A pilgrimage to heaven, on and off campus

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Students from Thomas More College participate in a 65-mile pilgrimage in New York. Courtesy photos

Last September, 70 students out of a total of about 90 attending Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, piled into a charter bus and headed to New York for the three-day Pilgrimage for Restoration in New York. They joined hundreds walking 65 miles in three days for the restoration of Christian culture and the Catholic Church in modern society. The pilgrimage was one of many components that have made for a successful campus ministry program at the college.

Maria Simpson, a junior from Allenton, Michigan, organized the Thomas More students’ participation in the pilgrimage, more than doubling participation from the previous year. She was excited that most of the student body participated, she said, because it was an important reminder that “life is a pilgrimage; we’re not meant for this world. Heaven is our home.”

‘A taste of heaven’

The pilgrimage began at Lake George Village, New York, and ended three days later with a Mass in the extraordinary form at the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York. Participants brought food, slept at campsites and accessed portable bathroom facilities.

“The pain was horrifying,” Simpson said. “At the end of the first day, every step I took was a jab of pain up my leg. I wanted to chop my feet off.”

Aidan O’Connor, a junior from Providence, Rhode Island, agreed. “It’s tough. But that’s what pilgrimage is about: meeting pain with joy,” he said. “We marched and prayed and sang constantly for three days.”
Participants included women carrying babies; Simpson recalls seeing a nun in her 70s. Vans were available to pick up walkers who were unable to continue, but she doesn’t recall any of the Thomas More students taking advantage of them. “We had people who had blisters or pulled muscles, but they’d bandage them up and keep walking,” she said.

The Latin High Mass at the shrine was a “stunning” climax to the pilgrimage, which included a professional choir. “It brought me to tears. It was a taste of heaven,” Simpson said.

Hub for truth, faith

Thomas More College was founded in 1978. It offers a single, integrated program leading to a Bachelor of Arts in liberal arts. Courses include classical languages, mathematics, natural science, humanities (including history, politics and literature), philosophy and theology. In their last two years, students may concentrate in a particular discipline through elective tutorials, a junior project and a senior thesis.

College President William Fahey leads students on a tour in Subiaco, Italy, near Rome.

According to Denis Kitzinger, fellow and dean of students, the college was founded “to address the crisis in Catholic education and, more broadly speaking, Western civilization. That crisis was the fundamental skepticism over the truth — itself a tragic consequence of the banishing of God from the public realm.”

The college’s founders, he said, wanted to introduce students “to the greatest works and minds of Western civilization and through the curriculum to nourish their Catholic faith and strengthen their capacity to find and live by the truth.”

Students come to the college “interested in truth,” said O’Connor, and the spiritual life of the college plays an important role of sustaining them on their journey.

The college’s campus ministry program includes daily Mass and confession, including a weekly Mass celebrated in the extraordinary form, after-dinner Rosary, adoration and a sung Liturgy of the Hours. There are also spiritual exercises during Lent and a mandatory semester in Rome during the students’ sophomore year.

Pilgrimage to Christ

Father John Healey is a priest of the Diocese of Manchester who has been the college’s chaplain since 1987. Working with the young is an essential part of the Church’s mission, he believes, and clergy should “do everything possible to help these young men and women on their pilgrimage to Christ and to the truth — the truth about God, the truth about others and the truth about the world around them.”

His decades of ministry have shown him that “young people have a strong desire for God. Similar to St. Augustine, they have witnessed and experienced many ways of thinking and acting which leave them unfulfilled, dissatisfied and restless. Because of Christ, the Church is able to offer them truth and interior peace — something the world cannot give them.”

Daniel Leahy of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, is a senior who has benefitted from the priest’s wisdom and “straightforward” style. He has gone to Father Healey for spiritual direction and describes him as “a tremendous example to the students of a man of faith whose life is centered on God.” Leahy is considering entering the seminary after graduation.

Father Healey has devoted much of his priesthood to helping students such as Leahy, noting, “[Young people] have an earnest desire to pray and to be virtuous. Older people, who are often cynical and jaded, do not set a good example and very often fail to witness to ‘what is true, what is good and what is beautiful.'”

Chapel: Center of life

Leahy and O’Connor lead the sung Liturgy of the Hours. Students are invited to gather three times daily in the chapel, located in the center of the campus, for lauds, vespers and compline.

“The Liturgy of the Hours is one of the most encouraged and celebrated traditions of prayer in the Church. It is an extension of and a public prayer like the Mass,” Leahy said.

Regular participation helps connect the worshipper with the seasons of the Church, he said, such as Christmas or Lent. It also combines with the other spiritual activities of the campus to help students “avoid letting the busyness of the day become a main focus and enables you to carry out your day with more fervor and diligence.”

During the week, priests from nearby parishes come to the campus to help with spiritual activities. On Sundays, students return the favor, heading out to nearby Nashua’s parishes not only for Mass, but to sing in choir and help out with catechism programs.

All the elements of the college’s campus ministry program have been invaluable to their spiritual lives, the students said. Simpson noted that while she was a practicing Catholic before coming to the college, “I’m more in love with the Faith now than ever before.”

“It’s a beautiful community centered on friendship and Christ,” added O’Connor, who converted after arriving.

Leahy, too, has loved his time at Thomas More College and is “sad for students at other schools who are not here.” He continued: “The college life really sustains you, and gives you an atmosphere to grow in the spiritual, moral and intellectual life. That’s a rare treasure today.”

Jim Graves writes from California.

Students study in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican during their semester abroad. Courtesy photo

Semester in Rome
During their sophomore year, Thomas More College students live in one of the world’s great cities, Rome, experiencing the culture and deepening their understanding of the Catholic faith.

Studies: Encountering the city is a primary goal of the Rome semester. Through visiting art galleries, catacombs and the numerous chapels, churches and basilicas, students learn about theology, history, art and architecture.

Internships: Many students partake in hands-on experiences in communications while abroad. For example, the college’s Vatican Studies Center, together with H2o News, the internet-based Catholic media agency, offers students the chance to work on Catholic production and news that reaches all over the world. The Vatican Studies Center also offers events where students can meet with the staff of L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican Radio and the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

Liturgy: Students can experience the liturgical seasons and celebrations at St. Peter’s Basilica, such as canonizations and Masses during Advent or Lent (including Holy Week).