Pilgrimage to Rome Helps Catholic Scholars Grow in Faith

Pilgrimage to Rome Helps Catholic Scholars Grow in Faith
February 27, 2024

A recent pilgrimage to the seat of the Roman Catholic faith brought members of St. John’s University’s Catholic Scholars program closer to God and each other. 

Six Catholic Scholars—four from the Queens, NY, campus and two from the Staten Island, NY, campus—visited Rome, Italy, in January, eager to experience the city’s religious and historical sites and enhance their spiritual commitment. Led by Elvira Garcia ’20Ed, Residence Minister for Leadership, Social Justice, and Community Development, the group toured Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica, the early Christian catacombs, and enjoyed an audience with Pope Francis.

The students said it was a powerful experience that could only have happened in the Eternal City. 

“Praying there, I felt all the different gifts of the Church,” said Nicholas Salerno, who is in his third year of a combined, five-year, dual-degree program in History. “I found myself reflecting that Christ suffered so much and that He is with us in whatever suffering we encounter.” 

Catholic Scholars is a multidisciplinary program at St. John’s designed to cultivate new generations of Catholic leaders. Students receive a $5,000 scholarship for each of their four years of study and join faculty and campus ministers in monthly lectures, retreats, and prayer experiences that integrate faith and service.

The trip to Rome is voluntary, but its combined spiritual, historical, and cultural dimensions make it popular among students in the program. The St. John’s contingent spent a week in Rome, returning two days ahead of the start of spring classes.

The students brought prayers and special intentions with them on the pilgrimage. “We all prayed together while we were in St. Peter’s Basilica,” Ms. Garcia said. “We were all excited to be there.”

The students said the shared pilgrimage will bond them to each other throughout their time at the University and beyond.

“Getting to experience Rome with my fellow Catholic Scholars didn’t just mean seeing the sites and enjoying the sounds with them,” said Vincent Marino, a junior pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting at the Staten Island campus. “It also meant sharing meals and bonding together. Growing this community was special, and visiting Rome brought memories that will last a lifetime.”

Among the trip’s highlights was a climb to the top of the Holy Stairs, located in the Pontifical Sanctuary. Tradition holds the stairs are the very ones ascended by Jesus during his trial before Pontius Pilate and were brought to Rome by St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the Roman empire in the fourth century.      

Pilgrims climb the 28 steps on their knees to imitate Jesus’ suffering.   

“I grew so much spiritually,” said Philip Marbid, who is in his second year of the six-year Doctor of Pharmacy program. “Physically, the climb on your knees was as bad as I expected, but it was rewarding. Christ suffered for us; climbing the stairs helped me realize the magnitude of that.”

The group stayed at St. John’s Rome campus, located near the Vatican and many of the city’s famous historical sites, including the 2,000-year-old Colosseum. The busy days were filled with activities, including daily Mass. Later in the week, the students shared an audience with the Pope with several hundred people. Some in the St. John’s group stood close enough to the pontiff to hear him speak.

“Our tour guide was saying it might not work out that we are close to the Pope,” said Ms. Garcia, a Catholic Scholar while an undergraduate at St. John’s. “But the fact that it did was really beautiful.”

When not touring historical or religious sites, the St. John’s group visited some of Rome’s trendiest neighborhoods, including Trastevere, where they went on a food tour to the delight of all. “It was a chance to see how and what the Roman people eat and then compare it to food in New York,” Nicholas said. “It was very educational.”