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Pope Francis, leading by example

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A pilgrimage of the heart will enrich the spirit

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placeholder March 23, 2015   •   VOL. 53, NO. 6   •   Oakland, CA
Churches adjusting to rising popularity of pilgrimages

By Ginny Prior
Special to The Catholic Voice

At a time when many churches struggle to put parishioners in the pews, the popularity of pilgrimages is soaring.

The Saint Mary's College Jan Term class "Walking in the Footsteps of the Early Christians" on a visit with two Franciscan Friars in Assisi.
courtesy photo
The United Nations reports one in three tourists, worldwide, is a pilgrim — some 330 million a year. It's the kind of life-changing trip that Rev. David Gentry has led repeatedly to Rome as a theology professor at Saint Mary's College of California.

"These young women and men, the future of our Church and our world, allow themselves to be touched, and changed, by the people, the places, and the experiences we share together on this journey," says Gentry.

For a month during Saint Mary's enrichment semester called January Term, Gentry and fellow communications professor and papal expert Rev. Mike Russo teach a course called "Walking in the Footsteps of the Early Christians."

The itinerary is rigorous as 17 students tour, study and celebrate Mass together in the Eternal City's ancient churches — often at the tombs of apostles and saints. Along the way, they meet many religious, from Archbishop David Moxon (the Archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Holy See), to young seminarians at the North American Pontifical College like Matthew Murray, of the Oakland diocese.

Father Russo calls it a "Canterbury Tales" type experience where students interact with a rich tapestry of people who embody the spirit of the Catholic Church. That interaction includes evening vespers and a jubilant Wednesday audience with the pope. This year, senior Meaghan Osborne got to hand the pope a letter she'd written in Spanish that addressed her future career — education.

"I am still in shock that I met Pope Francis, who embodies the love and kindness of Christ Jesus in the world today," she says.

The Saint Mary's College pilgrims begin their Rome tour at the Basilica of San Clemente, a church dedicated to Pope St. Clement, who died circa 100 AD. Christian historian Robert White walks them through 2,000 years of history, including the layered remains of a pagan temple, a fourth-century basilica and above it, the current structure.

The next day, students take the metro to Vatican City for the Scavi tour of the excavated necropolis under the Basilica of St. Peter. Senior Heather Marsh says that seeing the tomb of St. Peter is an emotional experience.

"There's this undeniable presence in there. Kind of that moment of realization that these are the bones of someone who saw Jesus."

As in previous years, Fathers Gentry and Russo say Mass for the students near the crypt of St. Peter. This year, it was in a small chapel honoring St. John Paul II and adorned with a painting of Poland's Madonna of Czestochowa.

"There was something serene in the eyes and face of Czestochowa," says junior Nataly Sanchez. "I felt my chest fill up with warmth and I couldn't control the tears. I don't know why I was crying, but I did know that it wasn't due to sadness. I felt overjoyed."

Joy, for senior Hope Blain, came in the form of a lively lunch at the home of two Brothers in the medieval town of Assisi. "We were having a four-course meal with these two Franciscan friars, one playing the accordion, one telling jokes. That sense of community and friendship was there so quickly and I thought that just showed the vibrancy of the church."

The Saint Mary's pilgrims also travel to The Monastery of St. Benedict in Subiaco and attend celebrations like the Feast of St. Agnes, where two baby lambs are blessed during Mass and later by the pope. Their wool is shorn to make palliums — a symbol of Christ the Good Shepherd that new archbishops receive on the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul in June.

An important part of the pilgrimage is time for discussion and reflection on the Catholic faith. "I like how we took a theological perspective," says senior Mary Gerlomes. "The perspective we took shaped the journey."

Senior Jacquelyn O'Neill agrees. "Our class had such a sense of community. We all could just open up to each other and talk together and eat together and have fun together … that was the coolest part of the trip."

(Ginny Prior is an adjunct professor of communications at Saint Mary's College of California, Moraga. See more at www.smcpilgrimagetorome.wordpress.com.)
 

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