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St Mary's Catholic High School

St Mary's Pilgrimage to Rome - March 2024

 

In the week before Holy Week, a group of St Mary’s pupils, staff and Governors took part in the school’s first pilgrimage to Rome in its history. The pupils from Years 9 & 10 who went on the pilgrimage had been selected following an application process where each had to explain why they should be included, and how it would impact on them as a pupil at our school, and beyond. While the group was relatively small, it was in effect a pathfinder group in what is hoped will become a regular feature of our school’s wider curriculum.

Pilgrimage to Rome - March 2024

 Day 1

Following an early morning start in Croydon, the party flew from Gatwick Airport to Rome and then navigated Rome’s train and metro system to get to its accommodation for the visit. Once settled, there was no time to waste as the group headed out to the Vatican for a special behind the scenes tour, including a visit to St Peter’s Basilica, built over the site of St Peter’s tomb. The group was in awe of the sheer scale of St Peter’s, and its sumptuous religious decoration, including Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture.

Day 2

While the visit to Rome was primarily a pilgrimage, it was also an opportunity to visit many of the famous sites of city, including climbing the Spanish Steps, throwing coins over shoulders into Trevi Fountain, as well as seeing The Pantheon - a 2000-year-old Roman temple, and for almost as long, a Catholic church. Along the way, the group had the opportunity to visit several places of worship including the magnificent church of St Ignacius, where the pupils marvelled at the magnificent artwork on the ceiling.

Following a hearty lunch, the group embarked on a combined guided tour of both the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. No visitor to Rome can fail to be impressed with the sheer scale of classical architecture on display in the very heart of the capital. The group was fortunate that the guide expertly provided an engaging and thought-provoking tour of the Roman Forum, including pointing out the very site of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44BC. The Roman Forum, along with its temples and emperor’s palaces was the centre of public and political life in Rome. While visiting the Colosseum, the group were awe-struck with the scale of the building, which dominates the Roman skyline, but were also saddened at the loss of human and animal life in the building - it is believed that as many as 400,000 people, between gladiators, slaves, convicts, prisoners, and myriad other entertainers, perished in the Colosseum over the 350 or so years during which it was used for human blood sports and spectacles. It is estimated that 3,500 Christians were put to death in the Colosseum.

Day 3

The third day of the trip was in many ways the focal point of our pilgrimage. The group were privileged to be given prime seats at the weekly Papal Audience, just a short distance from Pope Francis as he addressed the faithful gathered in front of St Peter’s Basilica. Pope Francis, spoke of prudence being an important virtue that we all should aspire to - quoting St Thomas Aquinas’ interpretation of prudence as being “right thoughts in action” is very much what we aim to impress on all our pupils at St Mary’s - especially during the season of Lent, when we focus on supporting our poorest sisters and brothers around the world through our charitable actions.

Following the audience, we were invited to meet with the Secretary (Relations with States) to the Holy See's Secretariat of the State, His Excellency Archbishop Paul Gallagher STL JCD. Archbishop Paul, who is responsible for diplomatic relations between the Vatican and other countries around the world, is vastly experienced, having help the post of papal ambassador in several countries, including the Council of Europe, since 1984. The group were delighted that he was generous of his time with them in what must be for him a very busy schedule. Meeting in one of the audience rooms, Archbishop Paul outlined his work as well as giving the group a brief resume of his journey from a pupil at St Francis Xavier’s College, Liverpool to the present day. Members of the party were able to ask questions on a wide range of topics to which he gave full and frank answers. Following the meeting, Archbishop Paul arranged for one of his team to give us a private tour of the papal apartments, visiting areas never seen by the general public, including the magnificent Pauline Chapel, with its magnificent frescos by Michelangelo. The group was also privileged to be taken to a private veranda, overlooking St Peter’s Square, to see the vast panorama of Rome.

Following a fast-food lunch – the only non-Italian food eaten on the whole trip – the party headed to the Vatican Museum where they were treated to a guided tour of the vast treasures of the Papal State, ranging from Egyptian to modern art, with of course, the Sistine Chapel being the highlight of the visit.

After an already full day, the party headed to The Venerable English College for evening Mass, where the pupils and staff were warmly welcomed by the Fr Stephen Wang, Rector of the College. The Venerable English College is a seminary founded in 1579, as a place for preparing priests to serve on the "English Mission", but there has been an English presence there since 1362, when the site was acquired by a confraternity of Englishmen living at Rome.

Day 4

An unexpected treat before the party said goodbye to Rome was to be invited to meet with Mr Chris Trott, His Majesty’s Ambassador to the Holy See. The Ambassador had seen one of our tweets the previous day on X (Twitter) and, recognising that St Mary’s was a Croydon school, invited the group to meet him with in the British Embassy. Mr Trott explained that he is from Croydon, attended Whitgift School, and is a season ticket holder at Crystal Palace – though only manages to get to a handful of games each season.

It was impressive listening to the ambassador outline his role, and especially the important relationship that has developed between the UK and the Vatican on a number of key issues related to Catholic Social Teaching, especially those which are close to the heart of Pope Francis - dealing with climate change and supporting the poorest and most vulnerable communities around the world. While not a Catholic, the Ambassador was conversant with Pope Francis’ important encyclicals, ‘Laudato Si’ and ‘Fratelli Tutti’. The pupils enjoyed quizzing the Ambassador on his role as well as his journey to become a diplomat across a wide range of countries and continents - including the challenges and opportunities that this poses both professionally and personally.

Following a final pizza lunch, sat at a pavement café close to the Vatican, the party left the warm Roman sunshine that had shone throughout pilgrimage and headed back to Croydon - and to school the next day. Each member of the pilgrimage would return home with wonderful memories of the ‘Eternal City’, not only from following the traditional tourist routes, but by having special privileges granted to very few - visiting places not available to others, and meeting individuals who hold positions of great service and influence – something that the pupils felt that they should aspire to themselves. Most importantly, the experience had a focus on Faith. Each member of the party was a pilgrim to one of the world’s great sites of pilgrimage - a journey of personal development, and an opportunity to be with and support others as they explored new and varied environments. Each pilgrim had opportunities to consider, question, reflect and pray, and then return to St Mary’s a richer and wiser person – full of aspiration and hope for the future.

Thank you to all who took part in the pilgrimage: to the staff who led and cared for the pupils, and especially Mr Shields and Ms Wheeler for the hours of preparation and organisation that went into making the trip a great success; to the Governors who accompanied the party, walking every step alongside pupils and staff, offering support, friendship and wise counsel; and most importantly to the pupils who were, as always, the greatest ambassadors of our school community – their interest, curiosity and enthusiasm for engaging with the experience from beginning to end made the pilgrimage worthwhile.

Special thanks to Archbishop Gallagher and his team, and to Mr Chris Trott for making our trip so memorable. In addition, the party owes particular thanks to Mrs Slonecki, who offers regular advisory support to our school, for her part in the preparation of the pilgrimage, as well as ensuring that the party had the unrivalled experiences described above. It was a pleasure to meet up with her in Rome on a number of occasions throughout the pilgrimage.