Every year at the end of the academic program, the students from Bossey take their final study visit to Rome and the Vatican for a week of learning about the Roman Catholic Church and their ecumenical commitment. Although we sure felt like it like was timed to be our reward for successfully completing our comprehensive exams, the trip always takes place during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a joint effort between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches.
It’s also an opportunity to be in the midst of some of the earliest of Christian history, learning about our very first brothers and sisters in the Christian faith. But it also certainly gave us one more week to bond as a Bossey family before it was time for all of us to head our separate ways.
Our visit was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU). The office was created after the Second Vatican Council, when the Roman Catholic Church first began to engage in the ecumenical movement. So we started off our first day by visiting the offices of the PCPCU, meeting their staff and hearing about the different projects that they work on. Afterwards we visited the Centro Pro Unione, an ecumenical center run by a group of Franciscan friars, to hear about their work.
That afternoon we got to play tourists, visiting some of the most beautiful of the Catholic churches in Rome – St. Peter’s Basilica, St. John Lateran, and Santa Maria Maggiore. We also got to visit the Colosseum (although we didn’t get to go inside, which was a bummer).
The next morning we had an awesome visit from members of a group called the Unions of Superiors General. They are the heads of some of the different Catholic religious orders (i.e. monks, nuns, brothers, and sisters). Each person told us a little about their group – how it got started, what was unique about their order, and the kind of work that they do. What was especially interesting to me is that the way they speak about their order’s uniqueness is by calling it a “charism,” or gift. It’s from this word that we get “charismatic.” At first, I found myself wondering why there are so many different religious orders (one of the generals said there are over 2,000!) – why don’t some of them just combine and work together?! But then they went on to explain that they DO work together – by each serving as a small piece of the puzzle of the work that the church is called to do as the body of Christ. It’s like when Paul speaks about each member contributing different gifts to the body of Christ…
It helped me to see the ecumenical movement in a different light, or at least find a more helpful way to speak about it. I’ve always had the opinion that different denominations, in and of themselves, aren’t a bad thing. Someone who might not feel at home in a Baptist church might find a relationship with Christ in a Methodist church, while someone who doesn’t get anything out of a Methodist church might find their place in an Orthodox church. I don’t really care what kind of church people find their home in, I just care that people find a relationship with Christ. Perhaps each denomination has its own “charism,” its own unique gift that it offers. Rather than seeing our divisions as something that tears apart the body of Christ, maybe we can come to see our different denominations as actually BUILDING UP the body of Christ, each offering up its own beautiful uniqueness.
We also got a chance to visit the Vatican Museums and the Catacombs of St. Callixtus that day. But the highlight of the day was visiting the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, where the apostle Paul is buried. I was just awe-struck thinking that in 24 hours I’d gotten to see the burial places of both Peter AND Paul, the two most influential men in the spread of Christianity! It was such a privilege.
Brianna and I took a bit of a detour from the group that afternoon, skipping our lunch break to attend the Women’s March in Rome! We were really disappointed to not be able to attend the Women’s March happening that day in Washington D.C. or in either of our hometowns, so we were so glad that there was one happening in Rome. We joined a few hundred women and men, many of whom were fellow Americans, at the Parthenon for a time of hearing speeches, singing, and praying together.
That evening we paid a visit to the headquarters of the Focolare Movement. The Focolare are Catholic laypeople, not priests or monks and nuns, who commit to intentionally living a spirituality and a way of life together. But a lot of the work that they do is ecumenical in nature, and the movement has opened itself up to members of other Christian traditions. I had gotten to meet a group of Focolare earlier in the semester when they came to visit Bossey for the day, so I knew a little bit about the movement. (After meeting the group that first time, I also found out that there’s a small group of women who meet in Little Rock in the spirit of the Focolare that I’m excited to get plugged into once I return home!) During our visit to the headquarters we got to learn a lot more about the work of the Focolare, but also to compare notes on our experiences of communal living as a part of the ecumenical experiment. We all really enjoyed getting to share stories with one another over dinner.
Sunday morning we got to participate in a Catholic mass (the first time for many of us!), and I even got to help pass out bibles to the youth who are catechists during the service! 🙂 That afternoon we had free time to explore Rome on our own, so I got to see the Piazza Venetia, the Forums, the Spanish Steps, make a wish at the Trevi Fountain, and eat some AMAZING gelato!
