Experience of a Lifetime • Sara Kraeutler of St. Anselm Parish, Wayside, stands outside the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, one of Rome’s four major basilicas. Kraeutler, a 20-year-old student at James Madison University in Virginia, visited Rome in mid-March as part of a mission trip. Photos courtesy of Sara Kraeutler
Experience of a Lifetime • Sara Kraeutler of St. Anselm Parish, Wayside, stands outside the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, one of Rome’s four major basilicas. Kraeutler, a 20-year-old student at James Madison University in Virginia, visited Rome in mid-March as part of a mission trip. Photos courtesy of Sara Kraeutler

By Ken Downey Jr., | Correspondent

Twenty-year-old Sara Kraeutler admits that leaving her Ocean Township home to attend college in Virginia wasn’t easy. In fact, she needed some help from the Lord.

“I think my faith has really helped me become the person I am today,” said Kraeutler, a member of St. Anselm Parish, Wayside, who is about to go into her senior year at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. “I think that coming to college, I didn’t really have the greatest transition, and my faith was really key in helping me through.”

Kraeutler, a graduate of Ocean Township High School, is majoring in integrated science and technology and plays field hockey for James Madison. Her desire to seek out Christ on campus has not only helped her along her college journey so far, it recently took her on a mission trip to Rome.

It was by joining the Catholic Campus Ministry at James Madison University her freshman year that Kraeutler says she was able to settle into her new life as a student athlete. She’s been involved with campus ministry for about three years, but recently learned of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS – a national Catholic outreach program that invites college students to “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” FOCUS also offers mission trip opportunities at locations around the world.

She said that when she was given the opportunity to join FOCUS and attend a mission trip to Rome, she couldn’t possibly turn it down.

“I thought, ‘Why not go experience the world, and Jesus Christ at the same time,’” Kraeutler said.

So in mid-March, Kraeutler spent five days in Rome exploring its culture and people, but what impacted her the most, she said, was how she felt so connected with God.

 “We went to Scala Sancta, which is 28 steps leading up to Pontius Pilate’s palace that Jesus climbed to meet his fate,” Kraeutler said of the marble staircase encased in wood. “The only way to go up the stairs is on your knees … and you pray the entire way up.

“I had gone to public school my whole life, and I had never understood what it meant to be Catholic. But I found myself crying, and I found myself so spiritually attached to Jesus Christ. It was really eye-opening that you could have such an emotional experience and so much passion toward Jesus Christ,” she said, explaining that this experience was the closest she had ever felt to the Lord.

In addition to Scala Sancta, Kraeutler visited the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, one of Rome’s four major basilicas and Kraeutler’s favorite stop along the mission.

“It was absolutely gorgeous – a beautiful church and beautiful landscape,” she said. “The priest we were with got ordained a deacon by Cardinal James Harvey. He is the prefect of the Papal Household for Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict –in layman’s terms, the secretary of state to the president. Cardinal James Harvey now runs St. Paul Outside the Walls. He just lives next door, so he just came down and hung out with us, which was pretty cool.”

Since returning from her mission trip, Kraeutler believes the time in Rome with FOCUS has given her a new faith perspective.

“Going on this trip was really eye-opening for me, in the sense of all the possibilities that Catholicism has to offer, all the great ways [Catholicism] can be implemented in your life,” she said. “I’m trying to be more connected with my faith in my everyday living.”

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