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Journey of Faith

Morse Bluff youth in Rome
The Morse Bluff group poses in the Roman Forum with the dome of
St. Peter's Basilica in the background.

Six Morse Bluff youth, pastor visit the heart of their religion in Rome

published 8/12/09

MORSE BLUFF – What began as a possible spring excursion to Worlds of Fun became a pilgrimage of faith half way around the world.

Six students, a priest and a seminarian spent 10 days in and around the Eternal City of Rome, Italy, on a religious tour conceived during a youth education class at St. George Catholic Church in Morse Bluff.

Paul Bauer said the trip has made his faith “stronger now than ever.”

Bauer was one of the six students who made the trip May 25 to June 5. He was accompanied by his younger brother Ethan, Luke Eckstein, Andrew Heller, Drew Hines and Michael Pabian. All of the students are members of St. George parish in Morse Bluff or Sacred Heart parish in Cedar Hill and graduated from North Bend Central in the past three years. Accompanying them on the trip was the Rev. Brian Kane, pastor in Morse Bluff and Cedar Hill, and Steve Mills, a seminarian studying to be a priest for the Diocese of Lincoln.

The group stayed in an apartment just a three-minute walk from St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican. While in Italy, the eight ventured out on day trips to Assisi, home of St. Francis and St. Claire; the Amalfi Coast, location of the tomb of the Apostle St. Andrew; and Nettuno, home of the Shrine to St. Maria Goretti, a 12-year-old Italian girl who accepted martyrdom instead of being forced to break her vow of chastity.

The group also visited the American World War II Cemetery in Nettuno, where more than 7,800 U.S. servicemen are buried. Most of the group’s time was spent visiting holy sites and churches in Rome.

“My favorite part was the many different types of churches,” Bauer said. “Every single church had something different from the next.”

In Rome, the group visited the Church of the Holy Stairs. The steps to the church were those that Jesus walked to be sentenced to death. The steps were brought to Rome when pilgrims were unable to go to the Holy Land during Muslim occupation. Today, visitors are invited to move up the stairs on their knees, pausing and praying on each step. For Pabian, this was a holy experience.

“The most memorable part of my trip were the stairs that Jesus actually walked on while being taken to Pontius Pilot,” Pabian said. “There were drops of His actual blood on the stairs, which was very moving as we knelt and prayed on each step.”

Pabian’s experience was similar to that of the other travelers.

“The trip made my faith much stronger,” he said. “A lot of the things that I used to do out of habit soon became meaningful and relevant.”

Other highlights included visiting the Catacombs, burial site for hundreds of saints and martyrs as well as thousands of other Christians; standing inside the Roman Coliseum, where gladiators fought and Christians were killed for sport in front of huge crowds. With the help of the Rev. Peter Mitchell, a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln who is working in Rome, the visitors re-enacted a portion of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in the Forum at the sites where the events and speeches took place. Eckstein portrayed Julius Caesar, and a group of curious spectators gathered to watch the performance by all the students.

The group traveled around Rome on foot, by subway and by bus to dozens of the 500-plus Catholic churches in the city, stopping to pray and learn about the historical significance of each one.

The eight visitors saw famous Caravaggio paintings, sculptures by Michelangelo and tombs of saints and popes. They enjoyed Italian cuisine, stopping for lunch at sidewalk cafés and sitting down for traditional late dinners at restaurants. One highlight was the Italian version of ice cream, called Gelato. One shop had more than 100 flavors of the dessert that usually has chunks of fruit or other flavorings, always topped with whipped cream.

“This treat was particularly good during some of the warm days walking around Rome,” Kane said.

The trip held special significance for Kane because the group was in Rome on the ninth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, May 27. The group celebrated Mass at the Church of the Holy Cross, at an altar in the crypt directly below the relics of the true Cross brought from Jerusalem.
Bauer said he will not forget this Mass or the church.

