Here’s the link to Jan Term 182: W
alking the in the Footsteps of the Early Christians

Prof. David Gentry-Akin explains the origins and the focus of our Rome Travel course.

From time to time, I have been asked how the idea for this January Term course, Walking in the Footsteps of the Early Christians: A Pilgrimage to Rome was conceived.  I have long been concerned with how to help young people connect with the beauty, wisdom, and vitality of the Catholic faith amidst all of the distortion, and sometimes open hostility, toward the Catholic faith that can be encountered in the media and in academe

Back the summer of 2005, the late Monika Hellwig, an incredible theologian and a great gift to the Church, gave a week-long seminar at Saint Mary’s College.  She was, a the time, the president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.  During our time together, she told me about a new program that she had launched in collaboration with Professor Donna Orsuto, a professor of theology at both the Gregorian University and the Angelicum, and the director of the Lay Centre Foyer Unitas, in Rome.  Entitled simply the “Rome Seminar”, the purpose of the week-long program was to give “trustees, administrators and faculty leaders of ACCU institutions a first-hand opportunity to explore the intellectual and spiritual legacy of the Catholic Church in order to strengthen and promote the mission of Catholic higher education in the United States”.  Monika encouraged me to make the week, but it was too late, that year, for me to carve out the time and make the arrangements to attend.

Sadly, Monika died quite unexpectedly on September 30, 2005.  Inspired by her own faith in Catholic higher education and in the role that theology should play in it, I was determined to make the Rome Seminar the following summer.  I asked Brother Donald Mansir, FSC, professor of integral studies at Saint Mary’s and the then-chair of the Cummins Institute for Catholic Thought, to make it with me.  And so the two of us from Saint Mary’s journeyed to Rome for the seminar in the Summer of 2006.

Needless to say, it was an incredible experience, and one I would recommend to anyone involved in Catholic higher education.  Coming to understand Catholicism at its Roman center is incredibly helpful gaining a deeper grasp of the rich history of the Church and of the dual challenges presented in the Church’s claim to be both one and catholic, or universal.  At times, we know, the search for oneness has led to a deadening uniformity. Imposed from the top down.  In our day, however, the danger of a diversity spinning out of control and threatening the unity of the Church is at least as great.  Understanding the historical evolution of Roman Catholicism goes a long way toward better appreciating the role that Rome—the Holy Father and the Roman Curia—must play in fostering both a healthy unity and a legitimate diversity in the Church today.

While in Rome, Brother Donald and I had the opportunity to interact closely with both Professor Orsuto and her colleague Robert White, a doctoral student in Patristic Theology at the Gregorian University and the Assistant Director of the Lay Centre.  In our conversations in Rome and subsequently, we began to think about how we could organize an experience similar to the “Rome Seminar” but oriented toward the developmental and spiritual needs of college-aged young adults.  And, thus, Walking in the Footsteps of the Early Christians: A Pilgrimage to Rome, was born.  I brought the first class to Rome in January of 2008, and the class has been offered every January since then.

There is simply nothing like this kind of an experience for helping students to connect with the essence of the Catholic faith.  Reading books, having discussions, celebrating liturgy, and engaging in ministry back home all have enormous value, but nothing can help a student to really grasp the spiritual power, the human diversity, or the global reach of Catholicism as a visit to Rome can do.  In this course, we visit and pray at the tombs of Peter and Paul, we visit the ancient basilicas of Clement and Agnes, we encounter the Holy Father at a Wednesday audience and at Vespers for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we journey to Subiaco—the land of Benedict and Scholastica—and Assisi—the land of Francis and Clare, we meet with young American seminarians who have discerned a call to the priesthood and who have “left all” in order to follow Christ, and we learn about the Church’s efforts to foster and promote justice and peace in places as near as our own country, and as far away as Southern Sudan.  One of our former students, John Dixon, who made the pilgrimage in January of 2009, described the experience in this way:

What the [pilgrimage to Rome] has meant to me is this amazing and surprising sense of pure, almost transcendent unity that affected us all when we saw the Holy Father.  When we went to the Papal Audience Hall, we encountered all of these people from all over the world acknowledging the pope and the unity that he represents, but doing that in their own unique way, according to their own diverse cultures.  I was moved by the way that the Holy Father—obviously quite an intelligent and sophisticated man—acknowledged each of the groups of pilgrims with a simplicity and a joy that seemed to border on the childlike.  That all of these people—in spite of the strife and conflict that humans continually experience with one another—could converge on this holy place and feel totally at peace with each other, even for a few moments, is utterly astonishing to me.  All of us in our group experienced this incredibly hopeful feeling from this event.  As a result, all of us began to develop a very strong bond with one other; eventually everyone knew everyone, no one wanted to leave anyone behind, and we began to really care about each other.  That is really what the trip to Rome has meant to me: an amazing unity existing in the midst of all of our differences and distinctions.  I think that perhaps what I experienced is a pure gift of grace.[1]

[1] In an email from Saint Mary’s student John Dixon dated February 2, 2009 and quoted with his permission.


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