The following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Take courage. For just as you have borne witness to my cause in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness in Rome.’Acts 23: 11
The readings for our pilgrimage to Rome were rather perfect. For a few days, they focused on Paul’s arrest and subsequent journey to Rome to stand trial. As we visited the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls and walked old cobblestone roads, the Scripture readings came alive. Here was the place Paul had come in chains, insisted on preaching the Gospel, spoke to the Christian community, and later died for Christ. It felt more real, more alive when in the place where so many important things happened.
When he entered Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.
Three days later he called together the leaders of the Jews. When they had gathered he said to them, ‘My brothers, although I had done nothing against our people or our ancestral customs, I was handed over to the Romans as a prisoner from Jerusalem. After trying my case the Romans wanted to release me, because they found nothing against me deserving the death penalty. But when the Jews objected, I was obliged to appeal to Caesar, even though I had no accusation to make against my own nation. This is the reason, then, I have requested to see you and to speak with you, for it is on account of the hope of Israel that I wear these chains.’
He remained for two full years in his lodgings. He received all who came to him, and with complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.Acts 28:16-20, 30-31
In excavated catacombs, in the ruins of the Roman Forum, and in the expanse of the Colosseum, the reality of what had transpired in this ancient city rang clear. We prayed before Paul’s chains, momentarily visited the area where he was believed to have been beheaded, and stood near where Peter was crucified. Traversing beneath the current basilica, we stood before the bones of St. Peter, our first pope, and experienced the feast of Pentecost in the square just above. Everywhere we turned we were encountering concrete reminders that the apostles had visited this place.
I love several particular verses in Romans, but I couldn’t help but be struck anew that this was a letter written to the Roman people. And as a girl from the plains of South Dakota, where anything from the early 1800s feels old, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous that little Roman girls and boys get to grow up reading a letter written to them by St. Paul. How loved that letter must be! How beautiful to read: To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Then to read at the end of Romans as Paul lists numerous people to greet for him, real people who were working in the vineyard of the Lord and who knew Paul.
There was a new realization of the beauty of this letter as I experienced Rome this time. It made me wish that classes could be taught as we traveled to those places. That we could sit in Paul’s cell as we read letters composed there or stand before Paul’s chains as we discussed his martyrdom. Or walk through the Holy Land as we study the Gospels of Jesus Christ, resting on the Mount of Beatitudes to read Christ’s sermon and following the Via Dolorosa as we meditate on His Passion. What an experience that would be!
The students felt the concreteness and reality of the faith. Tucked away in a school in South Dakota, it is easy to feel like the events of the faith aren’t real or happened so long ago and far away that they are essentially fictitious. Yet several students commented on how encountering the Church in Rome made them soak in the reality of these events and the antiquity of the Church, assuaging doubts that were previously present in their hearts.
Since it is unlikely that I will suddenly find myself teaching my students in Rome, I must seek to someway make real and present the foundations of the Church while in the plains of South Dakota. Paul wrote a letter to the Romans, Ephesians, and Corinthians, but the sacraments are effective here today. And while there isn’t a letter to the South Dakotans, Christ’s Word is living and effective, sharper than a two-edged sword, here today. Despite time and location, we are all gathered into the mystical Body of Christ, our true home and the most real encounter we can experience.
As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.1 Corinthians 12:12-13