It is about 6:00 AM on July 2nd and we have just arrived at the airport ready to begin our last day of travel on the Rome Experience. Since we’d embarked on our journey several weeks earlier we had traversed three countries, a mountain range, numerous major pilgrimage sites in Western Christendom, basilica after basilica after basilica, the tombs of martyrs, saints, confessors, popes and even found time to stop, pray and even eat some pretty good food along the way. We attended a general audience with Pope Francis, had the chance to pray with him as he celebrated the mass and Sunday Angelus. On its face the Rome Experience appeared a success and not a few of us were looking forward to sharing what we had learned and experienced with family and friends as we returned to the states.
On this last day of travel we were blessed with the opportunity to have Mass at the airport before setting out for home. Father’s homily that day threw our last several weeks of travel, pilgrimage and study into new relief. As Father began the homily he commented on the good fortune we had of hearing the Gospel passage where the Apostles cry to Jesus, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” because their boat seemed ready to sink (Mt 8:25). Father said that the passage highlighted not only the trust we ought to have in Jesus, but also the importance of cultivating that relationship with him and his Church which truly was the focus of this experience. He highlighted a few of the major places we had been and memories we had made and reminded us that they will fade in time but it is that relationship with Jesus Christ that truly saves us and makes us the loving sons that God desires us to be.
As I page through my journal where I recorded the various events of the Rome Experience and daily accounts of our experiences the truth of Father’s words continue to resonate. I had remarked to a group of students I met walking around outside the Vatican that the city of Rome makes little sense without the Church. More properly I ought to have said, not only the city but the Western World makes little sense without the Church and her bridegroom Jesus Christ. To every church in Rome there seems attached a story as to its founding. Whether it be in honor of some saint, or some miraculous happening took place on this spot. At the heart of these foundations is that relationship with Jesus Christ.
The saints and martyrs we met along the way are wonderful examples of this. None of these men and women set out upon the path of Christian discipleship with the end goal in mind of having some grandiose shrine built in their honor. This may seem hyperbolic but in the way many react around these great sites, so caught up in their beauty and splendor, the reason for these sacred places can be obscured. A visitor could easily mistake them for museums if not careful. Many enter these churches each day spending a few moments at the various side altars and shrines, snapping pictures and moving to the next site. Few are aware of the real reason for these places; that reason being Jesus Christ and the witness of those individuals in human history who understood that their relationship to him, with him, in him and through him far surpassed all worldly glory or kingdom.
Of all the many places we visited where this reasoning was manifest I want to recall one in particular which we visited in our first few days in the Eternal City. Following a visit to the Catacombs of Priscilla where over 300 martyrs and saints were buried we took time to pray in the Basilica of St. Agnes. St. Agnes lived around the 300’s and was 12 or 13 years old when she won the crown of the martyrs. From early on she had been consecrated to Christ as a virgin. After rejecting an interested suitor, out of revenge the same suitor brought it to the governor’s attention that Agnes was a Christian during a time of persecution throughout the Empire. After several attempts to break down the young girl’s resolve she was finally sentenced to death. At her death Agnes is said to have prayed a few moments before bowing her head for the executioner’s axe. That scene is depicted over the apse of the basilica.
We prayed in the basilica for a short time before heading back home. My eyes were glued to the depiction of her martyrdom. How many young people my age would be so ready to make a similar sacrifice in the name of chastity for Jesus Christ’s sake. Honestly I do not know. What spurred her on to such an end? I can only surmise three things: her faith in her spouse Jesus Christ, certain hope of the salvation he promised, and the love of God which surpasses all understanding. It is for this virtuous witness we honor her not only through such a beautiful basilica but every time we celebrate the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I). Her life is a model and a challenge for each of us of what a life lived totally for Christ looks like.
It is that relationship with Jesus Christ that will remain with us as we enter back upon our way. The shrines, the churches, the tombs were magnificent, and they are more so now but for a different reason. For now their real reason for being is clearer; they are testaments to that encounter with Jesus Christ that truly is the beginning and end of our lives. If this reality has been more firmly planted upon our hearts, and spurs us on to share with others the love born out of such an encounter all was worthwhile.