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Brandeis Catholic and Jewish students take on Rome

By Dora Chi

Section: News, Top Stories

March 14, 2014

On a Wednesday morning from a stage at the Vatican came an announcement welcoming a group of Brandeisians, prompting a frenzy of cheering and waving of blue and white scarves. Pope Francis held a service and delivered a sermon in Italian, after which he whizzed through the crowd in his white popemobile, blessing babies, religious articles and the ill. That’s when Elena Insley ’15 and Alex Thomson ’15 looked up, smiled, and snapped a “selfie” with the Pope.

This past February vacation marked the seventh annual church trip to Italy, during which 18 students—17 Catholic, 1 Jewish—flew to Rome to see the new Pope and explore Catholicism at the heart of its establishment.

“I call it Birthright Catholic,” said Father Walter Cuenin, who has served as Catholic Chaplain at Brandeis for eight years and is behind the organizing and fundraising for the trip. Cuenin himself studied in Rome for eight years before being ordained in the Basilica. He said the students were chosen on the basis of their involvement and interest.

Two weeks before Ash Wednesday, a Christian holiday commemorating the first day of Lent, Father Cuenin and the students stood among an international audience in St. Peter’s Square, awaiting Pope Francis’ appearance. Father Cuenin said that the new Pope, who replaced Pope Benedict XVI after he surprised the public by announcing his retirement in 2013, has generated a newfound enthusiasm for the church.

In a Feb. 23 interview with The Boston Globe, Father Cuenin, who has “adopted an accepting approach to divorced Catholics and gays,” expressed his awe over Pope Francis’ ability to electrify the church over his mantra of acceptance. “Who am I to judge?” the Pope famously asked in response to a question regarding gays. Pope Francis “is challenging the church to care for the weak and meek of the world,” he said.

While seeing the new Pope was a highlight, Insley also emphasized that the trip was a rare opportunity for the Catholic student body to celebrate their faith with a larger community. While a Pew Forum on Religion survey from 2007 reports Catholics represent 23.9 percent and Jews represent 1.7 percent of the U.S. population, the Catholic presence is small in comparison to the Brandeis campus. Thomson added that religion can be a sensitive subject on a campus that has a majority of Jewish students.

“I think that the topic of religion at Brandeis, for those who aren’t Jewish, can be alienating because of the large emphasis on Jewish tradition and culture. I think it’s important for members of the non-Jewish faith, such as myself, to learn about the many other faiths represented on campus, as they have a lot of good to teach us,” Thomson wrote in an email to The Hoot.

Father Cuenin believes in fostering this interfaith understanding. In 2012, he invited former Student Union President Herbie Rosen ’12, and this year, he approached Thomson about attending the trip to Rome; both are Jewish. While on the trip, Father Cuenin incorporated Jewish teachings into masses.

In addition to being part of the papal audience, they had mass in the crypts below St. Peter’s Square—where Thomson served as altar boy—and climbed to the top of the Vatican and saw panoramic views of Roman architecture. They trekked north of Rome to Assisi, the land of peace and home of St. Francis, and found themselves enveloped in forests of olive trees. They found common ground through celebrating their faith’s history, reciting the same prayers and singing the same songs as worshippers from various parts of the world.

“To be able to do that with others from around the world is really cool. It’s like finding a home in a bigger world,” said Insley, recalling how they encountered another visiting group reciting Hallelujahs and chimed in despite the difference in language.

They stepped through the rocky ruins of the Coliseum and the Sistine Chapel. For a day, they had the option of traveling to either Florence or Pompeii, where Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption left a grotesque, perfectly mummified collection of corpses and dusty artifacts. For Thomson, they made a stop at a synagogue in Rome and later explored ghettos from the Middle Ages. It was as if they had stepped into an art history textbook. When asked what challenges he faced on the trip, Thomson quipped, “Whether to eat more caramel gelato or tiramisu for dessert.”

At the end of the trip, Father Cuenin presented souvenirs—wooden crosses for the Catholic students, a miniature ceramic owl for Thomson—all blessed by the Pope.

“My favorite part is seeing students come together,” said Father Cuenin. “It was a time of bonding and friendship, and it strengthens the community.”

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