A Roman Holiday
By Lauren Falk
Photo by Caleb Miller on Unsplash
I have changed throughout my life, but I have always been Catholic. As a baby, my screams shook the basilica rafters while a priest poured holy water over my head. I listened eagerly in Sunday formation classes throughout elementary school and later found delight in my parish's middle school youth group. Starting at a Catholic high school, I naturally assumed an interest in campus ministry, class retreats, and religion classes. Activity and knowledge, I believed, directly correlated to religiosity. So, trying to sleep crammed between my mom, dad, and younger sister on a flight to Rome for Easter Mass – a pilgrimage to add to my list of Catholic deeds – I thought, I'm good with God.
Shoulders jostling back and forth as the subway jerked along its tracks, I strained my eyes to check my watch: 6:15 a.m. A group of African nuns sat across the aisle humming tunes of rejoice. Mom joined them, but I could barely muster excitement knowing an hours-long wait stood between us and the beginning of Mass. We walked beneath a dark sky from the subway station to a line of churchgoers disappearing into the Vatican City walls, and I resolved to be content. When sunbeams began to peek over the buildings, the nuns erupted into full song and we started chatting with a French couple and a family from the United States. Eventually, we shuffled in line past white stone columns and found seats facing St. Peter's Basilica, sparkling and draped in crimson fabric. From the back of the Square, Argentinian schoolgirls chanted over a man on the loudspeaker leading the congregation in a Latin rosary. With the opening hymn's crescendo of angelic voices, the crowd grew silent.
Nothing could have prepared me for that Mass, for it felt the way Heaven must. The service proceeded as it would in any Catholic church, but it was a cultural medley that also unified, an extravagant production that was also commonplace. Traditional Latin was broken up by readings and petitions recited in Greek, English, Spanish, Mandarin, Italian, Russian. Intonations of "Amen" and "Alleluia," however, joined these languages into one voice. Our chants intermingled with the billows of incense and glimmers of the priests' vestments, making the scene only fitting for the glory of Christ's Resurrection. Listening to Pope Francis' Urbi et Orbi address – "for the city and for the world" – it dawned on me that somehow in this unfamiliar place, surrounded by centuries of history and strangers of varied backgrounds, I was at home in my faith for the first time.
I knew what Catholics do and profess, and I was devoted to doing and professing these things, yet I had no idea that these acts do not fully encompass what it means to be Catholic. In Rome it became apparent that Catholicism is not just the Pope, the buildings, the motions, the teachings but equally the community and the outlook on life. The catholic – universal – nature of the Church that Easter was a shock to me, a sheltered white American girl in the thick of a crowd of people from all nations, ages, classes, and experiences. Our joy for Christ was stronger together. I realized, too, that this joy needn't be tied to happiness. The journey to Mass was at times uncomfortable and disheartening, but the jubilant atmosphere of that Easter morning confirmed that joy is not simply an emotion but an enduring mentality with roots deeper than any hardship. Christ Himself exemplified these concepts. He struggled and still hoped. He built a family of faith from peoples of all nations and shared His hope with them. I was part of His family that day.
Mass in Vatican City transformed my faith. When I transitioned back into everyday life, far from giving up the activities I loved, I began to do these things because I am Catholic instead of doing them to be Catholic. The deep feelings of belonging and joy I experienced in Rome, I decided, needed to be carried into my actions, my daily commitment to being Catholic. One extraordinary experience at the Vatican could not be the sole font of my faith. After all, within the grandeur of Easter Mass, the distribution of the Eucharist was still an ordinary process, not unlike the Masses I had been attending for years. This humility must be how God intended for us to meet Him. So, on my dorm room desk next to coffee mugs, tangled masses of charging cords, and piles of worn notebooks sits the Mass booklet from my junior year Easter Sunday. When I sling my backpack over my shoulder each morning, I glance at the white booklet and am reminded to notice God in the everyday.