It’s been exactly two years since I first set foot inside St. Peter’s Basilica, and I still haven’t forgotten how overwhelmed I felt in that moment. It was as if that monumental church had been built for me, as if it existed to be a home for every Catholic in the world.
Before I arrived in Rome that week, I’d never left the United States, but I managed to make my way to Italy on a pilgrimage sponsored by the University of Mary, a thriving Catholic university in Bismarck, N.D. That ten-day trip planted in me the seeds of a renewed spiritual life that is still unfolding today.
With about 50 North Dakotans, most of whom were in some way connected to the University of Mary — and to each other (as everyone in North Dakota is, I later learned) — I took part in this pilgrimage primarily to witness the diaconate ordination of Jarad Wolf, a seminarian of the Bismarck diocese, at St. Peter’s. Among my most potent memories of the trip was seeing the overwhelming pride and joy that each member of the group took in being part of Fr. Jarad’s choice to give his life to Christ.
Our pilgrimage led us to more breathtaking sights and lessons about the Catholic faith than could ever fit into a column (entire books have been written on the topic, after all). Even now, two years later, I remember vividly some of the spiritual truths that became clear through the beauty around us: When we arrived in St. Peter’s Square at dawn, when we stood inside the cavernous wreckage of the Coliseum, when we ventured into the vast emptiness inside the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls.
But my gratitude for this trip isn’t just because I was able to visit some of the most beautiful historical and religious sites in the world. It was the guidance we were given about the history and theology undergirding everything we saw that enabled us to understand its spiritual significance even beyond its history. I slowly began to see Rome through the eyes of the early Christian martyrs and to renew my own faith as I walked where they did and saw how the shedding of their blood brought us to this day.
We stood in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, the chamber where the body of Saint Cecilia was brought after her martyrdom. We visited a nearly empty Sistine Chapel, where an expert in the art of the Vatican Museums explained the theological significance of the beauty above us. We visited the Mamertine prison, where it’s believed that Saints Peter and Paul were once held captive, and touched a pillar to which they both may have been chained during their imprisonment.
In that prison I internalized one of the most important lessons for Catholics visiting Rome, or any holy site. It isn’t so important whether Peter and Paul had been chained together to that precise pillar. What matters is that we know they were once imprisoned, we know they baptized in Christ’s name, and we know they were martyred for their faith. That pillar, whether or not they actually touched it centuries before us, reminds us in a tangible way of the reality of our faith — a faith worth dying for.
Having internalized that understanding of Rome and of Church history, it was a much more powerful experience to visit the scavi (excavations) underneath St. Peter’s Basilica and see bones believed to be those of the first pope. Though it was fascinating to learn how those bones were discovered after being lost for centuries, and though it brought tears to my eyes to see them on display, it was moving not because we know without a doubt that they belong to St. Peter but because they remind us that Peter was a real person, a fallen man who had denied Christ three times but loved Him so vehemently that he followed Him to the point of death.
It wasn’t only in Rome that I forged a personal connection to the earliest saints who shaped the course of our Church. On a trip into the mountains, we visited Subiaco, where Saint Benedict fled in search of God, seeking silence and space for contemplation. It was at Subiaco that his monks created their first monastery, the Benedictine order that is linked with the University of Mary. When we celebrated Mass there, I felt an overwhelming sense of the presence of God, a profound grace still shaping my spiritual life today.
But it was in Assisi, our last short trip of the pilgrimage, that the graces and insights of our journey fully took root in me. In Assisi, we learned how Saint Francis — whose feast day is celebrated today — renounced all his material security when he realized that if he had only God, he would have nothing to lose. Standing outside the Cathedral of St. Francis, University of Mary president Monsignor James Shea told us about salvation history, how God works through the circumstances of the world to bring about His saving plan, and how He had used the radical poverty of St. Francis to restore a broken Church.
“Though to some the world and the Church looked grim,” he said, “to the Holy Spirit the world looked ripe.” In every age, he told us, there is a new flowering of grace that advances salvation history. “I’m telling you,” he added, “it’s happening today, and you all have a part to play in it, I’m sure of that. You just have to open your eyes a little.”
For me, at least, that pilgrimage opened my eyes in just the way he suggested. Though I’ve been Catholic my entire life and had an education that instilled in me the importance and truth of our faith, it was this pilgrimage with the University of Mary that made those truths concrete and gave me the grace to renew my own pursuit of holiness in a tangible way.
Our pilgrimage seemed to come full circle when, the following June, I visited North Dakota for the first time to see the University of Mary and to be present for the ordination, this time to the priesthood, of Jarad Wolf and Dominic Bouck, another Bismarck seminarian who had given us a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica. Thanks to the perils of modern air travel, I missed their ordination, but I made it to Glen Ullin, N.D., the next morning, for Farther Jarad’s first celebration of the Mass. In a way, being part of his journey to the priesthood reflected one of the central themes of our pilgrimage: Though in our country today we don’t face physical martyrdom or usually suffer the kind of radical poverty that Saint Francis embraced, we’re each called to give everything we have and follow Him.