The Catholic Studies Rome program changed our lives forever – spiritually, culturally, intellectually and, since we got married after meeting in the program, sacramentally.

In February 2003, Maria was a Catholic studies major in love with her faith who could not wait to get to Rome. I was a philosophy major with no faith who also could not wait to get to Rome. We became fast friends, and her witness and prayers, as well as those of the group at large, led me to return to the sacraments. By 2004, we were both St. Thomas graduates with Catholic studies degrees. By 2005, we were hosting our wedding reception at St. Thomas. As often happens, we were involved and enthusiastic “ambassadors” of St. Thomas Catholic studies in the early years after graduation, but as the years rolled on, babies came, jobs changed, addresses moved from Minnesota to Florida, and our connection with Catholic studies and our Rome experience specifically waned. That was until 2015, when God provided us with an unexpected opportunity that took us back to Bernardi Campus.

In 2014, we had decided to move our family of seven from our home in the Twin Cities down to Ave Maria, Florida, where I had taken a teaching job. A year into my teaching I unexpectedly took a position as the school’s interim headmaster.

Above, from left: Mark and Maria Janke with students. (Photo provided)

Early in my administration, I was blessed to receive some funds to use at my discretion. After investing in some small- and mid-sized school improvements, I decided to go big: lead a small-scale summer “Rome Program” for our rising juniors and seniors. Being a Catholic classical school, our students study Latin, theology, philosophy, Church history, and Roman art and architecture. What could be better than bringing this approach of study into focus than to see, smell and touch in the Eternal City?

I pitched the idea of a high school summer program to Bernardi Campus director Thanos Zyngas and he loved it. We had enough financial resources to bring eight students and three chaperones to Rome for 10 days. As Maria spoke the best Italian of any possible chaperone, she joined me and one of our humanities teachers in leading the group.

Our Catholic studies backgrounds were indispensable as we planned the curriculum. We drew on not only our experience of the city, but also on our knowledge of the primary texts of the Catholic intellectual tradition. It was hard to contain our excitement as we thought of leading our high school juniors and seniors to the necropolis under Saint Peter’s, to pray before the tombs of the Church fathers in the excavations of San Clemente or to read Augustine’s account of his last moments on Earth with his mother while visiting Ostica Antica. Our lives were changed profoundly by such events more than 10 years earlier. We now had the opportunity to present that gift to others.

The summer program was a tremendous success. In the words of one student, “History has always been … dry and [I] took for granted the reality of the things I was learning about. However, being in Rome changed that for me. History came alive in a unique way.”

In addition to increasing our historical awareness, each of us became more spiritually aware of the Communion of Saints, most especially in our visit to the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus. No one left this ancient site of faithful witness without a deeper devotion to the saints and an increased humility before God.

The students also expanded their cultural boundaries by trying some Italian phrases, riding the metro and tasting new dishes – even if they often returned to pizza margherita and gelati.

Within 10 days we had fashioned for our students a whirlwind of experiences that Maria and I had back in 2003. Though exhausted, Maria and I had tremendous satisfaction in not only opening up the Bernardi experience to high school students, but from forwarding the mission of the Catholic studies program by demonstrating the unity of truth through interdisciplinary study to a new generation.

There is no better place to experience the intersection of faith, philosophy, society, politics and art than in Rome. Maria and I learned that years ago as students living at the Bernardi Campus. More than a decade later, we were able to share that truth as teachers of Bernardi students.

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