ROME — They didn’t know what to expect, but they still came.
A band of students from Bishop England High School in Charleston came to Rome on their spring break for a spiritually focused vacation. The usual sites of the Coliseum, Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps were in their minds, along with the sites not usually important to young people, such as St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran and other churches in the city. What made these young people forgo the beaches of Florida or the leisure of some Mexican cities?
This year the Catholic Church celebrated the 19th World Youth Day. Pope John Paul II chose as the theme of these festivities “We wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). In this theme, we see the desire and quest of Generation X, and specifically, we see the reason behind the Bishop England students’ trans-Atlantic search. Each of these young people, with different personalities and backgrounds, diverse gifts and resources, unique plans for university studies and career aspirations, came to the Eternal City of Rome to look for some answers, to seek out confirmation of their beliefs and to explore the personal meaning of faith in their own lives and futures.
Pope John Paul II, in a recent address to young people, said, “Certainly the message that the cross communicates is not easy to understand in our time.” It was precisely this difficulty that the Bishop England seniors came to wrestle with as they visited the shrines and basilicas of the city, as they attended Mass with the pope, went to confession, hiked up a large hill in Assisi to spend some time in old hermitages, and as they sat in St. Peter’s Piazza late into the night sharing with one another the lessons of faith, hope and love which they received and learned.
The pope would continue in his address, saying: “Jesus is the truth of the universe and of history, the meaning and the destiny of human existence, the foundation of all reality.”
“Saints, saints — there are saints everywhere,” one of the students said to his peers.
During this spring break-turned-pilgrimage, the young people saw the historical and relevant stories of men and women who lost their lives rather than abandon their faith — people who went against their cultures and societies when human dignity was not respected, and who sought to simply love and spread God’s love.
“It makes the faith real, it’s everywhere,” another student told the group.
And the pope this year would remind all young people, “If your faith is linked merely to fragments of tradition, fine sentiments or a generic religious ideology, you will certainly not be able to withstand the impact of the environment around you. You must therefore seek to keep your Christian identity steadfast, and rooted in the communion of the church.”
They came not knowing what to expect, and yet all their expectations were fulfilled. The Bishop England students came and sought out something, and they found a divine Someone. These seniors from South Carolina met the world in Rome through other visitors in the city, and they also met the saints, their older brothers and sisters in the faith and representatives of heaven itself. As the students shared their thoughts with one another, they further discovered new areas of their own hearts and portions of their spirit previously not known. They left Rome with the sadness of leaving a good friend, but as new men and women, strengthened in their own identities and ready to finish high school and begin a fresh chapter of life in college. With the insight they each received, it can be said that although they left Rome, Rome will never leave them.
Jeff Kirby is a seminarian of the Diocese of Charleston, studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
Published May 13, 2004