moment to think about the many Youth Apostles I know who have been so active in ministry for so long. Before we left, Fr. Jack and Fr. Eric discussed possible future collaborations.
Later that evening, Fr. Jack celebrated a Mass in the chapel at our hotel. It may sound strange to say, but Rome is simply littered with beautiful churches. In our journeys around the city, we were often surprised by beautiful churches just popping up in front of us. Such an experience was just one of the reasons why I love Rome. But unfortunately many tourists, even those who look most diligently, will miss many of the city’s beautiful churches, like the one at the hotel, because they are private chapels. Regardless of where we found ourselves we prayed for Youth Apostles at every holy spot. After Mass we went out to enjoy some of the great food Rome had to offer. When in Rome…
Friday, May 17
After a wonderful breakfast of bread and cheese we walked to Sacred Heart Church, built by St. Don Bosco. The church is near the Termini, the main rail station of Rome. Along the way we saw the city’s residents commuting to work, which, given the traffic and driving habits of the Romans, I think is a very dangerous thing to do. I was glad to be on foot!
Sacred Heart is beautiful, and I absolutely enjoyed being at a church so associated with Don Bosco, the wonderful Silesian priest who is our model for effective youth ministry. After Fr. Jack celebrated Mass at the main altar (in English, although about a dozen Italian tourists joined the Mass), a wonderful priest from the Church gave us a private tour of Don Bosco’s room and the museum. Surrounded by Don Bosco’s things, it was easy to feel his spirit. Also, hearing familiar stories of Don Bosco’s life in our host’s broken English reminded me once again how the life of one person can transform many throughout the world. The remarkable witness of the same crazy priest from Turin clearly inspired both us and our host – regardless of where we live or minister. Saint Don Bosco, pray for us and the youth we serve!
After a bus ride back to the Vatican, we picked up our tickets for the Year of Faith events. We were told that they expected over 120,000 participants at each event. I couldn’t believe my ears. Nor could I believe my eyes, when we entered St. Peter’s Square or the Basilica for the first time. I last visited Rome in 1987 and I toured St. Peter’s extensively. I was not mentally prepared, however, to see the Square or the Basilica again. Over the years my memory of the Basilica and its surrounding areas had faded and I simply didn’t remember the massive scale of it all. Like most of the tourists, I found myself walking around with my jaw open while snapping pictures that could not capture the Basilica’s beauty or significance. But, as a Catholic kid from Maryland, I couldn’t be happier.
Following a quick stop at a sidewalk café across the river, we set off to find St. Augustino and to pray at the tomb of St. Monica, St. Augustine’s mother. I love St. Augustine and I enjoy teaching his Confessions, a remarkable story of conversion and the role of God’s grace. As all who know Augustine’s story, St. Monica played a significant role in her son’s conversion and commitment to the faith. The two great saints actually shared a momentary vision of heaven, just days before Monica died. I have long marveled at St. Monica’s dedication to the Faith and to her son, but I was completely overwhelmed when praying at her tomb. As a husband and parent I prayed for her intercession, so I, like St. Monica, may help my spouse and children grow in their faith and ultimately reach heaven.
After leaving St. Augustino’s we stumbled into the Piazza Navona, which, in addition to its three beautiful fountains, was filled with artists, entertainers and tourists. We couldn’t stay long, but we did stop in to pray at another stunning church, St. Agnes. After a long wandering walk across the river we made it back to our hotel and enjoyed dinner at an outside table, followed by gelato. A perfect end to a wonderful day.
Saturday May 19
We were up early and at St. Peter’s when they opened their doors at 7:00 A.M.. As part of the Year of Faith event we were scheduled to visit the tomb of St. Peter. After several conversations with a very friendly usher at St. Peter’s we learned that the tour was actually just a self-directed tour of the Basilica. So, rather than wait in a line to re-enter the Basilica as part of a tour, we took our new friend’s invitation to visit the tomb ourselves. With a quick word to another usher we were brought immediately down to the crypt, where we had 10 minutes by ourselves praying at St. Peter’s tomb. Fr. Jack recommended a few scenes from the Gospel for our reflection, and we enjoyed some time with the First Vicar of Christ. We then looked around the crypt, looking at the tombs of other Popes and dignitaries. Our Church is old, and it has deep roots back to Christ.
We then found our usher friend, who brought us all back to the sacristy where Fr. Jack vested for Mass. A nine-year-old altar boy soon brought us to the Altar of Saints Processo and Martiniano, St. Peter’s guards in Rome who converted to the faith. The first reading at Mass was from Acts 28, which discusses St. Paul’s imprisonment and how he found his way to Rome for his trial, and ultimately death. Saints Peter and Paul in one day, and we haven’t even had breakfast yet!
