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When in Rome: Brandeis Catholics explore the roots of their faith in the Eternal City

By chriscal

Section: Features

February 26, 2010

The Last Supper

A group of 23 people sat and dined at a long, winding table. The group was mixed in age, race and personality, but they all shared one thing in common—their strong faith.  As this group drank wine and broke bread together, they reveled in the past six days they’d all shared. Near the center of the group was the thread that held it together—the Rev. Walter Cuenin.

As the night progressed, impromptu karaoke sessions emerged, and stomachs started to ache—not from eating too much food, but rather from laughing.

It was a scene reminiscent of a famous religious one—the Last Supper, and, in a way, it was our last supper—together in Rome, that is. And in a sense we were a bit sad because our magical week in Rome was coming to an end. But like the historical last supper, we were also filled with hope.

This scene took place during February break when a group of Brandeis students from the Catholic Students Organization traveled to Rome, Italy with Cuenin. Partially funded by outside donors in the Catholic community, the trip was an opportunity for us all to visit the roots of our religious faith, drink in the Italian culture and forge bonds with our fellow classmates and churchgoers.

I was one of those students. I’d first heard about the trip two years ago when I wrote an article for The Hoot detailing students’ experiences in Rome. This time around, I write about my own experiences in the Eternal City on  a life-changing trip that opened my eyes to a whole new way of living and of viewing my own faith.

Rome if you want to

Thursday Feb. 11, we embarked on our journey together. Making up the group from Brandeis were 16 undergraduates of mixed class years and Cuenin. Accompanying us were a few regulars of the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass on campus—Steven and Vivian Holland and the McGovern family: Debbie and Tim and their sons Ivan and Jack. Their presence further enriched our experience and provided much entertainment.

We arrived in Rome Friday afternoon and after getting settled, we headed out later in the day for dinner and drinks. At dinner, we were serenaded by the melodic sounds of Italian musicians and the laughter reverberating around the walls of the cave-like restaurant we were eating in.

Staying just a quick walk away from Vatican City, we were situated right in the heart of our religious faith. Though 1.1 billion people in the world consider themselves Catholic, the  Catholic community on campus is relatively small in size and generally underrepresented in most conversations.

Before leaving for Rome, the trip naturally came up in many of my conversations, and when it did, many people actually asked me if there were really Catholics at Brandeis. Yet, while we’re a small community on campus, we’re no less of a meaningful or faithful community.

Before coming to Brandeis, I attended Catholic school for eight years, so you could say that coming to Brandeis was a bit of a culture shock. And although I happily embraced the chance to be exposed to different faiths, it was nice to spend this week with other people who understood my faith completely.  In the midst of conversation about how beautiful Rome is and what a great time we were having, it felt quite normal to discuss our religious histories and try to understand each other in a way you just can’t do in passing at Mass each week.

Being with fellow Catholics also meant that you understood the effect a beautiful church or a religious painting might induce in your fellow travelers. After all, there’s just something about standing in St. Peter’s Square that makes you feel so small. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re merely a little blurb standing in the midst of such beauty and grandeur. Or maybe it’s all the history inlaid in this breathtaking fortress. Whatever it is, we all experienced it together.

It’s actually funny how being in Rome affects your religious sentiments. For example, when I was in Catholic school, I was required to go to church with school and attend theology classes. Back then, it wasn’t a matter of choice, but rather a matter of obligation. But now that I’m in college, I’m free to make my own religious decisions and going to church felt far from being an obligation on this trip; it felt right.

A few years ago I would never have gone to confession voluntarily because I saw it as an obligation, something annoying that my teachers made me do, like homework. But while exploring St. Peter’s Basilica with a few friends last week, we were all overcome by the desire to visit the confessional and confess our sins. Since it was my choice this time around, it felt quite different, more meaningful in a way. It was a recognition that I’m an imperfect person and admitting that is ok.

In addition to the powerful religious experiences we all shared, we became oriented to the cultural and historical wonder that is Rome, taking in all of the famous sites a tourist to Rome must see. Our week was perfectly divided between organized group activities and free time, during which we went off to explore Rome on our own. During this time, we roamed around with old and new friends, getting to know each other even better.

For a week we lived in a city where a day without gelato—or gelats, as we fondly deemed it— is hardly a day at all ; where meals last into the two hour range; and where the locals put wine in everything—including cheese plates and certain flavors of gelato.  After all, only in a place like Rome can you sit outside in the middle of February and sip on wine or savor a cone of creamy gelato; are you greeted with “Ciao bella,” are you encouraged to linger at your restaurant table for hours on end; can you find a gelato place that’s open until 2 a.m.; and only in a place like Rome are you not surprised to see a group of nuns walking down the street.

