They screamed; they cheered; they took “selfies” with the pope. Eighteen members of Utica’s Holy Trinity Church youth and apologetics group and seven chaperones recently returned from a successful and exciting pilgrimage to Rome, Italy, Feb. 16-24. In addition to seeing many historic Roman Catholic landmarks, the group joined thousands of faithful lined up in St. Peter’s square to see Pope Francis process in his famed “popemobile.”
Money for the pilgrimage was raised in a variety of ways including selling nearly 800 loaves of babka, Polish bread, during the holiday season.
The Sun is pleased to share five first-person accounts of the pilgrimage. These accounts are by Valerie Elacqua, youth minister and religious education instructor at Holy Trinity; Sophia Elacqua, 20; Daniel Rabbia, 18; Arthur Zemanek, 18; and Benjamin Schrantz, 21.
Utica saint inspires pilgrimage
By Valerie Elacqua
In October of 2012, Mother Marianne Cope was being canonized. I remember the conversation with Arthur Zemanek as he rode in the back seat with my son and his buddies. Arthur, then a high school sophomore, speaking with great humility, announced that a saint lived on his street and what that meant to him. Mother Marianne brought the point home to New York, to Utica and to Schyler Street. I considered what it should mean to all of us, and being a youth minister, especially to our young people. We can be saints, too, no matter where we have been. All that matters is where we go from here.
Arthur’s comment was the seed of our pilgrimage to Rome.
With little chance of quickly raising funds, we gave up on [attending] the canonization, but not on Rome. Thanks to the encouragement of our pastor, Father John Mikalajunas; our faithful parishioners at Holy Trinity; all who purchased our babka bread at Our Lady of the Rosary, St. Leo’s and St. Vladimir’s; and our friends at Spano’s bakery, we made it to Rome and back.
We pray that the experience of our young pilgrims will inspire other saints in our midst. Next stop: World Youth Day in Poland in 2016.
Religion comes to life in Rome
By Sophia Elacqua
After this week in Rome, St. Peter’s Square is no longer just a picture but an incredible memory.
In some way I feel at home in the square: the now familiar entrance through the welcoming Bernini columns, the massive dome and the opening in the gate that we ran headlong through searching for the most perfect spot to stand for the papal audience.
Our group settled along one of the walkways in our red Pope Francis t-shirts equipped with banners; one read in Italian, “Can we take a “selfie” with you?” We were hopeful that the pope would drive by our group, so we set up our phones for the perfect “selfie” when the time was right. As the pope was escorted through the crowd, we were all screaming in excitement and pointing to our sign. Then, to our amazement, Pope Francis stopped right in front of us, looked and smiled at our group, giving us the opportunity for the perfect photo. I couldn’t believe that I was standing an arms-length away from the Holy Father and I was star-struck in awe, completely forgetting that I wanted to take a selfie with him! I almost missed my chance. After coming to my senses, I quickly snapped any photo I could as Pope Francis waved on to the other thousands of people in the audience.
My experiences in Rome were life-changing in a way that I will never be able to fully describe. Our days were long, but fulfilling, because every place that we traveled had great meaning to my Catholic faith.
My first visit inside St. Peter’s Basilica was indescribable and I was flooded with emotions. The basilica was crowded with thousands of people yet it was peaceful and inspiring. Brother Daniel, a Legionary seminarian, led us through the maze of the entrance and with our mouths agape and our eyes on the verge of tears, we entered and approached the Pieta, the tomb of John Paul II and listened to the evidence regarding the authenticity of the bones of St. Peter. Our group visited the statue of St. Peter where we touched his foot and said a prayer. The bronze statue’s foot was worn and smooth from the millions of other Pilgrims who had done so before us. The basilica was the first place I realized that I was part of something much bigger than me; one holy, Catholic and apostolic church.
On this trip I was reintroduced to the apostles, the closest companions to Christ. Especially important [was] St. Peter, the first pope. [Also important was] Paul with his sword, the symbol of the word of God that he proclaimed, whose letters I hear frequently in the Mass readings. I better understand their primacy and why their statues flank the cross on the main altar of my parish church. They represent the church’s doctrinal and evangelical mission respectively. Their deaths and all of the other apostles’ (except St. John’s) as martyrs tell of an unshakable belief in Jesus as God the Son. To be willing to die upside down on a cross, be beheaded or have your skin flayed off is a most powerful witness to the truth of the resurrection. Their examples give me pause. You don’t give up your life like that unless you are convinced of the truth. The Lateran church had massive statues of the apostles as you entered, many of whom were sculpted with the instruments of their martyrdom, a point that deeply moved me. St. Paul Outside the Walls has pope medallions circling the ceiling that reminded me of the unbroken line of apostolic succession from St. Peter to our current Pope Francis. All of these things I had learned prior to my trip to Rome were resurrected and made a lasting impression in my memory.