“My favorite part of the trip was the Church of the Holy Cross,” Bauer said. “I had an amazing connection to God in that church. Just seeing those pieces from the time of Jesus made me reconnect with God. For me, it didn’t change my mind of God, but it changed my soul for God.”

Much to the visitors’ delight, Pope Benedict XVI was in town while they were there. Over three days, they had a chance to see him four times at Vatican events, including a private Rosary in the Vatican Gardens for employees of the Vatican. Mitchell obtained special tickets for the group to participate. Pabian said he could not identify one “best part” of the trip, but he acknowledged that the Rosary with Pope Benedict was near the top of his list.

The group also got tickets for the Pentecost Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, which was celebrated by the Pope. To have a chance to get the best seats, the eight decided to get up early that Sunday to wait in line. When they arrived at 5:45 a.m. in St. Peter’s Square, they were the first in line. When the doors opened at 9 a.m., the line was the length of at least two football fields. Kane told the students that they no longer have an excuse for being late for Mass at home if they can get to church four hours early in Rome.

While waiting in line, the visitors had a clear view of the ancient Egyptian obelisk that stands in the center of St. Peter’s Square. More than 3,000 years old, the obelisk was brought to Rome by conquering armies and placed in the center of the circus where St. Peter was crucified 2,000 years ago, just yards from where St. Peter’s Basilica is today.

Once inside St. Peter’s, the largest church in the world, the group prayed in front of Michelangelo’s famous Pieta statue and stood on the marble slab on which Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
One of the highlights of the trip for Kane was being able to pray at the tomb of Pope John Paul II.

“Pope John Paul II was the pope of the youth,” Kane said. “Being able to take our group into the crypt and kneel and pray at his tomb was a special moment. One day, if he is canonized a saint, each of us can say we knelt and prayed at the tomb of Pope Saint John Paul the Great.”

After praying at Pope John Paul II’s tomb, Kane’s group began a tour of the Vatican museums, including the Sistine Chapel, where the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church gather to elect new popes. The travelers spent time studying the famous ceiling of the chapel, painted by Michelangelo. Depicted on the ceiling is the creation of Adam. They also studied the chapel’s back wall, featuring Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment.”

In the Vatican museum the group from Morse Bluff saw some of the most rare and famous art in the world, including Rafael’s “Transfiguration,” and “Virgin with Child” by 15th-century Dominican monk Fra Angelico. Each day, only 100 visitors are allowed to take short guided tours of the excavations below St. Peter’s Basilica, called the “Scavi.” Started secretly during World War II by three archaeologists who worked at night to avoid detection by the Nazi occupiers of Rome, the archaeologists discovered the cemetery remains over which the basilica was built, including the tomb and bones of St. Peter. This was a highlight for Mills, the seminarian.

“To go below the main church and under the high altar of St. Peter’s and stand directly in front of the place where St. Peter was buried 2,000 years ago was a moving spiritual experience for me,” Mills said.

The group traveled to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (of Rome), where St. Paul is buried below the main altar. Kane and the group celebrated Mass at an altar near the tomb. The Catholic Church celebrated a year dedicated to St. Paul in 2009 and encouraged pilgrims to visit his tomb.

For the Morse Bluff youths, the trip provided meaningful experiences.
“I thought it was awesome seeing Pope Benedict,” Pabian said. “Here he was, the closest man to God here on earth only feet away from us. We were very fortunate to get to see him as many times as we did.”
Bauer said he wants to make another trip to Rome someday, but this trip will always stand out because of the many encounters with the Pope.

“Seeing Pope Benedict made me realize that he is a person just like everyone else,” Bauer said. “What amazed me was the many different languages he knew, and it made me proud to see how many people had so much respect for him.”

Like the rest of the Morse Bluff contingent, Hines left Rome awestruck.

“St. Peter’s Basilica was the most amazing thing I have seen and probably will see in my life,” He said. “Seeing the actual nail that went through Jesus’ hand was a very moving experience.”

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