Day 11: Reflection and Celebration

When Fr. Hill and I went through different iterations of the Pilgrimage itinerary, we always kept our last full day the same: we wanted a low number of stops/events, and a high amount of freedom and relaxation for the students. Hopefully, this would allow the boys to begin seriously examining the movements and effects of the pilgrimage on themselves while preparing to re-enter a more normal life tomorrow.

Last night, we offered several remaining places to explore in Rome, and allowed the guys to build their schedule. Several chose to sleep in, while five of us proceeded back to St. Peters for a final time to climb the Cupola of the Basilica. The following pictures are not for those afraid of heights or the claustrophobic.

The climb offered both a close-up look at the interior of the dome and its simply unbelievable mosaics, and a panoramic view of the entire Vatican city-state from the top of the dome.

After our climb and a quick reshuffling of groups, Fr. Hill led David, and Matthew into the city to see Santa Maria Maggiore at the boy’s request. St Mary Major is a Papal basilica and the first Church in the west dedicated to Mary. Afterwards, the “elite squad”, as they called themselves walked around the beautiful Trastevere neighborhood for several hours. Mr. Lally led the other six goofballs back down the Appian Way, to continue our exploration of Christian catacombs from the day before.

*Blog will be completed once we arrive to the airport today, where we are currently headed.

Day 10: Abounding Riches

Our close-up encounter with the Holy Father, Pope Francis

Rome can overwhelm you, as a tourist or pilgrim. Every inch of ground, every building, every work of art is saturated with such significance, meaning, and holiness that one’s mind and heart struggle to take it all in. Today was such a day. The itinerary included the Pope, the tomb of St. Paul, and an exploration of ancient Christian catacombs from the 200’s, any one of which could leave us with bursting hearts and minds. The only comparison that comes to mind is the post-Thanksgiving dinner sensation, where the belt must be loosened a notch and all energy must be focused on digestion. As we ate dinner tonight, I think our energies were mainly focused on the task of digesting the richness that Rome provided today.

Today, a student has again written the majority of the blog. I will let him give the play-by-play of the day:

“Sunlight streamed through the curtains as Fr. Hill and Mr. Lally woke us up this morning in order for us to make it to the papal audience on time. By the time we did arrive all of the seated area was filled up and Pope Francis was making his way through the crowd in his Pope mobile. As we got to about three feet from the barricade the Pope mobile slowly crawls past where we are standing and we found ourselves standing at least two meters from the Pope himself. When Pope Francis took his seat, a reading of Pentecost from the Acts of the Apostles was read and he gave a speech about how a new Pentecost is needed. The papal audience was very special because I got to see many believers from all over the world and could connect with them through our faith even though they may be complete strangers or traveling cousins.

            After the Papal audience we headed out side of the walls to the catacombs of St Sebastian and descended six meters into Christian history. I was deeply moved to walk in a place where early Christians and martyrs were buried and to be in a place where many other Christians and pilgrims have been for many centuries. (Chaperone edit: Pictures, sadly, were not allowed within the tunnels and caves of the catacombs.)

Our descent into the catacombs, 9-12 meters below ground. Sadly, our only picture of this adventure.

            Upon emerging from the graves of the early Christians we hopped on a bus to St. Paul Outside the Walls Basilica. This church was dumbfounding beautiful with its Romanesque architecture, creating a green court yard in which a statue of St. Paul stands and a vast interior depicting every pope and with four rows of pillars dividing the front of the church into three parts. These lead to the altar, where St. Paul’s tomb rests. We had mass in a side chapel which was a very special moment.

            We concluded our packed day with a time of prayer and reflection at the church atop the Spanish Steps where they were holding adoration. Adoration was beautiful and allowed me much time to speak to God in thanks for all the gifts he has bestowed upon me and enter into a state of peace while reflection on the inspiring talks given by Mr. Lally and Fr. Hill.

-Matthew Wilmes

Thanks for reading; We will post about our last full day on pilgrimage tomorrow, and will give a concluding post once we have traveled back across the Atlantic. Know that all of you remain in our prayers.

