By Katie Cerni | Social Media Coordinator
Recently, I was given the chance to attend a pilgrimage to the ancient city of Rome. Jumping at the opportunity to revisit a city that I like to call my “home away from home,” I boarded a plane at Newark Liberty International Airport in March and left for my 10-day trip.
While walking through Rome – a bustling metropolis full of locals and tourists alike – it is impossible not to feel like you’re in an alternate reality. Everywhere you look is a combination of old and new. A 150-foot crane towers over the Roman Forum. Across the street from the Colosseum is the second-busiest subway stop in the entire city, which reminds me of St. Augustine’s famous line, “O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new…”
My favorite part of Rome, however, is the Catholic history that it holds. There are hundreds of churches inside the city proper alone; sometimes you will even see three churches in one small intersection! There’s no doubt that Rome certainly gives the modern-day pilgrim plenty of options to experience the history of the Catholic faith.
Something I decided to “check off” on this pilgrimage that I hadn’t done before was visit all four of the ancient major papal basilicas. These are the biggest churches in Rome, all of which are used regularly by the Pope on differing occasions. They are: the St. Peter’s Basilica inside Vatican City, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Basilica of St. Mary Major (Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore), and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
Stop number one was St. Paul Outside the Walls.
After I finished praying at the tomb of St. Paul the Apostle – yes, that St. Paul – I was about to leave the crypt when I overheard an older man say to the priest that I was traveling with, “Excuse me Father, I’m not a Catholic, can you please tell me what this is all about?”
As a cradle Catholic, I decided to stay and listen; after all, I wanted to know what the answer would be, too.
“Sure,” began the priest, “After Jesus and apart from the Virgin Mary, St. Paul is possibly the most important person in the Christian faith.”
I thought to myself, “Really?”
The priest continued. “St. Paul was a Jewish Pharisee who persecuted Christians until Christ appeared to him one day and said, ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ After that, St. Paul became Christian and spent his whole life, even unto death, converting people – Jews and Gentiles – to Christianity. But the reason I say he’s so important is because after that encounter with Christ, he spent the rest of his life proclaiming that Christ was for all people – not just the Jews. St. Paul is the reason that I’m a Christian; I wasn’t born Jewish; none of my family was. I owe my faith and my religion to the good works of St. Paul.”
The priest continued to share a few more historical facts about the basilica, after which the older man thanked him and continued to tour the basilica with his wife.
After witnessing that encounter, the one thing that stood out to me very prominently while visiting each papal basilica was the multitude of crypts, graves, burial sites and monuments dedicated to thousands of individual people, either buried or remembered in these four basilicas. Some of them, marble sculptures of former popes, resplendent in style; others, simple slabs of marble in the floor, with Latin-phrases engraved yet worn away from ceaseless pilgrims walking over them for so many years.
All those people that have been venerated upon the walls, floors and crypts of these basilicas were memorialized because they did something great for the Church. Each one of them chose to do good works on behalf of Christ and his people.
Upon my return to the United States, I am reminded once again of St. Augustine’s famous line, “O Beauty ever ancient, ever new…”
The Lord is always doing something new within his ancient Church, whether in Rome or in my own backyard. As I come back to the United States inspired to, like all these unnamed people, do something great for the Lord, I realize that no matter how small the task the Lord asks me to accomplish, it will only become a great work if I, like St. Paul, listen to the Lord and do only what he asks of me.
Whether it be a greeter at the 11 a.m. Mass, a religious education teacher or something in-between, while serving my local parish, I hope to remember that I am standing on the shoulders of a long line of people who realized that Jesus Christ and his Church are worth their time and energy, and that I don’t have to be pope to do something great for God.
I simply need to listen and do what he asks. God will take care of the rest.