by A. J. Boyd
ROME — Every freshman at the University of St. Thomas (Houston, TX) is expected to participate in a Freshman symposium during their first year of university studies, focusing on some part of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, led by a moderator team including a professor, a university administrator, and an upperclassman. The freshman symposium led by Prof. Ana-Lisa Gonzales was designed to focus on Catholic social teaching, and conclude with an intensive week in Rome, operated by The Lay Centre.
Fourteen students with their moderator team traversed the city of Rome led by a local theologian in residence at The Lay Centre. To introduce them to the Church of Rome, they engaged with Dominicans at San Clemente, a Benedictine abbot at Basilica St. Paul Outside the Walls, a Dutch art historian in the Vatican Museums, and an American church historian at St. Peter’s Basilica. They even had the opportunity to visit Sant’Eusebio, titular church of Galveston-Houston’s archbishop, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo.
In addition to touring the major basilicas and sites central to the local church, they visited several agencies working with refugees and the poor of Rome. A visit to the Missionaries of Charity at San Gregorio engaged them with the story of Mother Teresa’s commitment to helping the poorest of the poor at the grassroots, rooting all service in love, faith, prayer, and silence. A young Italian, laywoman, introduced them to the work of Sacred Heart Basilica near Termini station, which coordinates nearly 200 volunteers to integrate and work with refugees from Africa and the Middle East. In Trastevere, the students met with leaders of the Sant’Egidio Community before joining them for evening prayer, to learn about the approach of friendship with the poor practiced by the former youth group turned international movement.
A highlight of the discussion on contemporary social teaching in the life of the church was a lunch panel on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. Amaya Valcarcel, International Advocacy Coordinator, of Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome, noted that the crisis is in fact one of war and violence, that identifying a “refugee crisis” misplaces the root cause of the problem. Of 20 million refugees and internally displaced persons, only about one million are in Europe, most are housed in developing countries. Sheila Kinsey, FCJM Co Executive Secretary, Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Secretariat, USG/UISG, engaged the students with ideas and examples of the kind of response needed at all levels of the Church. Issaka Maiga of St. Paul’s within the Walls Episcopal Church/The Joel Nafuma Refugee Centre (JNRC) in Rome told of his story as a refugee, arriving in Rome four years ago with nowhere to stay but the street. He now works as a sextant at the church and helps others in need.
Pope Francis has reminded the faithful during this Jubilee of Mercy of the traditional teaching to welcome the stranger, to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, etc. This week gave a few students of St. Thomas the chance to connect their local experience of the Church of Galveston-Houston to the Church of Rome, and the lives of those in need to the parable of Christ on the last judgement: “Whatever you have done for the least of your brothers and sisters, you have done for me; whatever you have failed to do for them, you have failed to do for me.”