Journey to the Heart of the Father: An Educators’ Pilgrimage to Italy
An interview with pilgrimage leader Sister Mary Rachel, O.P.
This past summer, Aquinas College and the Franciscan University of Steubenville hosted an inaugural educators’ pilgrimage to Italy for those involved in Catholic education – the ultimate hands-on professional development opportunity! Below is an interview with Sister Mary Rachel, O.P., Director of Pilgrimage Programs at Aquinas College:
What can we learn by going on pilgrimage?
A pilgrimage allows us to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and the saints. For us as Catholics, we recognize there is grace not only in sacred objects, but also in sacred places and even in the movement of walking. A few days apart from our regular daily routine can make us aware that life itself is a pilgrimage, an invitation to follow Jesus, who is on a journey from the heart of the Father. He invites us into that journey as together we return to the Father.
Why a pilgrimage for educators?
During my years in Sydney, Australia, I completed my dissertation on the impact of pilgrimage on faith and faith-based practice of the Catholic educator. We talk a lot about how essential formation is in the life of our teachers, and we seek to provide it for them in various ways – through retreats, workshops, and conferences. However, being immersed in strong Catholic culture for an extended period of time is a very powerful means of formation, not only for the intellect but also for the heart. Pilgrims leave what is familiar to become steeped in an experience where everything is at the service of their lives of faith: prayer and the liturgical life of the Church, discovering the witness of the saints, and a strong community experience with set times for both play and solemnity.
How did you and your group prepare for this event?
Our group was comprised mainly of lay Catholic school principals, teachers, and staff from seven different schools across the U.S., as well as several participants who teach in parishes. Our educators set out on this journey with a certain amount of intentionality. They knew they were representing their schools and were motivated to share with their communities the graces of this experience. We met by Zoom several times before the summer, where we got to introduce ourselves and hear why each person signed up and what he or she was hoping to gain from this experience. I reminded them that they were responding to a call by the Lord who is Himself the Way.
I was impressed by how the schools made this opportunity possible for their teachers. A parent association at one school saw the value of this unique opportunity and decided to sponsor several interested teachers. Another school rallied behind the initiative and made it an auction item at their annual gala. Teachers were chosen based on applications submitted to the administration. We also had some generous benefactors who stepped forward to sponsor several teachers.
How are the teachers sharing the fruits of this pilgrimage in their respective schools this year?
This trip was unique because it was really a pilgrimage retreat. We spent an entire retreat day in Assisi on the last day, praying and reflecting together on the graces we had received. We also spent time praying and discussing how God was calling us to share the graces of these beautiful days in our school communities when we returned. After we returned home, we had a follow-up meeting. Several teachers shared they are considering ways to implement the Eucharistic Revival in their school communities. They were inspired by our visit to the tomb of Bl. Carlo Acutis in Assisi, which was a powerful experience for our group. One pilgrim-educator, Tricia Van Horn, a teacher from Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Newport News, Virginia, sums up the impact a pilgrimage can have on an individual and subsequently an entire school community:
Coming back from a pilgrimage is a different experience than just coming back from a vacation. It’s not just about what we saw and did, but what we experienced in the heart as a beloved son or daughter of Christ. This is evangelization – taking the graces you’ve experienced and continuing to receive and share your faith to bring others closer to Christ.