Over the course of the week, we all adopted certain Italian habits and saw just how beautiful Rome is.

Carpe Diem: Brandeis students seize the day

When you return from a vacation, you’re inevitably bombarded with the obligatory “How was it? What did you do?” Where to begin?

We saw famous sites such as the Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum and the Roman Forum, the Pantheon and the Vatican. We celebrated Mass in the crypts of St. Peter’s basilica and visited breathtaking religious sites. We sat in outside bars and cafes, our chilled bodies warmed by outside heaters and rising flames. We zigzagged in and out of the crazy Italian traffic. We did more than I can mention in this article.

While most Brandeis students likely slept in until the lazy early afternoon hours, we were up bright and early with the Roman sun. Under Cuenin’s expert guide, we navigated the bumpy cobblestone roads that are all said to lead to Rome. Having lived in Rome while studying to become a priest, Cuenin was the perfect tour guide and a wonderful resource for us all. He chose the menus for many of our dinners—most of which lasted into the two hour range; he brought us to such acclaimed sites as the Vatican and the Pantheon; he presided over Mass for us in beautiful and sacred places; and, most of all, he served as a fun fellow traveler.

We visited the Eternal City at an opportune time. It was the season of Carnevale and, as such, bits of confetti were to be seen all over the ground, sparkling masks filled the racks of souvenir shops and festivities abounded all over the city. And, as any Catholic knows, with Mardi Gras comes Ash Wednesday, bringing with it the season of Lent.

On Ash Wednesday, one of the more commonly known holy days in the Catholic liturgical year, we were treated to an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. Sitting in a room with 7,000 other faithful, we listened and waited for our school’s name to be announced so we could cheer and represent Brandeis. Although the surreal nature of this audience might have prevented some of us from realizing this at that time, we got closer to the Holy Father than many people ever dream.

Knowing that the Pope would bless any religious items we brought into the audience, we all came prepared, carrying in rosary beads and crosses, religious medals and holy water. As we sat waiting for the Pope to enter the room, we all became anxious, impatient for the audience to begin. When he entered the room, it was like no other moment any of us had experienced. It was surreal and powerful all at once, and I know that I could hardly believe I was in the presence of the actual Pope.

As each group in attendance was announced, they made their presence known by making as much noise as possible. Several of the groups being called broke out into song, but one group in particular stands out in my mind. There was one group that started to sing as their name was announced and at that moment, I truly felt it. There were thousands of people in that room, all hailing from different countries, different backgrounds and different degrees of religious faith. But in spite of language barriers, we all had one thing in common—we believed in something powerful. And we believed we were in the presence of something so much bigger than ourselves.

Going into this trip, I knew I would see amazing cultural and historical sites and I knew I would have the chance to explore the meaning of my faith. But I didn’t completely expect that I would come out of it with a stronger sense of faith and appreciation for my religion. But I did, and for that I’m grateful.

All roads lead to…Florence and Assisi?

Six days is a whirlwind to see any city as famous as Rome, but many of us managed to also take in two other famous Italian cities: Assisi and Florence. Monday, we all took a train to Assisi, the town of St. Francis, and had Mass; took in the beautiful countryside views; ate a delicious lunch; and roamed around the quaint little shops.

Tuesday we had a free day, to be spent however we wanted. One of the options was to take a high speed train to Florence or Pompeii, and many of us opted for the former. In spite of the on and off rain that day, Florence was breathtaking and had something for everyone. For those like yours truly, Florence, with its never ending shops and flea markets, was a shopper’s paradise. We winded our way through the endless flea markets, haggling along the way with the local vendors. We also took in Michelangelo’s David statue, marveling at its grandeur.

When in Rome…

Besides the cultural and religious experiences we all shared, we gained something else to take home: new friendships.  Before this week in Rome, many of us didn’t know everyone else on the trip. Maybe we were friends with a few people or recognized a few other faces from passing by them in the Communion line at Sunday Mass. But this week strengthened those bonds for all of us. For me, one of the best parts of this trip was meeting new friends, and that’s better than any souvenir or picture I could take home with me.

Two years ago, I wrote an article for the Hoot about a trip to Rome. I spoke to the students who went on the trip; I heard their amazing stories; and I tried my best to translate their experience into my own words, only able to imagine the beautiful sights they had seen. Now instead of imagining, I know because I’ve seen it all for myself. Now I can truthfully say: I came, I saw, I conquered.

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