Ave Maria | As a rising senior in Ave Maria Parish’s classical school (Donahue Academy), I was one of six students awarded a near full scholarship by a generous school donor for a 10-day pilgrimage to Rome this past summer. We approached the experience as pilgrims, not just tourists, and were richly rewarded for our efforts.
Nearly everywhere we went was sacred ground, and we felt the presence of God around us. At holy sites, such as of Paul’s Martyrdom or the Catacombs where many raised their cameras for pictures, we knelt in thankful prayer. We traveled to all the major churches of Rome, and even a few of the more obscure ones, where we were comforted by Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
We also saw all manner of relics of saints from throughout the ages and visited sites that were marked by the blood of the martyrs. In addition, there was amazingly beautiful artwork glorifying God in many of the churches — such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Pieta, and Caravaggio’s Call of Matthew. It was all so overwhelming!
Yet, in a way the pilgrimage to Rome serves as kind of a climax to the classical and Catholic education we receive at the Donahue Academy. Through my first three years of study, I had been told the story of Western Civilization, which has Rome at its heart. In Rome, the history, theology, poetry and literature I had been encountering came even more to life! (Even my four years of Latin came into good use!)
It was exhilarating to walk in the Forum, along the Tiber River and among the famous city hills, the same places as towering historical figures long read about and also many of the saints I have learned to love and admire. No longer were they just figures in books but seemed to come closer in our shared humanity. I also developed an awesome respect for the sculpting skill of Bernini and discovered many other new things, such as that the best pizza I ever had was on the shores of a lake-filled mountain crater while swimming in cool clear waters where popes and emperors also vacationed back in the day.
Most importantly, the main themes of a Donahue Academy classical education came even more to life in Rome. Our school hopes to help us find salvation in Christ and to serve the common good. It also trains us to seek truth, beauty and goodness wherever they are to be found.
I found myself contemplating all these things as we walked, wandered, played and prayed in the Eternal City. I thought about how societies and empires are constructed and how they differ in their proper understanding of human dignity and destiny. I thought about how my teachers are constantly challenging me to excellence and virtue, and even to become saints who strive for greatness.
The trip gave me the chance to pray at the relics of saints like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Sienna, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. All of these saints came into difficult times for the Church and decided to allow God to use their lives to help fix the Church’s problems.
We also prayed at relics of Christ’s Passion: a large piece of his cross, the nails that held him there, and the pillar at which he was scourged. This suffering is the opposite of mediocrity: instead of choosing the path of pleasure, Christ and the martyrs chose the path of greatness and sainthood. These relics inspired everyone on the pilgrimage to strive to be saints, just as they have inspired other pilgrims for centuries.
The Church and the world need great saints, and our Catholic school, through its teaching and this pilgrimage to Rome, is working to make them. Lord knows there is a lot more work to be done on me, but I am grateful to my school, the Diocese of Venice, and our special donor for helping me along the way.