Students seek the mystery of the Eucharist on unique spring break

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Pilgrims from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., pose outside the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica March 9, 2024. (OSV News photo/courtesy Benedictine College)

ROME (OSV News) — Surrounded by the chaos of tourists visiting the Eternal City, 17 college students sought to escape the secular world of Rome.

They were not there for the sights, but for a weeklong pilgrimage focused on walking in the footsteps of saints and deepening their relationship with Jesus Christ.

The pilgrims, all from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, used their spring break to travel to Rome for a Eucharistic pilgrimage. Throughout the week, the pilgrims visited churches and holy sites across Rome as they meditated on the mystery of the Eucharist.

The pilgrims told OSV News they learned that what separated their journey from those of the tourists around them was their common intention to seek Christ throughout the week.

Encountering Christ in Rome

“I think the difference between this pilgrimage and going to Rome as a tourist is the intentionality behind it,” sophomore Donald Gerle said. “We made an intentional effort to go and seek the Lord in a very particular way while we were here. It was so beautiful because we got to see and literally walk the roads that some of the greatest saints walked while on their journey to the Lord.”

Prayer remained at the center of the pilgrim’s day allowing them to use the pilgrimage as an opportunity to not just learn about the faith and see the grand churches of Rome, but to re-center their life on Christ.

“It was really exciting to get to go on a pilgrimage for spring break,” sophomore Elise Amour said, “because it gave me an opportunity to focus my life more on God than on myself like a lot of kids do when they go on spring break, because many people just go on these trips so they can have fun.”

Every day, the group visited many basilicas, churches and holy sites reflecting on different themes such as the Lord Jesus’ passion and death, the lives of the saints and the Blessed Mother.

Prayer at the center of pilgrims’ day

At each church, the pilgrims made extended stops, providing them ample time to pray in the chapels and ask for the intercession of various saints as they reflected on their own spiritual journeys.

“The emphasis of prayer throughout the trip really made this a pilgrimage,” said sophomore John Connor. “The mindset of going into the churches and focusing on prayer and on the Lord and the faith wherever we were going — rather than going into these churches really briefly and just admiring their architecture — was so fruitful. The prayer time allowed us to meditate on what these beautiful buildings lead to and not just see them as standalone structures.”

Each day, the pilgrims made a Holy Hour in a different church and attended Mass at one of St. Philip Neri’s pilgrimage churches. Experiencing Mass and Eucharistic adoration at the churches helped Amour center the pilgrimage on Christ and reflect on the beauty of the sacraments.

“It really inspired me to see the Mass and the sacraments for what they truly are,” said Amour. “It was just really inspiring to see the act of worship, that the beautiful churches were built by the people who loved Christ so much and they saw that it was fitting to have something so grand for the sacrifice of the Mass. It really made me think about what my disposition is towards the Mass and the reverence I should use when receiving the Lord in the Eucharist.”

Relics and the humanity of the saints

Many of the churches housed relics or the tombs of the saints, giving the pilgrims an opportunity to reflect on the lives of these holy men and women in a tangible way, and pray about Christ’s common call for each to live a saintly life following him.

“Being on this pilgrimage helped me to realize the humanity of the saints, and the way that God just led them through their life,” Connor said.

Connor added the experience of going to these churches allowed him to connect with these “ordinary people who just followed the Lord and were willing to ask God where he was calling them.” That experience, he said, “really allowed me to pray about my own vocation and meditate on how Christ is calling me to be a saint.”

Rachel Monahan, a Protestant Christian who was invited on the pilgrimage by her friends, also was deeply moved by the relics.

“My favorite part was seeing the first-class relics, especially the replica of the Shroud of Turin and the relics of the true cross at the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme,” Monahan said. “When I saw the face of Christ on the shroud, I got, like, a new connection with him that was just indescribable to me. It was such a life changing experience.”

Encountering Christ in others

The pilgrims encountered the Lord beyond the walls of the churches, as they walked through Rome and beyond. The pilgrims also journeyed north to the small town of Orvieto, allowing the pilgrims to have a slow day praying at the town’s cathedral and embracing the Italian countryside.

Pilgrims from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., are pictured praying with a homeless man March 5, 2024, during a pilgrimage to Rome. (OSV News photo/Jack Figgie)

“As beautiful as Rome is and all the sights, it’s still the city and is very fast. Orvieto is a small little mountain town and I just loved that environment,” Gerle said. “Throughout the pilgrimage, I had been praying on how the Lord is a good shepherd — and so being able to reflect on that idea, while looking over sheep grazing in one of the most beautiful pastures I’ve ever seen, really made the imagery a lot more salient.”

Building community

But it was not just the places that made an impact on the pilgrims; it also was the people they met and the conversations shared with fellow pilgrims that left lasting memories.

“It was really beautiful to experience this new country and these new places with people that are also there because they want to grow in their faith,” said junior Madeleine Ingram. “It just makes the experience as a whole better because we are experiencing these amazing things and places together, sharing our faith experiences, and growing as a group.”

While each student encountered the Lord Jesus in a unique way, walking the streets of Rome as a pilgrim left each student with a shared takeaway, the common call to be a saint in their daily lives.

“Throughout the week, we were praying before these relics and learning about these saints whose lives were testaments to our faith in love, but they were ordinary people … who had this role to serve the church,” Connor said. “This pilgrimage really made it clear that we are all called to be a saint. You don’t need to be this perfect person. But you must really strive to find what God’s calling you to do.”

Jack Figge

Jack Figge has written for multiple diocesan papers, including covering World Youth Day 2023 for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas. In addition to his local coverage, he has written for the National Catholic Register, FOCUS and Catholic Vote.