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Brandeis students do as the Romans do

By chriscal

Section: Features

March 14, 2008

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As 12 students and their tour guide climbed up the 320 steps to the copula of the crypts of St. Peter’s and celebrated mass in one of the small chapels, the blending of several different languages filled the walls, reverberating all around, and hitting their ears. No, this isn’t some creative writing story, and it’s not a show on the Travel channel. This was how 12 Brandeis students and their tour guide, Brandeis University chaplain Father Walter Cuenin spent their February break. And the above experience was just one of the amazing stories the voyagers have to share.

The trip was hosted by Brandeis’ Catholic Students Organization, CSO. Students had only to javascript:void(0)apply through email to be considered to take part in the trip. Comprising the group were 12 students of mixed grade levels, and Father Cuenin, “Jesus and the 12 apostles,” as Father Cuenin joked one of his friends deemed them. Students were chosen for the trip based partially on a first come first serve basis in responding via email, and also according to Father Cuenin’s hope to keep the group balanced with representatives from each grade level.

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In his third year as the Catholic chaplain at Brandeis, this was Father Cuenin’s first time taking a group from Brandeis to Rome. “I’ve taken a lot of youth groups to Rome over my career, but this was particularly nice because it’s [a] small enough [group] that you can get to know each other.”

Among the planned events were a mass in the crypts of St. Peters Basilica, trips to Assisi, the Forum, and the Coliseum, and an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. How’s that for an itinerary? The trip was divided into planned events such as sightseeing, and also free time during which students could decide what they would like to do. As part of their free time, one day 10 of the students embarked on a spur of the moment trip to Florence. “Everyone got to see what they wanted to see,” Stephanie Sapowicz ’10 described.

Father Cuenin studied for 7 years in Rome and received his doctorate in sacred theology. As a student who was ordained a priest in St. Peters, celebrating mass with the students there held special significance for Father Cuenin. Father Cuenin studied for 7 years in Rome and received his doctorate in sacred theology.

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Every Wednesday, the Pope hosts a planned audience with different school groups and parishes for which tickets are reserved in advance. The groups in attendance are announced in 5 different languages, “so there was a lot of waiting for your language,” Sapowicz said. To represent the group and make their presence known, Sapowicz had whistles in her bag and said “we were really loud.”

And of course, when in Rome, do like the Romans, so let there be no doubts that this tour group was certainly well-fed. “Some nights we just spent 4 hours at dinner,” Sapowicz said.

Sapowicz’s friend, who converted to Catholicism after a trip to Rome, encouraged her to go on the trip. Once she arrived, Sapowicz “wanted to see everything humanly possible,” and mapped out possible sites to visit with her fellow travelers.

Sapowicz feels that “the Catholic community [at Brandeis] is so small and it’s hard to find other people to connect with in that way.” Because of this, the trip helped students to connect more with each other through commonalities such as faith. “I really wanted to go because I thought it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was a chance to go to Italy but also a chance to get to know more people from the Catholic community that I would never really know any other way,” Rachael Cotter ‘10 said in an email to the Hoot.

Forging friendships was “one of the great results of the trip,” Cotter explained. “I didn’t really expect that to happen to the degree it did. It was really awesome.” Cotter’s fellow travelers echoed her sentiments. “It was just great to meet the other Catholic students who I see in church but you don’t really get to know them as well as I got to on the trip,” Sean Fullerton ’10 said. Sapowicz agreed. “I’m a lot closer with a lot of the kids from church now, and I feel like I can go to them [to] talk about stuff now. So it was nice to go to Rome and see Rome, but it was also nice to just bond with other Catholics for 7 days.”

Carolyn Burns, ‘10 an art major, said “a lot of the art we saw I’d studied, so it was really cool to kind of see it for real.” Fullerton echoed Burns, saying “there were so many churches and so much artwork that you sort of go into overload after a while.”

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Due to his proficiency in fluent Italian, Father Cuenin was able to guide the students around more effectively. The students were very grateful to have such a proficient tour guide. “It was really cool to be there with somebody who knew his way around,” Burns said. “It definitely made a difference to travel with [Father Cuenin],” she added. Students were impressed by Father Cuenin’s ability to point out interesting sights or recommend good restaurants.

“I think that a trip to Rome, for Catholics especially, helps you to deepen your faith because you see the historical roots of our faith, much the same as going to Jerusalem I think does for both Christians and Jews.” Father Cuenin also believes such a trip “helps to be connected to the wider church.”

“I enjoyed getting to know the students myself,” he added. “ In the chapel I’m sort of the official figure on campus, but when you’re away for a week with a group of students for a week you can know them differently, whether it’s sitting in a café at night having an ice cream or a glass of wine.”

Being in Rome also helped students to connect to their religion. “The trip itself did help

me to strengthen my faith and to learn more about it. It was awesome to see so many

places that are important to the history and founding of the religion,” Cotter said.

And of course, the sheer beauty of Rome was well-noted in recounts of the trip. “A really unexpected part was when we flew in from Amsterdam and we ended up flying right over the Alps and you could see the mountains stretch for miles,” Fullerton described. “You couldn’t see the end of them [and] that was really cool and not what I was expecting”

“It was just a truly amazing experience. I am really grateful to Father Cuenin for choosing me to go and also for trusting us. He really just let us discover Rome on our own. It is something I wish I could do again,” Cotter said.

“The trip couldn’t have been much better frankly for me, and I would definitely encourage other students to go next year,” Fullerton said.

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