Roman Pilgrimage

Journeying to the heart of the Eternal City is a pilgrimage for students

"Ecco Roma!" For almost 2,000 years, Christian pilgrims have thrilled to hear the words confirming that they had, at last, arrived at their destination. They travel from all parts of the world ad limina apostolorum — to the very threshold of the apostles — to seek spiritual renewal in a city that unites in a remarkable way the ancient past with the vibrant present. We —11 undergraduate Catholic Studies students and I — have joined the throng of pilgrims in Rome in search of the city of the soul.

Fascinating at all times, the Eternal City is particularly exhilarating during this extraordinary year as the Jubilee and the dawn of the third millennium combine. In Leviticus 25, God commanded Moses to establish a celebratory year, announced by the blowing of the sacred horn, the yôbêl. Appropriating the Hebrew custom for Christianity, Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed the first Holy Year in 1300 and tied to it the already ancient practice of journeying to the city of apostles, martyrs and saints as an act of penitence. A huge success, Boniface’s special year drew 200,000 pilgrims to Rome; among them was Dante Alighieri, who recorded the event in the Divine Comedy.

In this 26th Jubilee Year, it is estimated that 30 million of the Catholic faithful will journey to Rome. Although I have the privilege of living and working in Rome and, unlike the majority of pilgrims, am not merely visiting for a week or two, the idea of pilgrimage is constantly on my mind.

It is hard not to think about it: pilgrims are everywhere. Throughout Rome, huge groups of them — Japanese, Indian, French, African, Spanish, American — bulge down impossibly narrow medieval streets following guides distinguished by closed umbrellas held aloft. They stream through Vatican Square and make the centuries-old round of Rome’s four major basilicas: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.

In silent awe, they contemplate the early Christian sites of the catacombs, the Colosseum, and the ancient tituli, or home churches, such as Santa Prassede, Santa Susanna and the hauntingly beautiful Santa Cecilia. They strike poses in front of Trevi Fountain, climb ruins in the Roman Forum and consume mounds of Rome’s famous gelato.

Like generations of pilgrims before them, they leave Rome with a deepened sense of their rich spiritual heritage. For here in Rome, marks of the faith are found everywhere — on monuments, on bridges, in the numerous churches, around every corner, in every piazza. Evolved by the layering of the new onto the old, Rome unequivocally gives evidence of the power of Christianity to transform culture. Here, one comes to understand in a unique manner the striking continuity of 2,000 years of the Christian past.

But pilgrimages are not just about visiting sacred places. Private matters of deepening one’s relationship with God, they are also public affairs that reflect our common spiritual goal. Although we are often in St. Peter’s Square for the many events held there (St. Thomas’ Bernardi Campus is just 10 minutes away), the extraordinary universality of the Church was especially impressed upon us when we attended the October canonization of a Basque woman, a Sudanese woman, numerous Chinese martyrs, and the American heiress and nun Katharine Drexel. Despite intermittent showers, we joined hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world as a fascinating mixture of prayers and songs in four languages and traditional Sudanese dance accompanied the Mass presided over by John Paul II.

As pilgrims, we also strive to get to know our hosts, the Romans themselves. Gregarious, generous and complex, they excel in l’arte di arrangiarsi — the ability to adapt with style — with its necessary corollary, pazienza (patience). Such virtues help them tolerate, with unfailing good humor, the masses of foreigners that daily invade their city. Moreover, Rome and the Romans exude an irresistible earthiness, an intense pleasure in the practical business of living well. Great respect is afforded food, wine and fashion, and beauty is cultivated in the least likely places. Long an artists’ haven, Rome pays tribute to the Church’s high regard for the human body in countless ways, from the sensuousness of a statue such as Bernini’s "Ecstasy of St. Teresa" to the many relics venerated in the churches. Here, one participates in the human comedy — living daily life with down-to-earth realism — against the backdrop of the eternal. Catholicism’s strong emphasis on Incarnationalism and sacramentalism is everywhere in evidence.

Pilgrimages are rarely comfortable. Not only physically demanding — for centuries, pilgrims traveled to Rome on foot and at great material expense — they are also mentally and spiritually taxing. Pilgrimages take pilgrims from hackneyed, habitual ways of thinking and living and thrust them into the untried and unknown. They refresh and disturb, and expand the self in unpredicted ways. They ultimately serve to remind us that our lives are a journey: here we have no lasting city.

Authors have envisioned the pilgrimage, or path to God, in unique and complex ways. Among their several classes at the Angelicum this semester, the students are taking a literature course I designed that examines the writings of such authors. Titled "Spiritual Journeys," the course includes such texts as Augustine’s Confessions, Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue, Flannery O’Con-nor’s Wise Blood, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Shusaku Endo’s Deep River. As the students read, discuss and write about each work, they reflect on their own experiences in light of the authors’ depictions of the variety and diversity of spiritual paths.

Like a pilgrimage, literature itself is an invitation to openness and transformation, allowing us to find words for the ineffable and patterns of meaning for our scattered experiences. Cutting across time and space, it connects us as only the arts can do to human thought and expression in all ages and cultures. Reading literary works can, therefore, play a significant role in the development of the intellectual and spiritual life. For this reason, the study of literature is at the core of the interdisciplinary Catholic Studies program, one that has as its primary objective the integration of reason and faith in educating the whole person. Our readings this semester have helped us become more focused and thoughtful about our sojourn here in Italy.

Nineteenth-century Romantic writers often came to Rome seeking inspiration among the ruins — a delicate melancholy. As Catholics, however, our vision of Rome is completely the opposite. For us, the city pulses with life and joy. Not merely elegant, overstuffed mausoleums, Rome’s countless churches radiate warmth and presence, not absence. Here, history, art, culture and modern life combine inextricably with faith, often producing fascinating paradoxes, paradoxes that, indeed, underscore Christianity. As pilgrims in Rome, we have come to the heart of the Church to deepen our understanding of the complex ways Catholicism has influenced and has been influenced by all aspects of human life and thought throughout its long history. In this city of the soul, we find our own souls expanding in the process.

Dr. Mary R. Reichardt is professor of English and Catholic Studies. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Mad-ison in literature, and has been a faculty member at St. Thomas since 1988. Reichardt directs the master’s program in Catholic Studies. She is the author of four books and numerous articles; her fifth book, Catholic Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, is being published by Greenwood Press this spring.