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A Pilgrimage to the Saints

Over Christmas break 2014/15, nearly 40 Summer Program instructors and volunteers embarked on a 12 day pilgrimage to the saints of Italy with Fr. Ray.  The experience is well summed up in an article written for the Catholic Standard by Lizzie and Sarah Schachterle.  Here it is:  

            "The morning following Christmas Day, a group of forty youth that work at St. John’s Summer Program in Hollywood, Maryland, departed for Milan, where they began a twelve-day pilgrimage. The itinerary was focused around many holy sites of Italy and was made with the intention to venerate the resting places of about twenty-eight saints. The pilgrims, aged 15-24, were accompanied by Father Raymond Schmidt, pastor of St. John’s parish; seminarian David Booz; Rich Olon, youth minister and St. John’s Summer Program director; and two religious sisters belonging to the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara.

            One of the first sites visited was the titular church of Cardinal Wuerl, St. Peter in Chains, located in Rome. This visit provided the pilgrims with a little taste of home as they prayed for Cardinal Wuerl and the Archdiocese of Washington in front of the chains that had previously imprisoned St. Peter in Jerusalem and Rome. Other holy sites that reminded the pilgrims of their home parishes were the tomb of St. Aloysius Gonzaga visited in Rome, the Cave of St. Michael the Archangel in Monte Sant’Angelo, and the Holy Face Sanctuary in Manoppello. The time spent at these sites reminded pilgrims that the journey was not made solely for themselves, but also for the continued spiritual benefit of their families and communities upon their return. Parents and other family members were able to join the pilgrimage online through a blog SJSPItaly.blogspot.com, with photos uploaded nightly.

When asked about their favorite site, the pilgrims frequently mention the experience they shared at the Sancta Scala, or Holy Staircase. The marble stairs, covered with protective wood, are meant to be climbed on the knees as they are the stairs that Christ Jesus descended after he was sentenced to His Passion. Pilgrim Stephanie Dameron commented on this experience, saying “I thought of all my coworkers and how we are constantly trying to get up the stairs to Christ. Although it is a constant struggle in this world, we just have to keep pushing forward keeping our eyes focused on what is before us, not the pain that comes with the journey.”

            Pilgrim Katie Ligday also commented on her experience of visiting the saints, stating “I did not just take a trip to Italy to visit churches…instead, I spent twelve days getting to know our Lord better, and His angels and saints.” Amongst the pilgrim’s favorite saints were Padre Pio, St. Philomena, St. Gerard Majella, St. Peter, St. Francis, and St. Catherine of Siena. The pilgrims noticed that many of the Saints visited were unexpectedly connected. Father Raymond Schmidt commented on this phenomenon, saying “Saints tend to cluster, so I find myself thinking about how we unwittingly chose to visit a clustering of saints, such as Don Bosco and Dominic Savio who exemplify the relationship of spiritual director to directee.” Following this pilgrimage, the pilgrims aspire to become such a clustering of saints that inspire others to know Christ, which has already begun to form around Fr. Ray and Rich Olon during the Summer Program.

            In fact, it seems that many of the pilgrims are already considering how they can become like the great saints they visited. Reflecting upon the example of saints such as St. Clare, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and Bl. Bartolo Longo who ran towards God’s call to a vocation, the pilgrims similarly began to discern what God’s will might be for their lives. When asked if he expected the fruit of vocations to flow from this pilgrimage, Fr. Ray responded “Absolutely. Four different guys have approached me already and said ‘I haven’t thought about it before, but I think that the Lord might be calling me to priesthood’.” This fruit of discernment and thoughts of future vocations is especially conducive to the Year of Consecrated Life declared by Pope Francis. Speaking to the pilgrimage overall, Fr. Ray identified it as the highlight of his thirty years of priesthood.

            Not only did this trip profoundly impact the spiritual lives of the pilgrims, but also those who observed their journey, including their Proximo Travel tour guide Carmela Manago. For example, the pilgrims had the opportunity to ring in the New Year on the rooftop of the Pontifical North American Seminary College, and rather than enjoy the panoramic view of fireworks exploding throughout Rome, many chose to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation with Fr. Ray. Manago marveled at the pilgrims’ devotion as she stated, “I was amazed at the number of youths that wanted to go to confession and how much they respected the Catholic Mass, regardless of the language that was spoken. Of all the pilgrimages I have done in my lifetime, this was by far the most spiritually rewarding experience of my life.”