Pilgrims from Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology met Pope Francis during their spring break trip to Rome. (Submitted photo)

Fourteen local seminarians and educators enjoyed the remarkable privilege of meeting the Holy Father in Rome this spring while on an academic pilgrimage.

Paul G. Monson, Ph.D., is the Vice President of Intellectual Formation and an academic dean at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corner. Over spring break in March, he led a group of propaedeutic seminarians from Wisconsin, Montana and Kansas on the excursion as part of a two-part class on Catholic heritage. It was also the first time any of the seminarians had visited Rome, and none of them expected the warm reception they received from Pope Francis.

“It was a pilgrimage in the context of an academic class that was taking place over spring break in Rome. Rome was our classroom to walk through the heritage of the Universal Church, and we had the great honor of a photo with the Holy Father,” said Dr. Monson.

“What surprised and floored us was that we received a personal letter while we were there to the group and the entire Sacred Heart Seminary — including the students, faculty and staff — about what our mission means. That was a big surprise for us. It was a bit surreal to be that close to the Holy Father. Several of the students got to shake his hand, and all of us got very close to him. Even though he’s in a wheelchair, you could see the smile on his face. Even though he was struggling with a cold and couldn’t speak very well, there was joy in his eyes.”

The eight-day trip, despite the red-eyed exhaustion of the group after a long flight, covered many of Rome’s most historic sites. The eight seminarians and accompanying priests and faculty walked through the catacombs and the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica, visited the Dicastery for Evangelization — a 400-year-old arm of the church responsible for missions — attended Mass at the major basilicas, participated in Mass at the ancient Pantheon (now the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and of the Martyrs), and received extended guided tours by American art historian Dr. Elizabeth Lev, who spoke at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Pallium Lecture on Feb. 15.

The group had lunch with the Missionary Workers of the Immaculate and joined Fr. Michael Maher, S.J., a Wisconsin-born Jesuit, for additional tours of the rooms of St. Ignatius of Loyola. They also celebrated a private Mass with Milwaukee native Cardinal James Harvey, and heard firsthand stories about Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II when he was pope.

This academic year marked the inaugural year for Sacred Heart’s Catholic heritage classes. The propaedeutic phase of seminary is a mandated year of discernment, and experiences like this recent pilgrimage are intended to give the students an experience to draw from as they learn the history of the faith — witnessing the heritage of the Church firsthand with their own eyes. The class component was taught in Rome, and the students all wrote reflection papers and submitted them when they returned.

“It sticks with the students more than having it projected before you, seeing the Sistine Chapel rather than seeing it on a screen,” said Dr. Monson. “It’s difficult to speak for them, but many of them have said they’ve really only begun to realize how fruitful the pilgrimage was a month or two after, after they’ve had time to pray about it. They have been very grateful.”

The trip was the second part of a two-part class, with the first half having finished in the fall. The fall class focused on Catholic historical sites in Wisconsin, the heritage of the Church regionally and the work of Jesuit missionaries on the Great Lakes. This pilgrimage focused on the heritage of the Universal Church through the centuries, the relationship between the eastern and western churches, and the nature of unity.

“The title of the course is Sint Unum, which comes from the Gospel of John (John 17:21) and means ‘that they may be one,’” said Dr. Monson. “The sponsoring religious order of our seminary is the Priests of the Sacred Heart, and their superior, Fr. Carlos Luis Suárez Codorniú, took time to speak with us. What I found was one of the highlights of the pilgrimage and class was his reflection that the term doesn’t mean ‘that everyone is one.’ It means that we are in a journey to seek to become one, true unity through Rome with the Holy Father. It is a process, it is a prayer, a desire, a hope, a pilgrimage of life, that despite our differences and culture we can become one in Christ. It was one of the main messages we left with.”