We survived a cross-Atlantic flight, moved into our Roman residences, sat through several sessions of orientation, tasted our first gelati, and yet it still didn’t feel like we were in Rome.
That changed slightly tonight when a large group of us left campus genuinely intending to complete the scavenger hunt our wonderful Student Life Assistants (SLAs) put together. After squeezing onto a bus with 50 other loud students and potentially pissing off our Italian fellow transit-takers, we got off and just decided to quit the scavenger hunt to walk around. We quickly got lost. But, once we found our bearings, someone made the decision to go to Piazza San Pietro.
Once that beautiful dome appeared in the Roman twilit sky, I suddenly felt hyper-aware of what was about to happen. Am I ready to walk into St. Peter’s Square? No, I definitely need more time to prepare myself. Boom! Feelings of unworthiness and anxiety weaseled their way into my mind. Then, I got distracted by this gorgeous mosaic of an icon of the Blessed Virgin. My friend Molly and I split from the group to take a quick picture by the icon. The inscription below the icon told the story of the original church that stood in that area, and the patrons that placed the image there in 1587 to commemorate the sacred space. Mary knocked me out of my self-indulgent unworthiness and helped me realize I was such a small piece in the history of this city. Whether or not I felt prepared, St. Peter’s would be there, firm, steadfast, and ready to welcome me with open arms.
We walked into the piazza and I held my breath. I can’t say that my reaction was mystical, but it was definitely sacramental. Everything about that sacred space pointed to a reality separate and somehow intimately tied to our own. The giant arms of Bernini’s colonnade wrapped around me and drew me into the center to examine the basilica’s beautiful facade. Above me stood the apostles and saints, examples of Christ’s faithful promise to his people. Below were cobblestones that Molly noted were smoothed and softened by countless pilgrims. I was, of course, surprised by how large the piazza was, but more surprised at how intimate it felt. It, like the Church, was at once huge and cozy. An Italian family from Palermo, a refugee from Albania, and a recently engaged couple from Ohio all crossed our paths while we were walking around. A light breeze steadily blew through the piazza and Italian children played games on the cobblestones. It was my first time there, but I knew this place had to be home.
Our way back was marked by excellent conversation, happening upon Castel Sant’Angelo, getting lost finding a bus, stopping to order gelato, and finally arriving back to campus. Yet, what struck me most in that daze after St. Peter’s majesty was a conversation I had with two Filipino women on the bus. They made a smart comment in Tagalog about American students when we all clumsily boarded the bus, and I thought I’d strike up a conversation. In a city where I feel embarrassed to speak English and the little Italian I’ve picked up, it felt so good to have a common language with the two women. They told me of their long days as live-in caretakers in Rome, of how blessed they felt to have English-speaking clients and the anxiety of trying to learn Italian to make sure they could keep continuing their jobs. They lit up when I told them I was studying here and that we had just gotten back from St. Peter’s. For a second, their exhaustion faded and they talked about how beautiful it was. The three of us, who each is far from our respective homes, shared this common experience about St. Peter’s. They taught me that this city, this Church so deeply belongs to a whole host of different people. My experience as a student will be different from their experiences as overseas workers, yet we can share small moments of pilgrimage together.
Thanks be to the God of surprises, the One who walks with us, and He who allows us the grace of encounter. I am overwhelmed and humbled by this experience, yet I know that this is just a foretaste of so much more beauty to come.
That’s all for now. More soon.