After a brief siesta at the hotel, we explored nearby St. John the Baptist Church before walking back to St. Peter’s. Fr. Jack had made plans to meet a dear friend and priest who works at the Vatican for lunch, and Meg and I waited in line to enter the Square for the evening prayer service. The crowd swelled dramatically as the afternoon went on, and it rained for a few minutes. Meg and I had general admission tickets, whereas Fr. Jack had a reserved seat near the platform where Pope Francis would address the crowd. We found great seats in the back of the closest section, near where we expected the Pope to drive by in the pope mobile. The sun came out as the Square and the neighboring streets started to fill (to a reported 250,000 people!), and musicians and singers entertained us all. I enjoyed watching the Swiss Guard in their festive costumes, and the Vatican ushers in tuxedos.
All of the participants in this event were members of various communities and movements. It was certainly exciting to be a part of a pilgrimage with the universal Church. Even though I don’t speak any Italian and I didn’t know a soul in the huge crowd, I actually felt at home. This is Church and I understood the people around me. That is, we have all been touched by the Spirit, and we’re living our Catholic faith in the Church though the calls of our communities. And although we were only three members of a relatively small community (at least from the perspective of St. Peter’s in the Vatican), the Spirit within us all made us one.
The crowd welcomed Pope Francis enthusiastically. Soon after entering he drove quickly by our spot, and then he spent maybe 15 minutes driving through the rest of the Square and the Via della Conciliazione. When the Holy Father finally drove past our section on the way to the platform the most remarkable thing happened – the Pope’s face light up when he saw Meg, as if he had seen an old friend. That is, while smiling and blessing the large crowd he suddenly changed his expression and granted Meg a special smile, which I believe counts as a special blessing. Perhaps it was her holiness, or maybe just her wonderful smile, but the Holy Father was clearly glad that Meg came to Rome for a visit!
The prayer service was very inspiring. Pope Francis talked for about 40 minutes. I didn’t understand a word of what he said, but it was very clear to me that he loves his faith and that he takes his role as the Pastor of Rome very seriously. The largely Italian crowd was very respectful, and the Pope got everyone to chuckle and smile almost as many times as he got them to applaud. He charmed everyone, even those of us who couldn’t understand what he said. Love and holiness simply do not need words to be expressed.
After a late dinner, so late we opted to forgo our usual gelato, we made it back just before the hotel closed its gates for the night. What a day with the Universal Church!
Pentecost Sunday, May 20
Mass at St. Peter’s with Pope Francis was fantastic. Fr. Jack concelebrated with the Holy Father, along with 250+ other priests and bishops. Meg and I had fantastic seats very near the altar, about 30 yards from the Pope. I didn’t have the right ticket to get such a great seat, but Fr. Jack convinced the guards to let me in. Thanks, Fr. Jack!
The Mass was largely in Italian, although many prayers were in Latin. I was shocked how reverent 200,000 plus people can be. Everyone was prayerfully participating, and I was once again overwhelmed with the experience of belonging to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I knew my family would be celebrating the same Mass a few hours later, and we would be united in our common prayer. I knew too that we three members of Youth Apostles were the only ones from our community present, but I understood everyone in Youth Apostles was there in spirit with us.
There were many highlights I will long remember about the Mass. Everyone enjoyed seeing a seagull fly around the altar during the opening readings and land on a speaker. A sign of the Holy Spirit, perhaps? I especially enjoyed seeing the Holy Father’s joy in receiving the gifts from a lovely Italian family with three young kids, and the pleasure he had in greeting select dignitaries after the Mass. Fr. Jack was asked to distribute Holy Communion in the Square. And when the Pope left on the pope mobile after the final blessing and the closing of the Mass, Fr. Jack, Meg and I had the chance to snap some pictures near the Chair of St. Peter. Meg and I later saw Pope Francis in the pope mobile, where the Roman wind tried to blow his hat off.
Following Mass we grabbed a quick lunch, did some souvenir shopping, and took a bus back to the train station so we could visit St. Mary Major, one of the four major churches in Rome. I imagine if you spend enough time in Rome you might take some of the beautiful churches for granted, but I still think it would be hard not to appreciate St. Mary Major. One Mass was finishing when we arrived, and another started immediately following. The Faith is certainly alive in Rome. A kind Dominican stationed at the Church recommended a nearby restaurant (how surprising?), and I celebrated my last night in Rome with more delicious pasta.
Monday, May 21
We started the day with a brisk walk to St. Peter’s and a Mass at the tomb of Blessed John Paul II, located immediately next to Michelangelo’s Pieta in the Basilica. What a treat that was, praying near the earthly remains of the Pope who inspired so many young people, including Meg, Fr. Jack and myself, to love Jesus and our faith more and more. Although I had to leave immediately after Mass to catch a bus to the airport to return home to my family, Meg and Fr. Jack spent another day in Rome. The next day they left for Poland, where they joined Fr. David Sharland and students from Marymount University for another pilgrimage.
I remain especially honored to be representing Youth Apostles to the broader Church. I hope Jesus will grant my prayers, made with great faith at some of the holiest spots in Rome. May God bless our community, and may we all live with great conviction the charism we have been given!