Reflections on Rome's Study Abroad Program


The sun was setting over the ruins on Palatine Hill when I rst noticed the signs. They were strung on fences around the colossal basin of the Circus Maxi- mus: “Charismatic Renewal– Featuring Pope Francis.”
I was about three weeks into my five week program studying with Trinity in Rome, and I was in the height of a tourist frenzy. I wanted to leave the city after having seen every ancient monument, every church, and every piece of art within walking distance. I felt as though I was receiving an incredible windfall of extra credit.
I’m not very religious, and in Rome I experienced some low-level of anxiety about visiting holy sites. If I felt out of place taking photos in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, I would surely feel invasive at a gathering of a million of the world’s Catholics. But the Pope was not to be missed, so I came back the next day to see His Holiness give a speech. The following day at the Circus, it was unclear exactly when the Pope would be coming to the stage at the northwest end. In the meantime, the stage was covered with religious dignitaries speaking about the traditions of Pen- tecost in Italian, Spanish, and sometimes even English with a thick Virginia accent. Half of the Circus was filled with legions of the faithful, all wearing red ball caps. It seemed as though a quarter of the people were nuns or monks.
The fenced-in area was only accessible to people who had paid in advance for tickets. I would have to stand in the dusty expanse outside of the reserved section with hundreds of other unfortunates. I had been wandering the Circus for over an hour when I sat down on the thorny slopes that border the basin. The Pope was now over an hour late, and there was a palpable sense of discomfort and impatience, even among nuns and the professionally religious. As the sun mounted higher in the sky and the temperature climbed, a young nun sitting to my left began to pass the time by tossing pebbles into the half-closed umbrella of one of her sisters. It took a few minutes before she noticed pebbles accumulating in the folds of her parasol, but by that time every member of the surrounding crowd was in on the game.
By the time the Pope finally arrived, I was sunburned and dead tired. When I saw him on stage, his white gowns apping around his head, I was struck by how small he appeared. He looked like a tiny white dot beyond a sea of waving ags and red hats. When he arrived on stage, the Pope sat down and stayed seated for at least another hour. I expected fanfare, maybe even trumpets for the man chosen to be the mouthpiece of God– but there he sat, min- ute after minute, fully expecting the attention of the crowd to stay fixed on the many speakers who took the podium before him. By the time the Pope stood to make his speech, the mood on the outskirts of the Circus was downright resentful. However, all of the tension between his Holiness and the assembled crowds melted when the speech began. Speaking in slow, enthusiastic Italian, Pope Francis discussed the needed mutual respect and community across religious and cultural lines.
The hordes of ticketless people were pressing them- selves against the fences, taking in every word. As the applause swelled and singing broke out among the crowds, I was struck most by the long curve of history. The center of Christendom had temporarily assembled itself in a vast Roman mon- ument to Christian persecu- tion. Where Christians had once been killed en masse, now Hallelujahs echoed. I still felt like an outsider snapping pictures at some- thing I had no right to see, but as I left the ancient are- na that day, I felt privileged to have read a new chapter in the ancient history of one of the world’s religions.

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