By Madeleine Doyle

Rome is a city that is truly alive: alive with culture, alive with people, and alive with the faith. Numerous pilgrims have stepped on the same cobblestones for centuries, and this past week both Franciscan University and the LCI students joined that number from February 25 – March 5, experiencing the history and beauty of Rome. The 10-day pilgrimage is a highlight of the Austrian program, giving the students the opportunity to attend Mass, pray, eat, tour, and immerse themselves in one of the most historic and most holy places in all of Europe.

One of the LCI students, Oleh, who is a Ukrainian seminarian studying with the LCI program, spoke about his experience in Rome. “This was my first time in the Eternal City, and I was struck by the culture and diversity of life and activity.” He went on to say that he prefers the hustle and bustle of city life as opposed to the quieter atmosphere of a small town. He spoke about the energy that one can receive from living among such a large population, interacting with the street venders and tourists, and getting caught up in the exciting pace of life. However, it wasn’t the 10,000 different gelato stands or the Italian wine that he remembered most fondly. Oleh’s favorite aspect of the pilgrimage was the integrated faith experience – it wasn’t just a city to tour, but a place to pray and contemplate. He said that his faith grew in leaps and bounds. He added, “I felt a strong connection to the faith when I walked through the doors of the many magnificent churches.”

Martin from Slovakia, another LCI student, also reflected on his experience in Rome. Through a series of events perfectly, providentially, aligning, Martin, myself, and a small group of Franciscan and LCI students had the opportunity to attend a small Mass with the Holy Father on Ash Wednesday. It was powerful to experience Mass in Italian and also to be surrounded by so many religious (around 200). Pope Francis kindly approached several of those in attendance who were unable to walk to the front (due to disability, etc.), and our little group found ourselves just a few feet away from the successor of St. Peter. Martin said that this was one of the most powerful experiences of his life and he was struck by the sheer love that the Pope conveyed. This group also was able to see the little room where St. Teresa of Calcutta lived when she came to Rome. We received second-class relics and met two of her sisters from the Missionaries of Charity. These two events, both occurring on the first day of Lent, were powerful examples of the Lord’s love. None of us could have anticipated the events of the day; it was truly a special experience and one of sheer gift.

These few events made the pilgrimage to Rome and also Assisi particularly moving for many students. Assisi was a peaceful repose after the hectic schedule of Rome, but from speaking with fellow students most of the powerful and touching experiences occurred in Rome. It truly was a powerful pilgrimage, not only because of the history and magnificence of these great cities, but also how we saw the Lord work in and through that to reach the hearts of each individual. From Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica to enjoying Italian gelato, and everything in between, this time of pilgrimage was truly a blessing.