Last month, Our Sunday Visitor sent me to Rome for The Church Up Close, a seminar organized by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross to help journalists deepen their understanding — and, hence, strengthen their coverage — of the Catholic Church. 

While I looked forward to the seminar, which featured sessions led by Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, Cardinal Peter Turkson and Msgr. Charles Scicluna of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, among others, I must admit I was most excited about the opportunity to pray in some of the world’s greatest Catholic churches. 

Love at second sight 

How different it was from my first time in Rome, in November 2002, when I was slow to warm to its charms. Rome seemed to be a chaotic mess. It wasn’t until visiting the Colosseum and the Forum that I was won over by the Eternal City. 

Notice I didn’t mention any churches in the paragraph above. That’s because I was not yet Catholic. In fact, I was more of a skeptic than a believer. Sure, I visited the Pantheon, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, but those visits were out of artistic and architectural interest, not for their religious significance. (I must confess, though, that the sight of Michelangelo’s “Pieta” brought me to tears, despite the fact it was behind bulletproof glass.) 

This time, though, I was eager to see the Eternal City through the lens of the Faith.

Faith filled 

It turned out that the seminar and my Roman wanderings complemented each other in opening my eyes to the truths of the Catholic faith. While the seminar, with topics such as the Church and stem cell research, canonical trials and Catholic teaching on social justice, fed my intellect, my pilgrimages to 18 of Rome’s many churches fed my spirit. 

To pray before the tomb of St. Catherine of Siena at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, for example, or to visit the Capuchin crypt at Santa Maria della Concezione and meditate on life and death were great blessings. 

But of all the amazing experiences in Rome, one stands out. One morning, Mary DeTurris Poust, OSV Daily Take blogger and a fellow seminar participant, and I headed to St. Peter’s at 6:45 a.m., hoping to spend some time in prayer before the great throngs of people arrived. 

We arrived a few minutes after 7 a.m., and priests had already begun celebrating the liturgy at the basilica’s many side altars. We stood back a bit at one altar, listening to a priest celebrate in Italian, which neither of us speaks. After a few minutes, the priest noticed us standing there and said “ Avanti ,” or come forward. He asked in English if we wanted take part in the Mass. We indicated that we did, and he continued the Liturgy of the Word, even giving a short homily in English for our sake. 

Afterward, we chatted with him a bit. It turned out that he was a Nigerian priest who had just received his master’s degree and was beginning his work toward a doctorate. 

I, of course, had known intellectually that the Catholic Church is a universal Church with great riches in its diversity. But listening to a Nigerian priest celebrate Mass in Italian at St. Peter’s hit home for me that reality in a way that no article or book ever could. 

Sarah Hayes is OSV’s presentation editor.