After a 3:30am wakeup, 4:15am taxi ride to Heathrow and a quick nap on the plane, we stepped into the midday sun in Rome on 10th April. The initial tiredness faded away and the excitement set in as we caught our first glimpses of the Eternal City on our way to Villa Irlanda, which is attached to the Pontifical Irish College, where we stayed during our trip. With no time to spare in our packed itinerary, we dumped our suitcases and after a quick change of clothes we headed to our first meeting.
We arrived at the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development to meet with Fr Augusto Zampini. Fr Zampini spoke passionately about the Vatican’s work in this important area, discussing areas such as the environment and human ecology, exploring how we all as Catholics are called by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ to engage with this topic.
Following an interesting and lively discussion, feeling sufficiently inspired, we began our meander through the streets of Rome to the British Embassy to the Holy See. It was an honour and privilege to accept the invitation of the Deputy Ambassador to a briefing and reception to learn more about the work of the Embassy. We were welcomed to the Ambassador’s Residence where we were given an insight into the world of diplomacy, exploring the interactions between the UK and The Holy See and how that relationship can develop. After the briefing, a range of Britons who live and work in Rome joined us for a reception hosted by the Ambassador. We all felt incredibly lucky to have the chance to chat with such a diverse range of interesting and accomplished people.
Our second day in Rome began with a trip to St. Peter’s Basilica. Seeing St. Peter’s square at daybreak was an incredible sight, basked in the glow of the morning sun and free from the crowds of tourists and worshippers which usually occupy it. Fr Dushan, one of our spiritual directors for the year, accompanied us on the trip and we were lucky enough to celebrate Mass at the Chapel of St. John XXIII which was a very moving experience. We weren’t able to hang around for long, as our day was packed full with more meetings. Archbishop de Noia was kind enough to give us some of his time to discuss the work that the Church is doing in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. We talked about the changing focus of his work over the decades which was an important and engaging discussion. Following this, we met with representatives from the Youth and Women Office at the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life which left us full of hope and positivity for the future of our Church.
After these meetings, we walked back over towards St. Peter’s where we were given a tour of the Apostolic Palace by Mgr Robert Murphy. This was a surreal experience, being granted such an opportunity and privileged access. We explored the stunning Sistine Chapel and took in the breath-taking views of the Rome skyline, all the while guided by the knowledgeable and informative Mgr Murphy. As if this wasn’t enough, we had the honour to meet Cardinal Parolin which was a humbling moment.
The third day in Rome began with a Mass at the Church of the Gesu, in the rooms of St. Ignatius. This Mass was particularly poignant as Fr Dushan is a Jesuit. Another packed day awaited us, mainly focusing on the outward face of the Church dealing with communications. We had the pleasure to meet Sean-Patrick Lovett of the Vatican Radio Service, who led a lively discussion and helped us understand just how vast the network of the Catholic Church is. Additionally, we met with Cindy Wooden, who works for the Catholic News Service. Cindy was able to recount many fascinating tales about the work she undertakes, including accompanying the Holy Father to report on His trips abroad. We were lucky to experience such insights into the world of communications and journalism. To help us understand the ecumenical work that is done, we were given the opportunity to question Fr Tony Currer of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Following three days of meetings and discussions, we were ready for a more relaxing pace. That is exactly what we found on our pilgrimage to Assisi. It was a glorious day and we were able to take in the stunning landscape as we walked through the streets, stopping off at various Churches, including a Mass at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. The day was truly full of gratitude, prayer and reflection, enjoyed together as not just a group of interns or colleagues, but close friends.
Our final day in Rome did not disappoint by any measure. We were welcomed by the Venerable English College for a beautiful Palm Sunday Mass, with a particularly moving homily that left us inspired. The Mass finished slightly before midday and we decided to chance our luck and venture to St. Peter’s Square to soak up the atmosphere after the Mass celebrated by The Pope. As we arrived, we managed to make our way to the front of the barriers. The Pope was amongst the crowds in the Popemobile, greeting the jubilant crowds. To our utter amazement, The Pope drove right in front of us smiling and waving. We all discussed how moved we felt, how blessed we were and proceeded to immediately start phoning every Catholic in our phonebooks to let them know (starting of course with our grandmothers). A moment we will all cherish forever.
Thus, ended our visit to the Eternal City. It was enriching, informative, prayerful and at times emotional. We regularly reminisce about the visit, the people we met and the places we visited. I’m sure we will continue to do so for a long time to come. We are all incredibly grateful to all those who gave up their time to meet with us, to Greg and Steph for organising it all, and to Fr Dushan for accompanying us. Truly it was the trip of a lifetime.