As the Roman Emperor Augustus said, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” Of course he was talking about his many achievements in Rome, but I can relate to this quote in a completely different way. What started as a vacation to see a close friend, turned into an amazing experience that showed me the power of the universal Church!

Vacation to Pilgrimage

By: Andrew McCarroll, seminarian 

As the Roman Emperor Augustus said, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” Of course he was talking about his many achievements in Rome, but I can relate to this quote in a completely different way. What started as a vacation to see a close friend, turned into an amazing experience that showed me the power of the universal Church! From the ancient ruins to the Holy Father, I saw it all while I was there within such a short week. I don’t think that I would have expected this trip to turn out the way it did for me! When I bought the ticket I second guessed myself. Is this really what I wanted to do with my money? Is this what I wanted to do with my winter break? Now many of you are probably thinking I’m crazy for even saying that, but in all honesty that’s what went through my mind at the time.

Saint Peter’s Basilica on the first night I was in Rome

The time to depart for Rome came so fast that I was in disbelief that I was about to go. To me it was completely unthinkable that I was flying over the Atlantic Ocean and into Europe, but I got onto the plane and began 2018 in the air! (I left on New Year’s Eve!) Before I knew it I was in the Fiumicino Airport right next to one of my closest friends who I haven’t seen in 6 months; and the reality of it all had not yet sunken in for me. Settling in my first night was full of catching up with a friend and gelato! But the next morning I woke up it all hit me while praying morning prayer… I’m in Rome! It was praying the liturgy of the hours that morning, which every priest, religious sister and brother, and other members of the universal church were praying as they began their day as well; that gave me a deep sense that I was at the center of the universal Church praying the Church’s universal prayer! That was a “wow” moment for me!

We were lucky enough to be able to attend a Wednesday audience with Pope Francis

Going from church to church, I realized in a day or two that there’s a lot of churches in Rome! Almost every corner there was another church, and when I would turn around there was another. Each one as beautiful as the next, and every one of them were open with people praying in them. I almost felt bad when we would pass a church without stopping in, but there were so many, and I only had so much time! Along the way of all these churches, deep into the city of Rome, laid the ancient ruins from the glory days of the Roman Empire. How awesome it was to stand on the same ancient street that the emperors from thousands of years ago walked down themselves. The same place where many of the Church’s earliest saints could have even walked, even Saints Peter and Paul! The ancient beauty was overwhelming! The colosseum, the pantheon, all the ruins of buildings, and pillars, all showed the history of Rome and her glory! But the most profound relic out of all of these laid deep underneath the largest basilica in the world, St. Peter’s!

We somehow got lucky and were able to tour the catacombs underneath St. Peter’s Basilica. The basilica is built over an ancient cemetery where the resting place of St. Peter is, and they came across the bones after trying to expand the basement where many of the popes are buried under the Basilica. After research and oral tradition, they were able to determine that on this spot was the resting place of St. Peter. At the end of our tour, there laying before me were the bones of St. Peter! What an eye opener for me! To see the relics of the Church’s first pope! This for me really connects the centuries of the Church into a tiny spot in the side of an ancient stone wall where the bones of a simple fisherman, whose life was drastically changed by three simple words, “come follow me.”

Although Rome was beautiful and prayerful nothing brought me more peace than a little day trip to Assisi! The hometown of the famous St. Francis of Assisi who many know as patron of animals, but who also gave great witness to the living out his life in service of the gospel. For me, nature has always lifted up my life of prayer in so many ways. I love the outdoors! But Assisi is my definition of the beauty of nature. The freshness of the air, the beauty of the mountains, the olive trees, the earthy smell, everything pointed me towards inner peace. There is really something about Assisi that I can’t just seem to put my finger on. I was only able to spend a day there, but I can only imagine an entire week; or an entire lifetime like St. Francis. I now know why this famous saint loved and talked about nature so often!

The view from the top of Assisi, Italy

My last few days back in Rome were filled with a sense of wonder. How our beautiful Church, founded by Christ himself and entrusted into the hands of the apostles and their successors throughout the ages had come to be such a large part of my life. If anything this “vacation” became a pilgrimage for me! It strengthened my deep understanding of the universal Church, and my possible vocation of committing my life to service for Her in the priesthood. For me this trip was transformed from the ordinary to the extraordinary; and how often the Holy Spirit can work in that way! When I came to Rome it was just a city of bricks, but when I left it had appeared to me as a city of marble!