Day 9: Assisi

Upon arriving at Assisi, one suddenly has a massive insight into the joyous peace and love of nature that radiated from St. Francis. The sheer beauty of his home, made by both man and nature, is simply astonishing. One cannot help but think of Francis’s words in the Canticle of the Sun, where he praises God for the great creation laid before us:

Most High, all powerful, good Lord, 
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honour, 
and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong, 
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures.

Assisi is perched on top of a hill in the Umbrian countryside, and any turn you take amongst the narrow cobblestone streets, covered stairways, and medieval squares affords you a breathtaking view of the countryside. While the small town and smaller crowds offered us an opportunity to escape the insanity of Rome (see the Trevi Fountain pictures from last post), we entered into the day with a larger spiritual purpose.

The story of Francis is similar to the story of Ignatius (likely why Ignatius made his conversion after reading about Francis, who had already been a saint for ~300 years when Ignatius was born). The young man of Assisi was the son of a rich silk merchant, destined to continue his father’s profession. One day, the young man heard the Lord speak to him from a cross in a dilapidated chapel, saying “Francis, rebuild my Church.” Francis first took this command literally, rebuilding the small chapel. After a time, he then followed the true spiritual command, bringing a new focus on the person of Christ, the poor, and spreading the Gospel to the Church.

The cross still hangs in Assisi, but we were unable to take pictures of it, nor any of the basilica interiors in Assisi, due to 800-year old frescos on the walls that fade quickly with camera flashes. However, the following is a picture pulled from online of the San Damiano cross, where Francis heard the Lord speak:

We prayed in front of the cross, and then engaged in prayer and discussion over what rebuilding needs to happen in our Church, our world, and our personal lives today. Where are we to bethe “instruments of peace” that Francis desired to become?

Trips to the basilicas in town (one where Francis’ remains rest, one where St Claire of Assisi rests) were punctuated by a lovely lunch overlooking the countryside, and a mid-day excursion to a medieval castle that overlooks the town.

These pictures barely begin to capture the beauty of Assisi, so stay tuned for where students and parents will be able to view other shots, as well as all of our photos from the trip.

For the last few days of the trip, we want to let some students share their voices on the blog, so the following is a reflection on the day from David Slama.

“Today we took a two-hour train ride to Assisi, and upon arriving we walked to the Basilica of St. Claire. After walking through and seeing her grave, we went outside and had a talk about St. Francis. St. Francis both physically and spiritually rebuilt the Church. We had some time for reflection, and I focused on the part of the prayer of St. Francis “Where there is doubt, faith.” This part of the prayer stuck out to me because on this trip I’ve begun to realize I want to be a Theology teacher, and by being a teacher it would help me sow faith where there is doubt. Another part of the prayer of St. Francis that stuck out to me was “Where there is darkness, light.” This stuck out to me because during sophomore Theology with Mr. Wehner, he lit a candle at the start of every single class period. The candle was a reminder that we are called to be lights in a world filled with darkness. That was really important to me.

            After that talk, we went to the Cathedral of St. Francis. This was really cool for me because, as a Boy Scout, I have a special connection to animals, the outdoors, and nature in general. Being in the Cathedral of the patron saint of animals and nature is like a Boy Scouts dream come true, at least for me. It was especially cool to celebrate a private mass in the monastery of St. Francis. This was probably my favorite day out of the pilgrimage, and I don’t think that will change.”

-David Slama

Day 8: The Tomb of the Fisherman

As I mentioned in the blog from Day 7, St. Peter’s Basilica is becoming something of a home parish for us this week, since we were there yesterday, today, and Wednesday. Today, it was the center of our lives. 

We awoke at 6:00am on Monday morning, and left the apartment by 6:35am. We walked the 15-minute distance to the Vatican in silence (likely because the boys were still half-asleep). We arrived at a mostly empty Vatican at 7:00, so Fr. Hill could celebrate a personal Mass for us on one of St. Peter’s many side altars. The church, quiet except for a handful of priests (and one bishop) saying masses at side altars, was breathtakingly beautiful at this time of morning.

