One morning in class, we were told by Dr. Connell (rather ruefully) that for many students the best part of the entire Rome semester is the trip to Poland. Dr. Connell also says things like “the way up is the way down” and “you must lose yourself to find yourself” and “cats are metaphysical.” In regard to all of these sentiments, I initially had no idea what he meant and I was not inclined to take them seriously. In any case, the week we planned to have our Poland adventure was a bad time to leave the city. The Papal Conclave was set to begin and no one could say when the white smoke would rise. Rome revolved around the Vatican, pulling our semester into orbit; St. Peter’s, just a bus ride away, had become the center of the world. Conclave aside, there was also the prospect of a full week in the Eternal City to spend as you wished among the statues, the saints, the cobble stone streets, the brilliant Tiber sunsets, the churches, the piazzas– why would you squander all that by being anywhere else? Largely for these reasons, the majority of our class made the sound and reasonable decision to stay in Rome for spring break; only eight of us were crazy enough to leave.
I can’t say exactly why I decided to go to Poland; maybe because it had become a Thomas More tradition, maybe because when you have the chance to explore Europe you should explore as much as you can, maybe I was feeling light-headed after a long tour and I didn’t think it through. I knew next to nothing about Poland, other than it was the home of both Pope John Paul II and pierogi. The morning that we left, I was not particularly excited. In fact, I was exhausted because our small group of pilgrims had risen early, thinking it best to begin our journey in St. Peter’s Basilica to pray before the altar of John Paul II and ask for his intercession, especially that we make it back in time for the conclave.
The scheduled eight-o-clock Mass was going to be said in French, except the French priest was late. In fact, the French priest never arrived. In his stead an American priest celebrated, and gave a homily about the life of Karol Wojtyla before he became Pope. When Mass was over the priest gave us relics of JPII as blessing for our journey. By the time our flight rolled around excitement bubbled among us; we knew something special was in store.
If we had at that time realized just how special our pilgrimage would be, I think we all would have been too anxious to get on the plane. If we had known the number of times we would be lost without directions, we never would have left– but then we never would have experienced the relief of serendipitously bumping into a friend of our host family who recognized us and showed us where to go, or the kindness of the quiet little man with a moustache (who spoke no English) who brought us to the train platform that would take us to Niepokalanow, St. Maximilian Kolbe’s famous Marian city. If we had known the number of times we would walk into a church and find not one person who spoke English, we probably would have called it off. Then, of course, we never would have been taken to the rectory by the parish priest, who gave us tea, pastries, and holy cards (all the sustenance needed for student pilgrims) and called an English-speaking nun to give us a tour of the parish museum. If we had known it would snow heavily during our visit to Auschwitz, we would have just cried. When it did snow heavily, we did cry heavily; we also prayed, ran to catch our bus, and made it back to Krakow in time for Mass.
That Mass was the last celebration we would attend in Poland. It was the Tuesday that the conclave began, and we had met with friends of our host family (we called them Peter and Ola because Polish names are impossible to pronounce) right outside the Dominican church fifteen minutes before the celebration would start. Of course, by that point we were fairly familiar with beautiful churches, both in Rome and in Poland, but we were in no way prepared for what we would see inside. The church was absolutely bursting with people; the pews, the side and center aisles, the stairs to the choir loft were all packed, and in the entire congregation I spotted maybe three people obviously older than thirty. We were surrounded with young people hardly older than we were; when we sang, music soared right up to the starry blue ceiling. When we knelt, it was like a wave crashing down to the tile floor. When we faced each other for the sign of peace, it was a meeting of friends, a true and communal celebration of faith.
The next morning we landed in Rome just as the smoke lifted for the morning vote. We crammed around one cell phone to tune in to Vatican radio, intently listening for the color of the smoke (I was, admittedly, praying that it would be black, and we would have time to drop our luggage before we ran to St Peter’s). We all sighed when we heard black smoke, but decided that evening to meet in the square. By a miracle, every one of our class, all fifteen of us, made it in time to see the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel; we rushed forward toward “the” window, the cardinal-red balcony window, waiting to hear the words “Habemus Papam,” to greet our new Holy Father.
Two things happened as a result of our pilgrimage to Poland. The first was the habit of incessantly imitating the Polish accent, which our eight-person Polski Family, as we now call ourselves, have found next to impossible to break. The second and most important was a deep and powerful realization of what it means to say that the faith is alive. We saw it all throughout our pilgrimage, but perhaps we saw it best when we returned to St. Peter’s square to wait with a million other Catholics, staring expectantly at a chimney, waiting for the sign that the Church is alive. Our Rome semester has itself become a pilgrimage, a long one, a difficult one, a historical one, and a beautiful one, something I only realized when I returned from Poland. There is only a short time left, and now, with our class reunited and with the intercession of Our Lady and our litany of saints both Roman and Polish, we pray that we live it fully.