Below is a reflection from Occupational Therapy student Sarah Rothenberger '20, who was selected for the annual Rome-Assisi Pilgrimage that takes place each December. The life-changing experience is for students who are passionate for the Franciscan mission and look to deepen spiritual identity. The trip is fully funded by generous donations and each year four students and four faculty or staff members are selected following a nomination process.
Last December, I was fortunate enough to join four other Alvernia students on the Italy pilgrimage. While there, we were joined with about 15 other students from various Franciscan colleges around the US. The pilgrimage started in Rome, where we spent our first three days. In Rome, we were able to get to know each other better, start to form connections, do some sight-seeing, join with each other for meals and fellowship, and begin to set the tone for the following 10 days. It was there that we all quickly grew close to each other, bonding over things as minor as favorite classes in college, to having serious conversations about our faith. Once we left Rome, we traveled for a day to Greccio, known as the place where the first nativity scene was, thanks to Saint Francis. We had a service in the sanctuary and then celebrated Christmas a bit late together.
Finally, we traveled to Assisi. When we first arrived, the town seemed very quaint and cozy. As soon as we arrived, we all felt at one with the spirit of Saint Francis. While in Assisi, we were able to worship in many sacred spaces, including the basilica of Saint Francis (where we also saw his tomb), the San Rufino cathedral, the basilica of Saint Clare (where we saw the original San Damiano cross that spoke to Francis), Chiesa Nuova (a church built atop Francis's childhood home), the San Damiano church (original place of the cross that spoke to Francis), and the Porziuncola (a small church known to be the home of Saint Francis and his people). Additionally, we walked in the footsteps of Saint Clare during her final walk from her home to the gates of Assisi, we went to a previous leper community and performed a ritual there to help us understand what it may have been like during those times, we held a prayer for peace at the very top of the city, and we worshiped and reflected together at the end of each day. Through sharing many meals, many prayers, and many life-changing moments, our small group of pilgrims became very close. These are people I believe will be in my life for a very long time. We all still talk daily, often sharing stories about school, sharing in each other's joys, and continuously praying for each other. I will be forever thankful that I got to experience all Assisi had for us with those individuals.
Throughout our time in Italy, I often found myself relating to the core values as well as the Franciscan values Alvernia holds so dear. One I came back to was contemplation. We were given a great deal of time to reflect on our experiences, as well as reflect with each other. This time of reflection brought me to many new realizations in my faith, in my life perspective, as well as new ways to reflect. One of the most impactful moments of reflection for me was during our prayer for peace. After we prayed, we all stood together looking out on Assisi and its neighboring towns. It was very late, so we could mostly see lights in the darkness, but below us in Assisi was the music from the town center. It was as if we were all in a moment of calm and stillness while the world moved around us. I could help but come to the realization that I spent so much of my life asking, “why me” in slightly inconvenient situations, when at that moment, a flip switched, and it became “why me.” To this day, I find myself reminding myself of that moment; when it hit me how fortunate I am and how God has placed me in every situation, I have been in, good and bad, to lead me to my future to do his work to help others.
Being in the town that is so connected to Saint Francis and his spirit also made the core values of humility and peacemaking stick with me. Francis was incredibly humble. Being able to see his worship spaces, all of which were so small and simple to keep the focus on God, emphasized how much he dedicated his life to God. Walking around the leper colony also stressed this. He left all that was comfortable, all that was safe, and went to live in full solidarity with the people who needed him most. In doing this, he aimed for peace between all people. He spent his entire life after coming to God working to keep peace between all of God’s creation (humans, animals, and nature alike), working to help people understand the true meanings of Christianity and to encourage others to live the Franciscan way.
Being chosen to go on the pilgrimage has been one of the most life-changing experiences I have ever had. The ten days spent there have forever left an impact on who I am, and who I strive to be. Because of Alvernia's involvement with this experience, I have been equipped with better contemplation skills (which will help me to become a reflective professional, as the mission states), a broader understanding of the Franciscan values (which I aim to live by), and a deeper connection to my faith and to those who were essential to its growth on the pilgrimage. I genuinely believe that this experience has been incredibly influential for my personal and professional life going forward, and I know for a fact that I am forever changed because of it.