Fr. Hill entered the sacristy, where an altar boy helped him vest and prepare, and then Fr. Hill took us to the altar containing the body of Pope St. Leo the Great (one of only two popes to carry the “Great” moniker; some hope JPII will be the third). Above the altar is a magnificent marble sculpture of St. Leo confronting Attila the Hun at the gates of Rome, convincing him to not sack the city. Fr. Hill chose the altar due to a special devotion to Leo and his significant work in the early church (mid 400’s). Fr. Hill’s parents, in town to meet the group, joined us as well.

As we celebrated Mass in the awe-inspiring space, passer-by’s-either tourists or worshippers-stopped at our altar to join the sacrifice of the Mass.

After a quick breakfast down the street from the Vatican, we proceeded to the Vatican Museums, which house the Sistine Chapel, the Apostolic Palace, and over 70,000 works of art. Fr. Hill arranged for us to take a Vatican-sponsored tour, entitled “Faith and Art.” Our tour guide was Sister Emmanuele, a British religious who had an amazingly impressive grasp of historical, theological and artistic knowledge. More importantly, she radiated a beautiful love of the Lord and the Church that was apparent in every word she spoke. Despite leading us on tour for more than three hours (her second of the day), her warm disposition and cheery humor never wavered for a moment. Sister Emmanuele turned her tour commentary into equal parts academic lesson, spiritual direction, theological reflection, and cultural commentary. Passing a statue of Narcissus, she cited a recent psychological study that suggested taking more than six selfies a day could be a sign of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This did little to stop other tourists in our group from taking selfies later in the tour.

The overall theme for the tour, if it had to be distilled down to a phrase, was the love story between God and his creation; Sister emphasized this theme over and over, and used the Sistine Chapel (which strictly forbids photographs) as the greatest demonstration of this theme. We received a nearly 30-minute interpretation of the Chapel before we entered (assisted with a giant touch screen), so we could appreciate the work in its entirety. Other highlights of the tour included the Raphael Rooms, Michelangelo’s Pieta, the tomb of St. John Paul II, and Bernini’s baldachino above the main altar/tomb of St. Peter.

We headed to the apartment to recover from our magnificent, but long morning, and took a power nap to recharge. The evening was filled out with a trip to the severely overcrowded Trevi Fountain, where the young men were eager to throw in one coin (guaranteeing their return to Rome) but seemed hesitant about throwing in two or three (guaranteeing falling in love and marriage, respectively). After some free time and wandering in Piazza Navona, we enjoyed another outdoor dinner, this time at a place Fr. Hill used to frequent when he lived in Rome. Although he was a faithful patron 15 years ago, the owner recognized him and welcomed him back with open arms.

Our night ended with gelato (the boys are now schooled on how you avoid gelato places with large decorative mounds of gelato over the containers that look appealing, and go for the places where they have to remove a lid and reach down to scoop it), and we took a leisurely stroll through the nightime beauties of Rome.

Thanks again for reading; our entry about our day trip to Assisi today will likely be posted tomorrow morning, our time.

Day 7: The Ancient World of Rome

So good it almost looks fake.

Greetings to our faithful readers. We are officially past the halfway point of our pilgrimage.

After our whirlwind tour through the churches of Rome yesterday, we came to a fitting crescendo this morning at St. Peter’s Basilica. We celebrated Sunday Mass and the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity at the Altar of the Chair, a smaller location behind main high altar of St Peter’s. The Mass was said in Italian, and while we may not have understood every word of the homily, we were deeply moved by our arrival to the greatest church of Catholicism, and maybe the world.

St. Peter’s will be something like a home parish to us in the following days; we will celebrate morning mass at a side altar tomorrow morning, and will then receive a tour of the Vatican Museums and Basilica. We will return on Wednesday for the weekly Papal Audience with the Holy Father

The Sunday Best for St. Peters!

We returned home and changed out of our Sunday dress. Given the 90 degree heat today, we were significantly more comfortable after.

