It is truly a gift to participate in the Catholic Studies Rome Program. In many ways, what I am learning in my classes seems to come to life in the city of Rome. I am awed by the depth of history present here. Walking past the Colosseum and Roman ruins has, strangely enough, become an ordinary part of my daily life. The Romans have preserved so much of human history; in fact, much of the city is built layer upon layer. It simply is not possible to obtain the same sense of our roots and history in the United States.
It is especially beautiful to live in Rome during this Jubilee Year. In a sense, I have been able to participate in the pilgrimage of the thousands who have journeyed to Rome in this year of grace. As part of our Church and Culture class, the Italian Rossi sisters showed us the path of the pilgrims of the Middle Ages by taking us to visit the churches of St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran and the Holy Cross. Different parts of their lecture on pilgrimage were given at the different pilgrimage destinations.
When I witnessed all the pilgrims at all these different sites, it struck me that the goal of their pilgrimage is really not the city of Rome. All of us, rather, are on a pilgrimage that has heaven as its end. It seems fitting that this city, which some refer to as the "Eternal City," can point to eternity.
Being in Rome also brings the witness of the saints into my daily life. The church, as especially seen in Rome, is truly built on the apostles, martyrs and saints. A simple walk through the city makes this fact visibly evident. The churches found on every corner are named for holy men and women. For me, it is a strong reminder that each Christian is called to holiness. These men and women are our examples and can be a source of encouragement. The church calls all people to strive for holiness and to be witnesses of faith to the world we live in. Pope John Paul II echoed this truth at the recent Jubilee event for the laity saying, "If you live Christianity without compromise, you will set the world ablaze."
This witness of the saints throughout Rome also brings to life the readings of my Catholic literature class, Spiritual Journeys. In the class, we have looked at the journey of conversion in authors like St. Augustine, St. Therese and St. Catherine of Siena, and we have discussed how each of these authors points out the path of holiness.
Only in Rome can I leave the classroom and view works of art depicting St. Catherine’s important role in the church, or visit the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva where her body lies. Though saints like St. Catherine lived many years ago, such reminders of their faithfulness help Christians today shape their lives. The many traces of the saints throughout Rome lend a vividness to my class work, giving me concrete examples of heroic lives of charity and service.
Being in Rome also has truly given me a deeper understanding of the worldwide Catholic Church. It has helped me see that as a Catholic I am part of something much, much bigger than I ever realized. The universal character of the church, so apparent in Rome, is quite striking.
It is uplifting to participate in events in St. Peter’s Square. For the Jubilee Papal Masses, the square has been packed with pilgrims and a spirit of excitement and devotion is present. They wave banners and yell their greetings to the Holy Father. It is quite amazing for me to realize that I am surrounded by people from all over the world. The fact that the church transcends nations and cultures comes to life for me here. And all of these people from so many different backgrounds and circumstances are one. We come together for the same reason: to worship God.
At one event I attended in St. Peter’s Square, an Italian woman standing next to me tried to strike up a conversation. Even though I could speak only the most basic Italian with her, a sense of unity and solidarity existed between us.
In Rome, the church’s history can be traced back to the time of the apostles. In the underground excavations below St. Peter’s Basilica, I visited the tomb of Peter himself. The basilica is built on the site of his tomb, an area that has been revered since his death. This visit made the succession of the popes from Peter to John Paul II a reality.
I also had the opportunity to visit the catacombs where the early Christians worshiped and were buried. In these physical realities, the continuity of the Catholic faith since the time of the apostles is wonderfully evident. Understanding the depth and continuity of Catholic history in Rome has strengthened my faith. Somehow the church seems more real to me here.
After I leave Rome, I am sure that this time of immersion in the history and culture of the Eternal City will enable me to live that faith with greater understanding and appreciation.
A junior at St. Thomas, Catherine Maas spent the fall 2000 semester studying in Rome through the university’s Catholic Studies program.