Published March 24, 2005
Nine teenagers and two chaperones from St. Luke the Evangelist Church spent the week of Ash Wednesday in Rome, Italy, and for many of them it was a life-changing experience in the Eternal City.
The idea to travel to Rome surfaced when the chaperones, Suzanne and Steve Berninger, were in Rome at the same time last year with their two sons, Chris and Charles. Even before arriving back in the states, they decided that, despite the challenges of coordinating the travel, such a trip would be a lifelong memory for any youth involved in the pilgrimage. However, the Berningers are quick to admit, several friends jokingly questioned their sanity when they volunteered to take a group of teenagers 5,000 miles away into a foreign country.
When asked for his approval of the trip, Msgr. Stephen Churchwell, pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Church, responded enthusiastically, calling the pilgrimage a “fabulous idea.” Msgr. Churchwell and Steve Berninger, the parish youth director, agreed that it would be important for the youth to earn their own way to Rome. Each teen paid a $400 deposit, and then the fund-raisers—roughly one per month—started. Two pancake breakfasts, an evening of fine Italian dining, a fish fry and several other events raised over $5,700 for the trip. Mattie Brogdon, a high school freshman, undertook her own fund-raiser by knitting an afghan and raffling it off, raising over $140.
The group flew out of Atlanta on Friday, Feb. 4, and returned on Saturday, Feb. 12. They stayed at the Convent of Santa Elisabetta, located just a few blocks from the central Rome train and bus station, so almost all of the week’s destinations were within walking distance.
Ashley Despres, the only senior on the trip, said that her most memorable moment was walking into the Sistine Chapel.
“I remember walking in and turning around to see Michelangelo’s painting of the Last Judgment. It was the most beautiful, jaw-dropping vision that I had ever seen,” she said.
Fellow pilgrim Valarie Fox agreed.
“Some of the paintings we saw had colors that man can’t make. It just isn’t possible; only God can make those colors so beautiful,” she said.
The group attended several Masses at Santa Susanna, the only English-speaking Catholic church in Rome. Several of the teens even had the opportunity to be altar servers, eucharistic ministers and lectors during the Masses at Santa Susanna.
For junior Charles Berninger, being an altar server at Santa Susanna, along with attending the Ash Wednesday service and Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, were the “highlights of the pilgrimage.”
Although a full agenda was planned for the week, one of the most memorable events was something totally unexpected. When the group went to visit the Pontifical North American College, their scheduled one-hour tour blossomed into a much bigger experience. After the tour, a dynamic, soon-to-be-ordained seminarian from Illinois, Ryan Bredemeyer, gave the group a 30-minute homily about vocations on the rooftop of the PNAC, overlooking all of Rome. Suzanne Berninger said the experience was the result of divine intervention.
“It is just so amazing how God works to bring the right people into our lives at the right time,” she said.
If the rooftop experience was not enough, the teens were thrilled to accept the invitation to play some ultimate Frisbee at the seminary. Bredemeyer and a fellow seminarian from Florida, Richard Schamber, a family friend of the Berningers, joined the group for their final dinner in Rome and even accompanied them back to the convent to pray the rosary with them that evening. The two seminarians concluded the evening by singing Salve Regina, which echoed beautifully through the marble hallways of the convent.
For several of the teens, such as Mattie Brogdon and Adam Despres, spending time with the seminarians was the most moving part of the trip.
“The most incredible thing for me on this pilgrimage was going to PNAC and meeting some of the seminarians and just hanging out with them,” Brogdon said.
“Meeting Ryan over in Rome truly changed me. He was such a great speaker, and he could really relate to us teens,” Despres said. “I still keep in touch with him, and I hope and pray that one day we will meet again.”
The overall pilgrimage affected the teens in many ways.
For some, like Dylan Bollinger, the trip made them more appreciative of their Catholic faith.
“This journey made me proud to be a Catholic, and I have much more respect for our faith now,” he said.
The trip helped Melissa Worick learn the power of prayer, especially on their return flight to Atlanta, as their plane hit spots of heavy turbulence.
“This journey affected my faith deeply, and I thought it was beautiful to be in a place dedicated to my own religion,” she said. “Prayer really helped on this trip, especially on the plane ride home.”
Sarah Beth Ariemma also had a rich spiritual experience.
“I pray the rosary more now and am finding it much easier to stand strong like the saints in everyday life,” she said, adding a comment about her love for Italy’s famous frozen treat. “Another effect it had on me is that I now have a new favorite food: gelato!”
For Joel Sharbaugh, the trip forever changed his life and his faith.
“This pilgrimage has made my faith so much stronger now that I’ve seen firsthand the seat of the Catholic Church in all of its vastness and splendor; it just makes me think—God is good!”