Our day from there consisted of visiting some classic sites of Roman Antiquity (and the must-see tourist stops of Rome). Battling huge crowds everywhere, we were able to tour the Roman Forum, the ruins of Ancient Rome’s city center, and briefly walk by the Circus Maximus (Nero’s chariot racetrack).

Then, with Russel Crowe quotes in mind, we proceeded to the Colosseum. Early in the day, we purchased timed tickets to enter the Colosseum at 5:00pm, but were somewhat noncommittal about returning to the craziness of Tourist Central to enter a building we had already walked around. However, I think we were all very happy with the decision taking the time to explore the bizarre, yet strangely familiar atmosphere of the Colosseum. Walking through the causeways did not feel so different from walking around any of our favorite modern stadiums. Some of the intelligent discussion questions that arose there: what animal would you want to fight in the arena? Would you rather fight on foot or horseback?

The day ended with another lovely dinner at an outdoor cafe. The numerous sights and heat of the day delayed our tour of Roman catacombs to a later day, so we enjoyed some down time at the apartment in the afternoon, and did some much needed laundry and calls to parents. If you didn’t get a call, it wasn’t for lack of trying! We will try to get a hold of you tomorrow so you can hear some stories from the young men! As always, thanks for following, and pray for us while we continue to pray for you.

St. Peter, pray for us!

Day 6: The Eternal City: Ignatian Sites

*Chaperone note: We know we are backlogged on our entries now; we will have to get Day 5 recorded at a different point; it consisted of a combined day trip-and-travel-day, leaving Paris for Versailles, and then heading to Rome by plane. Pictures and additional info will be posted soon, but we wanted to get Day 6 in the books while it was fresh.*

After getting into Rome extremely late, due to slow buses, delayed flights and lack of taxis in Rome, we woke a little later than usual today. Despite the slow start, we had an ambitious number of Ignatian pilgrimage sites that we planned to visit, and we successfully made it to all of them.

There are two major Jesuit churches in Rome: The Gesu (the mother church of the Society of Jesus) and the Church of St. Ignatius. We were able to visit both today. These churches stand in direct contrast to many of the Gothic-style churches of France (when you hear Gothic, think Notre Dame: Tall ceilings, tall prominent pillars, LOTS of stained glass, and maybe flying buttresses on the outside). These two Roman churches, on the other hand, are the epitome of Baroque architecture. How do you know you’re in a Baroque church? Is there is an overabundance of decoration, perhaps so much that it mentally overwhelms you? Are there are heavily painted ceilings, lots of gold, lots of marble? Are angels everywhere? Then you’ve found one. See below for examples:

Watching our young men negotiate these churches has been a continually beautiful sight. Some sit and pray; some explore every inch of the art and architecture. Some pick a side chapel to pray with a particular devotion or saint. Some have fascinating questions about how, when, and why these spiritual masterpieces came to be.

These churches are also the resting places of many Jesuit saints, and afforded us the opportunity to pray at their tombs. In the Gesu, we were able to pray at the Tomb of St Ignatius, and pray in front of a relic of St. Francis Xavier (most of his body is still in India). San Ignazio is the home of St. Robert Bellermine, St Aloysius Gonzaga, and St. John Berchman. At these altars, we asked for their intercessions for SLUH, the Jesuits of past, present, and future, all those touched by Jesuit ministry, and all of you!

At each of these churches, the Jesuit communities have gone to great length to preserve the former rooms of St. Aloysius Gonzaga (a young man of noble birth who left his wealth and title behind to join the Jesuits, and died at age 23 while still in formation) and St. Ignatius. A lovely sister from Uganda, Sister Anna, gave us an in-depth tour of Gonzaga’s rooms, which have been highly decorated throughout the centuries. St. Ignatius’s rooms, on the other hand, have been restored to their original condition; they look like they did when he lived and worked there for 13 years.

The rooms of St. Ignatius were especially powerful; in these small, simple places, Ignatius spent endless hours founding and directing the young Society. Ignatius’s shoes, cassock, and chasible are located within, as is his work desk where he wrote the Constitutions of the Society and over 7000 letters. His bedroom, where he died, is now a simple chapel. However, beyond these physical reminders of Ignatius, his spirit practically seeps from the walls, and we were all notably affected by the power of this holy place.

