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Students create lasting memories whilst on pilgrimage in the eternal city

Teacher in the making Greg Harrison reflects on a recent summer university trip to some of Rome’s most sacred sites.

This summer, 16 lucky students and staff from the School of Education at Glasgow University travelled on a five-day pilgrimage to the ‘Eternal City.’ Rome is known for its extensive collection of ancient sites, and for playing a starring role in historical events at the very centre of our Faith.

Travelling by coach to our residence, we were treated to a panoramic tour, seeing a glimpse of many of the wonders we would later see up close. Travelling with our lecturer Fr Stephen Reilly, who speaks fluent Italian and has a good knowledge of Rome’s history and culture, really added to our enjoyment.

Passing the Tiber River in the sizzling summer heat, we saw the famous dome of St Peter’s which was within a few minutes’ walk of where we would be staying, praying, and singing over the next week.

After settling in, we embarked on our first sighting of St Peter’s Square, and celebrated Mass in the beautiful Vatican Parish Church of St Anna. From the very offset the choice of hymns instantly seemed to set the scene and to form a bond between us, and when sung, allowed us to speak directly in joy and prayer.


Overall, the hymns sung enthusiastically in English seemed to make us more noticeable to passing locals and visitors alike, and united us as a group. That evening, following one of many great feasts of food and wine, we strolled into St Peter’s Square to see the basilica magnificently lit up. We were struck by how much more beautiful the fountains look when illuminated at night, and the way in which the shadows merge under Bernini’s Colonnade.

After an early breakfast we entered the basilica, amazed at the sheer height and craftsmanship of the interior. We were fortunate enough to be able to celebrate Mass in the basilica’s crypt, in the Irish Chapel which is close to St Peter’s Tomb and directly opposite the Monument to the Royal Stuarts. It was a privilege to celebrate Mass in the simple and austere chapel that harmonises with the style of the grottoes.

On the back wall, under an arch, is the mosaic, in sea-green tones, representing St Columbanus, and its motto—Peregrination Pro Christo (walking/on pilgrimage with Christ)—underlined the purpose of our visit. We were blessed to have some beautiful voices in the group, and the singing echoing around the grotto complimented the setting, preparing us for the visit to the famous dome of St Peter’s. On this beautiful, clear day we could see the vastness of the square with the statues of Jesus and the Apostles overlooking the city.

That afternoon we departed the residence to explore the historic centre of Rome. From the Capitoline hill, we looked down on the Roman Forum. Filled with grandiose temples, once bustling marketplaces and imposing civic buildings, the Forum was once the beating heart of ancient Rome.

Sacred pit-stops

Later, we later walked around the marvellous Colosseum where it soon became clear I was probably the only one who had not seen Ridley Scott’s epic movie Gladiator. I since have! We also enjoyed a stroll, stopping at the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and perhaps one of my favourite stops—Giolitti’s, reportedly the oldest ice cream parlour in Rome, founded in 1890.

On day three we set off early for the papal weekly audience. Arriving early to be greeted by a carnival atmosphere, we were positioned with a great view and eagerly awaited his Holiness Pope Francis.

It was terrific to see the universal reach of the Church and the thousands of people and many nationalities united as one. Prior to the Pope’s arrival, the Vatican spokesperson announced the groups who were making the visit and, as you would expect, the University of Glasgow got the biggest cheer.

As the Pope arrived we were within yards of him and it was great seeing him looking so healthy and happy. Reflecting on his recent trip to Romania, Pope Francis restated the motto of the trip—‘walking together’—showing the importance for Christians and all citizens of working in fraternity and harmony with one another.

Grand tour

After the audience we walked the short distance to the Dutch National Church where we celebrated Mass and reflected upon the trip so far. We were then treated to a tour of the Vatican museums, including the Sistine Chapel.

That evening was wonderful. We set off on foot to the whimsical, ivy-draped neighbourhood of Trastevere, conveniently located just a quick hop over the river from the chaos of Rome’s city centre. The fragrant flowers and greenery along the narrow streets lined with medieval houses led us to the beautiful Basilica di Santa Maria where we prayed and later enjoyed another magnificent meal and celebration.

On our last full day, we packed in a walking tour to the Basilica of Santa Maria and a visit to the ancient Christian burial grounds of the Catacombs of San Sebastian, including a beautiful Mass in the church.

Here we reflected and prayed for the people who had got us here and for family members. Late in the afternoon, we arranged to meet for our final meal together.

Strengthening Faith

After enjoying yet another fantastic feast we talked, laughed and gathered as a group to thank Fr Reilly for his commitment and dedication in helping make the trip so memorable. Fittingly, we went back to St Peter’s Square to give thanks and pray in the most appropriate place, bursting into Here I am Lord and Our God Reigns and enjoying each other’s company for the last night at the place where it all began.

Being with such a great group of students and staff really made the pilgrimage. It was great seeing so many people return stronger in Faith and with memories and friendships that will last a lifetime. On behalf of the group, we owe a great debt of gratitude and thanks to lecturers Fr Reilly, Claire Fodey and Kathleen Kerrigan for helping organise and deliver such a successful and special experience.

Greg Harrison is a first year (MEduc1) Primary Education student at the University of Glasgow.

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