The next day we met with two other Pontifical Councils of the Vatican, one for Interreligious Dialogue and the other for Promoting New Evangelization. Just as we had done with the PCPCU, we got to meet with their staff and hear about the work each of their offices is doing. I especially enjoyed a video that the Interreligious Dialogue staff showed us about all of the doors that the Second Vatican Council, with its document Nostre Aetate, has opened up for people of all faiths to work together for justice and peace.
That afternoon we also got a special guided tour of the Vatican Necropolis, the ancient cemetery from the 1st century that was later filled in by Constantine to build the first St. Peter’s Basilica. So it’s not one but TWO stories below the current basilica. You can also see the place where the body of the apostle Peter was originally discovered. The history of that place is just incredible!
Tuesday we spent the morning at the Anglican Centre in Rome and the Centro for Judaic Studies. We got to hear more about the relationship between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church and to learn more about the way that Jews and Catholics are working towards reconciliation and the healing of memories through mutual dialogue and education. They have a really cool program where young Catholic men studying to be priests spend a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and young Jews come to study at the Gregorian University.
Later that day we visited the offices of Vatican Radio, where several of the Bossey students got to be interviewed by the desks for their home countries in their native languages about their experience in Bossey and their thoughts about ecumenism.
We spent the evening on Tiber Island, first visiting the church of St. Bartholomew and then having dinner with the Community of Sant’Egidio. The church is a memorial site to ecumenical martyrs from the 20th and 21st centuries from all over the world. It houses the stories and relics of many faithful Christians during the Nazi regime, communism, and well-known martyrs like Oscar Romero. Sant’Egidio a community very similar to the Focolare, expect that it’s made up of both laity and clergy. We got to hear about some of their projects, including helping to get more than 400 refugees with disabilities get resettled into Italy. Over and over throughout the week, people reminded us of Pope Francis’ comment about an “ecumenism of martyrdom.” In many places where Christians are martyred for their faith, it doesn’t matter that they are Catholic or Orthodox or Presbyterian. Their unity comes from their shared willingness to give their lives for Christ’s sake.
And Wednesday. Well, Wednesday WE GOT TO MEET THE POPE!!!!!! It was such an incredible day. It was also our final day in Rome, so we got to end our study visit on the best note ever! That morning we got to participate in the general audience that the Pope holds once or twice a week. We gathered in the audience hall with about 12,000 other people to hear Pope Francis give an address. Just walking in and up to the stage took almost 15 minutes because he stopped to take pictures or shake hands with people and to kiss babies. After his address, it was so cool to hear different bishops translate the Pope’s message into 8 different languages for pilgrims from all over the world to be able to hear it in their own language. We also noticed about halfway through that Arnold Schwarzenegger was there too!!! Afterwards, we were invited to come up onto the stage and wait for a moment with JUST our group. We waited while Pope Francis prayed individually over all those in wheelchairs who had been brought down to the front, then for a row of Catholic newlyweds who had come to have their marriage blessed by the Pope, then to greet the representatives of other groups who had come to visit the Vatican. Finally Pope Francis came over and spent a couple minutes with us. Sabrina, who spoke on behalf of our group, even got the Pope to laugh when she asked him if he would dance with us!
Although we didn’t each get to shake his hand, it was such an honor to be introduced to him and to spend a moment with him (and I’m not even Catholic! I can only imagine what a profound experience that would be for a faithful Catholic…) We were also each blessed with the gift of a rosary from the Holy See.
That evening we got to see the Pope again when we participated in the closing vespers for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, where Pope Francis presided. We were invited to sit up in the front with the official representatives from other denominations (and even got a little shout out from Pope Francis when he was introducing the special guests!) and some of our students got to read the intercessory prayers in different languages. It was such an amazing experience to get to participate in such a special service.
All in all, Rome was absolutely incredible. The weather was beautiful, the food was delicious (I could really get used to having wine at every lunch and dinner…), and the sisters who hosted us were so kind. Several of us also agreed that although Paris is often called the City of Love, we felt like Rome was MUCH more romantic than Paris!
We all left with a much deeper understanding of the Roman Catholic Church, and for many of the students deeply held stigmas and stereotypes were broken down. THAT is the first step towards meaningful dialogue and relationship as we work for unity – just seeing the other for who they really are!
It was an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life.