Despite visiting hours drawing to a fast close, and staff telling us that we needed to head towards the doors, Fr. Hill insisted that we have Mass in Ignatius’s rooms. What followed was an unbelievably fast Mass, but the speed was matched by the reverence and spiritual weight that the young men brought to the room. This writer was personally moved by the devotion and prayerful attitude that the students showed. It was as if the powerful spiritual nature of the rooms called out to them, and they responded to it. Perhaps some have heard of “thin places” before, locations where the spiritual world is as apparent as the physical. This was something like that. It is hard to put into words, as you can see, but the Spirit was certainly moving amongst us.

We ended the day with some authentic and delicious Italian classics: calzones, pizza, pasta, and gelato at a wonderful outdoor cafe. This makes up for the sins of our first Italian meal: McDonalds breakfast. After eating our main courses, Fr. Hill ordered some salads in order to introduce some much needed green into our heavily carb-based diet. Much better, right?

Thanks again for following along with our travels! Stay tuned for much more from the Eternal City over the next several days.

Day 4: Paris by the Books

Mona Lisa. Eiffel Tower. Crepes. Berets. Baguettes. The men of SLUH Ignatian Pilgrimage 2019 would like an award for “most touristy day in Paris possible.”

After a spiritually jam-packed Wednesday, we slowed down the pilgrimaging, and put on our tourist hats (some of us did this more literally than others, you can see). Pictures will serve more than words today, but allow me to offer a brief recap of the day. We started our day at the Louvre, and were surprised by how quickly we were able to enter the museum (some other gatekeepers and ticket-takers in Paris have given our larger group some grief). Knowing that we could not digest the 35,000+ pieces of art in our truncated visit, Fr. Joseph led us through a “Masterpiece Tour” of the Louvre. We became acquainted with the “Three Ladies” of the Louvre: Mona, Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory. The constant mob surrounding Da Vinci’s most famous work did not stop our students from maneuvering to the front for a clear shot.

Other masterpieces included Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks, Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, Liberty Leading the People and The Raft of the Medusa. Fr Hill and Mr. Lally geeked out over a famous painting of Thomas Aquinas, much to the chagrin of their students.

After some croque mousier and baguette-sandwiches for lunch, we proceeded to the Eiffel Tower. We ascended as high as tourists can go, arriving by elevator to the balcony a few meters below the top. The long wait and multi-part trip up the iconic monument was well-rewarded with stunning views:

After some much needed free time in Paris, we joined the parish of Saint Pierre de Gros Cailou for an evening Mass. While we may have struggled to understand the French spoken in Mass, we were awed by the loving hospitality and welcoming attitude from the priest and parishioners. The sacristan, a young man named David, personally took us into the surrounding neighborhood to help us find our dinner location. Fr. Hill also celebrated his four-year anniversary of his ordination today, so please send a prayer of thanksgiving for his good work!

A lovely evening walk through Paris, and Nutella crepes closed out the day:

Tomorrow, we will head to Versailles and then travel to Rome at night, so a blog update might not be posted till Wednesday morning since we plan to arrive in Rome around midnight. Thanks for reading!

Day 3: The Ignatian Sites of Paris

Thanks to all who have been following our blog so far! Our first full day in Paris has drawn to a close. The jetlag, thankfully, has left most of us, and the chaperones had a far more energized and excited group to lead through Paris today. This energy was used in walking exactly 10 miles today through Montmartre, the Latin Quarter, and the Champs Elysees.

Our sites today were all focused on the time Ignatius of Loyola spent in Paris. Through most of the day, we were accompanied by Father Bernard Gillibert, SJ, a French Jesuit and former principal of the Parisian Jesuit schools. He was an incredibly joyous man, bubbling with a love for the Church, the Jesuits, his neighbor and his city. After meeting, he immediately took us to the roof of the Jesuit residence for an incredible panorama of the city. We then took off on a walking tour of modern and historical Jesuit sites. These places were brought to life by his incredible historical knowledge of the city and his ability to tell riveting stories in his heavily accented English.

