I was part of a Catholic youth group in high school, and we would go on service pilgrimages for spring break. Well, some trips were more service-oriented than others. Rome was the most intense of the three trips I experienced as part of this group. Two of our four non-traveling days were dedicated to helping out at a homeless shelter run by the Missionaires of Charity (Mother Teresa's order) and at the American Seminary. Another of the days was spent touring the Vatican, and the other day was spent trekking out to Assisi and tooling around there. Also, being a Catholic youth group in Rome, we went to a Papal audience, a Papal rosary session, a Papal address, and, of course, mass. Thus, if it wasn't in the Vatican or visible from our bus route from hotel to the Vatican and the service locations, then I probably didn't see it. Still, it was an amazing trip.
For the service portion of our trip, our group was divvied up into guys and gals. The first day, the gals went to the Sisters of Calcutta homeless shelter. We cleaned the rooms and halls. We did laundry. We cleaned the kitchen. We served food. It was draining, exhausting work, especially because you knew that the work would still be there the next week, and they wouldn't have all these extra hands. It was also emotionally sapping work. Well, it was for me. No matter how hard I worked that day, I knew that these people would still be sick and homeless the next day. We actually talked a lot about that at a couple of meditation and discussion sessions during the day, about how part of this sort of service was to give joyfully of yourself even though you could not fix the problem. I really struggled with this, and the folks running the show knew it, so I ended up doing a lot of "behind the scenes" stuff like laundry and dishes.
The next day of service, we switched with the boys and went to the seminary. The boys had been much more industrious than the seminarians had anticipated, though, so we didn't have a whole lot to do. A bunch of boy-crazy girls wandering around a seminary is not exactly a recipe for success. I think all the chaperones and the folks running the college were fairly frantic to keep us occupied. This may explain why we spent a lot of time hanging out on the college roof-top patio overlooking Rome. I suppose matters were not helped by the fact that our bus route every day took us by what we quickly dubbed "Make Out Park." I understand that Italians, like most Europeans, don't have all the societal hangups about sex that Americans do, and they are famed for their passion, but damn. Talk about PDA. Couples just sprawled all over each other on the grass. It was interesting to see who on the bus pressed their noses to the glass to get a better look, who pretended not to notice but had that shifty-eyed peripheral vision thing going on, and who was just completely oblivious.
I think I enjoyed our day trip to Assisi the best. The mother church of the Franciscan order was rather unique in structure and layout compared to all the other grand churches and basilicas and cathedrals that started to get that dime a dozen feel by the fifth one you saw. The grounds felt comfortable, designed for wandering and peaceful relfection and meditation. I probably wouldn't mind spending a longer period of time in Assisi; it was a nice contrast to the hustle and bustle of Romae. My happy memories of Assisi might have been influenced by the busload of young Italian airmen that we happened to park next to while they were in the process of loading up to leave. I'm a sucker for a man in uniform, and Italian men in uniform are a species all to themselves. The boys on our trip were a good fifty feet away before they realized that the female half of the group was nowhere to be found. By the time they came looking, the yummy bus had departed, leaving our guys to puzzle over where there was a preponderance of drool on one side of the bus.
We did manage to squeeze in a bus tour of Rome to do some of the standard sight-seeing apart from the Vatican. The Roman Forum, the catacombs, the Circus Maximus, the Arch of Constantine, and, of course, the Colosseum. The latter was the most interesting to me, particularly because it combined all the awesomeness of Ancient Rome with tons and tons of cute feral kitties. That really entertained me.
Driving around Rome was interesting. We approached the city from the bottom of a valley of yellowish. I learned all about the whole Seven Hills concept later in the trip, so it was very bizarre to approach a city that bubbled up out of the valley and over hilltops like that silver Alice Through the Looking Glass Matrix fluid. Driving in the city itself was a cardiac event. When we weren't staring at the impressive displays of Italian passion in the park, we had our faces palstered to the window so we could watch all the near misses with other cars. Six-lane street roads routinely became eight-laners, with someone bumping up on the sidewalk every now and then when necessary. In fact, we were supposed to go to mass at St. Peter's one day, but the way the cars had parked in and around our hotel literally penned the bus in. So we walked down the street to a church on the corner and suffered through a mass in Italian instead of Latin, which we would have had some chance at understanding seeing as how much of the mass is already in Latin.
It was an odd affair to attend JPII's weekly praying of the rosary with the youth in the area. Strange to be in what felt like an arena with a bunch of other teenagers hyped up as if Nirvana was about to take the stage only to see the Pope's hunched, white form ease out onto the stage and into a cozy chair. We must have prayed the rosary with him, or that must have been the intent, because looking back at it now, I just don't get the logic behind packing an event center so a bunch of kids can watch an old guy pray over some beads. The papal address and the papal audience, that I understand. St. Peter's square was packed to the brim for the former (and JPII was essentially nothing more than a white dot at a far away window, his voice booming over some loud speakers), and probably for the latter as well, but since we were "special guests" on pilgrimage, we had to get there early and sit in a specified area so the Pope could acknowledge us when we were announced. Ah, the joys of Catholic pomp and circumstance.
Call me a heretic, but I enjoyed the Ancient Roman ruins and Vatican architecture more than all the papal audiences and such. Even as important as the Catholic religion was to me then, I still appreciated its foundation and history and sense of the universal more than the leader and rituals. In fact, any future trips there would be focused more on an immersion in the ancient, both the Roman and Catholic aspects of the city. There's so much of that to explore and study.
Next Week: Speaking of trips I took with my Catholic youth group, I'll cover Fatima, 1994.