This entire trip to Rome has filled in the puzzle pieces of my faith that I have been missing. Rome has changed my life forever and I am so grateful for the gift of my Catholic faith. The history of my faith has become much clearer and the religion classes that I have been exposed to throughout my childhood come to life. The home that I had made at St. Peter’s Square where I witnessed the papal audience, the white marble plaque marking the location of the attempt on Pope John Paul II’s life, the fountain that was our frequent meeting place, and the square that I cartwheeled across in joy all belong to me and call me to return.
Laughing with Pope Francis
By Daniel Rabbia
I really wanted to go to Rome because of how significant it is to me as a Roman Catholic. The Vatican is right there, and there is so much history and culture that makes the city a perfect opportunity to learn about my faith. To get there, I knew it would take a lot of work, but I can now say the end result was well worth the effort. We worked incredibly hard to reach our goal, with our main fundraiser being periodic sales of babka bread, not only at my home parish of Holy Trinity, but at a number of others as well. We also were lucky enough to receive generous donations from our fellow parishioners and supporters alike. It was an amazing trip!
When we arrived in Rome it was nearly overwhelming. Immediately we all could tell how rich the history was and how much it meant to our faith. Everything we have always learned and read about we saw and experienced firsthand.
The first time I was in St. Peter’s Square and saw the Vatican, my jaw hit the ground. I cannot put into words how astounded I was. Inside of St. Peter’s Basilica was even more impressive. Every inch of it was ornamented, all for the glory of God. The paintings and statuary were a visual catechesis. We also visited the other three major basilicas in Rome: St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major, and all were breathtaking. I don’t think I will ever be able to describe them adequately.
It’s just one of those things you have to experience for yourself.
We made a visit to the minor basilica of the Holy Cross (Santa Croce). This former residence of St. Helen, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, was so moving to me, not only because of its beauty, but also because of the relics that it housed. Santa Croce was home to a portion of the Good Thief’s cross, fragments of the cross of Christ, a spike that nailed Him to the cross, thorns from His crown of thorns, and also the index finger of the apostle Thomas that he used to feel Jesus’ wounds after the Resurrection, brought back from the Holy Land by St. Helen. Being so close to so many items that came into contact with Jesus was just mindblowing. I learned so much, and without a doubt, my faith has grown so much more. I became much closer with God and more in touch with my faith and beliefs. It was an incredible week and an experience of a lifetime.
One funny experience from the week actually happened when our group was a part of the papal audience. We were lucky enough to get seats along the side, so we would be close to the pope as he drove through the square. We had a banner made up that said in Italian, “Will you take a ‘selfie’ with us Pope Francis?” I was lucky enough to be one of the group members that held the banner, and as the pope drove by, his vehicle stopped right next to us. He took a moment to read the banner, and as he laughed, he made eye contact with me and smiled. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life. I was less than five feet away from Pope Francis, and was fortunate enough to be acknowledged with a smile.
My trip to Rome was without a doubt the greatest experience of my life so far. I grew in my faith so much in only a week, I saw some incredible things, received the pope’s blessing, ate some fantastic food, and enjoyed time with my friends. I am counting down the days until I can go again. I thank God that I was blessed to have such an unforgettable, faith-building opportunity.
Impressions of Assisi
By Arthur Zemanek
During our stay we prepared to visit the mountain town of Assisi to walk in the holy places of St. Francis and St. Clare. It’s so hard to imagine that you could be impressed by another cathedral after seeing St Peter’s, but the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels was a very different style and it was built around the Porziuncola, a small chapel located inside the church that St. Francis repaired with his own hands. Franciscan University at Steubenville, Ohio, has a replica of the “Port.”
We went up the hill and approached this medieval-looking fortress city with stone walls and narrow curving streets and went to the Basilicas of San Francesco and Santa Clare (Chiara) where the bodies of the saints are buried. We even saw a small room where St. Francis’ father locked him up so that he would “come to his senses.” It looked like a little jail cell with a low door that you had to bend down to get through. It’s good to know that even saints have problems with their parents.
We also saw two live doves that always remain near the statue of St. Francis and the rose bushes that have no thorns that St. Francis threw himself into in order to resist temptation. The emblem of the Franciscan order has two arms crossed with the hand showing the marks of the stigmata. Amazing stuff.
Trip brings faith into focus
By Benjamin Schrantz
I have gone on many religious trips with the members of Holy Trinity spanning from seventh grade to my junior year in college, so when I was informed about the pilgrimage to Rome I was unable to turn it down. It was an opportunity of a lifetime.
We were able to make a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as the other three major basilicas in Rome. When I first caught a glimpse of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the skyline, chills went through me; it was simply amazing.
This pilgrimage greatly deepened my faith, between seeing the many relics of the founders and saints of the church, and delving into the history and significance of each sight we visited. I came away from this trip with a greater understanding and appreciation for the Roman Catholic church. I also feel this pilgrimage brought us all closer together as friends, but more importantly it brought us closer to the Church and our faith.
For me, the most inspirational part of the entire trip was seeing the tombs of St. Francis and St. Paul, two remarkable men who answered the call in two separate ways and in the process helped build and strengthen the Church.
I wish everyone could have a chance to experience what we experienced this week. The trip was far too short, and I know for a fact that I will go back to Rome someday.