Our itinerary today was focused around St. Ignatius’s years in France. As some of you may know, last year’s pilgrimage followed the early life of Ignatius. The beats of his story are fairly well known in the Jesuit world: young Spaniard, hellbent on knightly glory, cannonball, conversion, pilgrim-beggar. (We encourage this bio for more info, if you’re unfamiliar with the story: This year, we are following the events of his later years, after his major conversion.

Ignatius’s conversion led to a desire to convert others to deeper faith in God, but he needed a formal education in order to gain the necessary abilities and the ecclesial approval for his work. This led him to the University of Paris (the Sorbonne), one of the oldest and most lauded schools of the world even when he became a student in 1528. We were able to walk through some of the college grounds, and reflect on our own life journeys in the light of Ignatius’s.

However, the greatest moment of the day came when we celebrated Mass in the same chapel were Ignatius, Francis Xavier, Pierre Favre, and fellow companions took their first vows of poverty and chastity. Many see this as the initial founding of the Society of Jesus. This small, underground chapel was closed to the public, but thankfully Fr. Gillibert is the keeper of the keys for it, and took time out of his day to let us in and join us for Mass. Our prayer focused on the concept of vows: how do we prepare for the eventual big, vocational vows that we make once in our lifetime, and what small vows do we take every day to prepare for our full devotion to God and others?

A special shout-out to Reed, Laurie, and George Milnor who took time out of their day to join us for Mass.

We also had very moving experiences at two of the greatest churches in Rome: Sainte Sulpice and Sacre Coeur. One of our students remarked that they were “easily the most beautiful places he had ever seen.” Some of the students and Mr. Lally climbed the 300 steps to the dome of Sacre Coeur to see the magnificent view. We were only slightly dampened by a literal wall of rain that rolled north as we waited in line to enter Sacre Coeur (see photo below).

While there is much more that could be told and many more pictures that could be added, we will have to sign off here today, but stay tuned for more info tomorrow, and eventual access to all photos. Since Father Hill got targeted with a sleeping photo yesterday, the following is only fair:

Day 1-2: Travel to Europe and Intro to Paris

It has been a long 26 hours, but our first couple days of the Pilgrimage have come to a successful conclusion. After a beginning prayer, and one last taste of America in the form of Ted Drewes from the airport, our Pilgrimage was underway. We took off from Chicago O’Hare at 6:30pm central time, and arrived in Paris at 9:30am, European time. Some fitful sleep was had on the plane. In order to beat the jet-lag, we tried to dive enthusiastically into our first day of pilgrimage, despite some occasional droopy eyelids from student and chaperone alike.

The tiredness quickly evaporated as we began exploring the City of Lights. Our first stop was Notre Dame, in the midst of recovery from the recent fire. We chose this as our first pilgrimage location for many reasons, but we will touch on this for now: there is an undeniable symbolism in a physical church that is breathtakingly beautiful, but marred by horrific calamity. We couldn’t help but tie it to some of the current events plaguing the Church. Yes, the Church stands, and will not be destroyed, but the Church is wounded; this was a truth during the time of Ignatius’s life, when he prayed at Notre Dame, and it was our truth today during our prayer there.

If there were moments of desolation provoked by reflecting on spiritual and physical scars at Notre Dame, we were greatly consoled by the breathtaking beauty of Sainte Chapelle, a chapel built by Saint Louis himself to house relics from the Passion. As we entered into the chapel from a winding stone staircase, the stained glass of Sainte Chapelle evoked an audible “whoa!” from some of our students. Since St. Louis ordered the building of the chapel, Fr. Hill mentioned that any intentions offered in the chapel for the Blues in Game 7 might be looked upon favorably.

Finally, the day ended with a fun meal at brasserie in the Latin Quarter of Paris. We called it an early night so we could catch up on sleep (especially Fr. Hill!). Stay tuned for more photos and updates from Paris tomorrow, and keep us in your prayers while we keep you in ours.