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Notre Dame pilgrims spend Easter at Vatican

Meghan Thomassen | Thursday, April 4, 2013

ROME – This Easter, more than 100 Notre Dame students studying in various locations throughout Europe went on pilgrimage to Rome for a weekend of sightseeing, prayer and reflection organized by Campus Ministry.

John Paul Lichon, campus minister and retreats director, met the pilgrims in Saint Peter’s Square on Saturday afternoon to distribute tickets for the Easter Sunday Mass. Students from programs all over Europe – including in Greece, Spain, England, Ireland and Italy – reunited by the obelisk in the middle of the piazza, hugging, laughing and sharing stories from their travels.

The pilgrimage is an annual event coordinated by Campus Ministry, which includes tours of Rome’s churches, admittance to the Easter Sunday Mass led by Pope Francis and the opportunity to reflect in the presence of Rome’s most precious relics, Lichon said.

Easter is the most important feast of the year for the Church, Lichon said, but the pilgrimage will take on special significance this year.

“We’ve been doing the pilgrimage for a long time, but it just turned out this year it was with the new pope, so that has been exciting,” Lichon said. “The main focus is truly to be on pilgrimage for Easter, to truly enter into Triduum.”

Lichon said Campus Ministry offered two pilgrimage “tracks.” The full track includes three days of sightseeing and guided reflection, while the Easter Sunday track admits students only for the Mass in Saint Peter’s Square, Lichon said.

“It’s been fantastic. There’re about 40 students doing the full track with us, and we did the whole Triduum service together. We did a bunch of churches together on Friday, we did Saint Peter’s [Saturday] morning and we’re going to do the Vatican Museum,” he said. “Then about 110 students are coming just for the Easter Sunday Mass.”

Though the tours and photo opportunities excite the participants, Lichon said the goal of the pilgrimage was to engage in prayer.

“Rome at this time is just crazy, and we wanted to create a space that was prayerful and reflective and truly enter into Triduum,” he said. “I think that’s what this week is really about.”

Junior Caity Bobber, who is studying abroad in London, participated in all of the pilgrimage’s planned events.

“We began [Friday] with morning prayer at the Coliseum, and we saw the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, where the skulls of Saints Peter and Paul are,” Bobber said. “It’s actually where the bishop of Rome is, so that’s the cathedral of Rome.”

Each day of the pilgrimage is scheduled from 7 a.m. until late at night, while some days stretch past midnight, Bobber said.

“Last night, the Stations of the Cross began at 9:15 p.m., but we met at 6:45 p.m. to wait for our spot,” Bobber said. “It was a jam-packed day.”

Mary Coghlin, a junior studying abroad in London, said visiting the Holy Stairs held special religious significance for her.

“I would say we were all surprised by that,” Coghlin said. “It’s 28 stairs taken from the office of Pontius Pilate, so when Jesus was walking to his condemnation, he was walking down those stairs.”

Coghlin said Saint Helen, Constantine’s mother, moved the stairs and other elements of Christ’s crucifixion back to Rome.

“It’s the original marble, and now they’re covered in another wood, and pilgrims go up each of these 28 steps on their knees while praying. It’s about a 25-minute ordeal,” she said. “It’s way more moving than you would expect. People did specific prayers, acts of contrition. Some people received indulgences.”

The students also attended the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross ceremony, held at the Coliseum on Friday night, Coghlin said.

“It was candlelit and we were close to Papa Francesco and it was beautiful,” Coughlin said. “[In the ceremony] there was Italian and a lot of Latin, which was nice because you were able to say the Our Father in that. There were also a lot of Notre Dame people there, and it was a great day.”

The group’s intense touring schedule didn’t leave the pilgrims much free time, but Lichon said the group purposefully walked a fine line between seeing Rome as tourists and visiting the churches as worshippers.

“You visit the churches for a purpose, you don’t just walk in and take a picture,” he said. “You [try to] understand what this church brings to you in a special way. You ask, how is God trying to speak to you through this place?”

Contact Meghan Thomassen at mthomass@nd.edu