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Modern-Day Pilgrims | St. Mary's College students head to Rome to study theology. | By Ginny Prior

One in three tourists worldwide is a pilgrim—some 330 million a year, according to the United Nations. It's the kind of life-changing experience that the Rev. David Gentry has led repeatedly to Rome as a theology professor at Saint Mary's College of California.

For the last several years, Gentry and fellow communications professor and papal expert, the Rev. Mike Russo, have taught a January term enrichment course called Walking in the Footsteps of the Early Christians.

The itinerary is rigorous as 17 students tour, study, and celebrate Mass together in the Eternal City's ancient churches and often at the tombs of apostles and saints.

Russo calls it a "Canterbury Tales"-type experience where students interact with a rich tapestry of people, including the pope, who embodies the spirit of the Catholic Church. On the most recent trip, senior Meaghan Osborne staked out a spot in the scrum of fervent faithful at the regular Wednesday audience with Pope Francis. She wanted to give him a letter she had written in Spanish.

"I screamed, 'Papa Fransico!' as loud as I possibly could, putting 9-year-old One Direction fans to shame with my enthusiasm," says Osborne. "Pope Francis looked shocked . . . then smiled graciously, said thank you, and I handed him my letter. The woman in front of me who spoke Italian joined our celebration as she cried. We were all shaking from overwhelming joy."

The SMC pilgrims begin their Rome tour at the Basilica of San Clemente, a church dedicated to Pope Saint Clement, who died circa 100 A.D. Christian historian Robert White walks them through 2,000 years of history, including the layered remains of a pagan temple, a fourth-century basilica, and, above it, the current structure. The next day, students take the metro to Vatican City for the Scavi tour of the excavated necropolis under the Basilica of Saint Peter. Senior Heather Marsh says that seeing the tomb of Saint Peter is an emotional experience. "There's this undeniable presence in there. Kind of that moment of realization that these are the bones of someone who saw Jesus."

In the medieval town of Assisi, the students enjoy lunch with the brown-robed brothers who remain guardians of sites that seem exactly as they were in the time of Saint Francis. Yet the mood is anything but solemn, says senior Hope Blain.

"We were having a four-course meal with these two Franciscan friars, one playing the accordion, one telling jokes. That sense of community and friendship was there so quickly—I thought that just showed the vibrancy of the church." An important part of the pilgrimage is time for discussion and reflection on social justice. This year's trip included a briefing from Archbishop Sir David Moxon on the pope's initiative to end human trafficking and slavery. H.E.A.T Watch, a program of the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, considers Oakland a thriving under-age sex market and the epicenter of a trafficking triangle between San Francisco and Contra Costa counties.

Moxon, a member of the nonprofit Global Freedom Network, says leaders of every major religion are following the pope's lead to eradicate this crime against humanity. "It's the drawing power of Pope Francis. They trust him. They see in him a holy man," says Moxon.

The plight of the Roma, also known as gypsies, was the topic of conversation with Claudio Betti, at Sant'Egidio, a 17th-century convent church in Trastevere, Rome. The Roma are historically one of Italy's most marginalized people, often seen begging in front of churches and on city streets. They are also blamed for crimes ranging from pick-pocketing to organized theft. Betti is one of several volunteers helping Roma families find stability.

"These are poor people, and the Gospel calls us to be close to the poor," he says. "Once you become friends, you discover very clearly there is no difference."

The Saint Mary's pilgrims continue to meet and reflect, even after they return to the United States. Senior Jacquelyn O'Neill says it's because the students and professors forged a bond through their experiences. "Our class had such a sense of community. We all could just open up to each other."

Senior Mary Gerlomes agrees. "I like how we took a theological perspective. The perspective we took shaped the journey."

It's the theological perspective that Russo says is most critical. "The course may be one example of how 'youth evangelization' finds its way into the curriculum of Catholic colleges and universities. At a time when we see the need to rediscover our educational mission, this course provides a vibrant experience of church and community."

Ginny Prior is an adjunct professor of communications at Saint Mary's College of California, Moraga. See examples of "backpack journalism"—student-produced videos, podcasts, photography, and articles—at


From the top: Saint Francis statue with a live bird nesting in the basket in Assisi, Italy (photo by Ginny Prior); students standing in front of the altar in the chapel inside the Generalate of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Rome; Pope Francis' picture is everywhere in Rome, even on calendars. (photos courtesy Saint Mary's College Jan. Term students)..