July 10, 2015

Trip to Italy takes Roncalli educators in the footsteps of school’s namesake

A group of educators from Roncalli High School in Indianapolis made a recent pilgrimage to Italy to learn more about their school’s namesake, Angelo Roncalli—the birth name of St. John XXIII. Part of their trip included a visit to St. Mary’s Church in Sotto il Monte, the church where St. John was baptized and served as an altar boy. Laura Armbruster, left, Beth Reel, Michelle Roberts and Terese Carson pose in the front row while Anthony Walters, left, and James Kedra stand in the back row. (Submitted photo by Chuck Weisenbach )

A group of educators from Roncalli High School in Indianapolis made a recent pilgrimage to Italy to learn more about their school’s namesake, Angelo Roncalli—the birth name of St. John XXIII. Part of their trip included a visit to St. Mary’s Church in Sotto il Monte, the church where St. John was baptized and served as an altar boy. Laura Armbruster, left, Beth Reel, Michelle Roberts and Terese Carson pose in the front row while Anthony Walters, left, and James Kedra stand in the back row. (Submitted photo by Chuck Weisenbach )

By John Shaughnessy

As they traveled together through Italy recently, seven friends from an Indianapolis Catholic high school quickly learned an uplifting truth about their journey:

When you travel in search of a saint, you’re bound to find your own faith growing deeper in ways you never imagined.

That truth became clear again as a group of educators from Roncalli High School arrived in Rome—the last leg of their pilgrimage to learn more about the life of their school’s namesake, Angelo Roncalli, the child from a peasant family who grew up to be one of the most loved and respected popes ever, St. John XXIII.

One defining moment in Rome came as the teachers and administrators visited Scala Santa, the steps that Christ climbed to meet Pontius Pilate during his Passion. According to Catholic tradition, the steps were brought from Jerusalem to Rome by St. Helena in the fourth century. The tradition also holds that the faithful have to make their way up the steps by kneeling and praying on every one—which the Roncalli group did.

“I said a ‘Hail Mary’ and an ‘Our Father’ on every step,” recalls Michelle Roberts, a Roncalli teacher. “I really felt a wave of energy coming over me. It was just this wonderful experience of God’s hand touching me.”

That spiritual sensation continued later in the evening as the group prayed the rosary on a starry night near the fountains in St. Peter’s Square, just steps from where St. John XXIII lived and served as pope.

“We prayed together for different intentions,” says Laura Armbruster, another teacher. “It was very moving for us. So was the whole trip. It was extremely profound to me that we could walk in the footsteps of a saint. We were there in so many of the places where he worked, lived and studied.”

The trip from May 28 to June 6 led the pilgrims to the small Italian village of Sotto il Monte, where St. John XXIII was born into a family of sharecroppers, to Bergamo where he studied for the priesthood, to Venice where he served as cardinal, and to Rome when he became pope. It was the fourth year that a different group of Roncalli educators made the journey, which is paid for from the school’s annual fund.

The trip is the brainchild of Chuck Weisenbach, the longtime principal of Roncalli who always wanted to travel to Italy to see the places that influenced the man whose name graces the archdiocesan high school on the south side of Indianapolis.

When Weisenbach made the trip in 2009—thanks to a creativity grant that Lilly Endowment Inc. provides for teachers and school administrators—he was so overwhelmed by the pilgrimage that he wanted others at the school to experience it, too. So he approached Roncalli’s president Joseph Hollowell and the school’s board of directors with the idea. They approved it.

“I felt this experience would expand the number of folks working at Roncalli who personally were on fire with the life, legacy and spirit of this wonderful saint,” says Weisenbach, who leads each trip.

“Once you have walked literally in his footsteps, had such close contact with so many artifacts from his life, and met with people that personally knew him, it is hard not to become even more passionate about one’s Catholic faith as well as one’s commitment to the high school that bears his name and a school many of us love dearly.”

The trip definitely had that impact on this year’s pilgrims: Weisenbach, Armbruster, Roberts, Terese Carson, James Kedra, Beth Reel and Anthony Walters.

“I’m on fire,” Armbruster says. “All the things we’ve heard about him have come to life through our experiences. We were at the seminary he attended. He had kept journals since he was 14. The person giving us a tour [Father Giovanni Gusmini] pulled out these journals and read some of the things St. John wrote down when he was 14. He had a list of 12 items of how to become closer to God—from attending Mass regularly to an examination of conscience every day.”

Roberts was overwhelmed by the simplicity of St. John’s early life and the beauty of the area where he grew up.

“Bergamo is such a special place—cobblestone streets, in the foothills of the Italian Alps, laundry lines running between windows, flower boxes filled with geraniums,” Roberts recalls. “I was personally touched to see where he began. He came from tenant farmers where 20 people lived in one place.

“I connected with his beginnings and his simplicity. It reminded me that greatness comes from God, not us—if we can get out of God’s way. I can do that as a mom, a friend, a teacher. I’m not a saint. I won’t be a pope. But I’m as Catholic as the farm boy he was. We focus on that at Roncalli—his simplicity, his humility, his humor, his prayerfulness, his inspiration.”

Roberts is grateful for the opportunity to make the pilgrimage, and she can’t wait to share its lessons with her students.

“It’s really important that our administration wants us to grow and provides us with opportunities to enrich our spiritual lives. I feel cherished. I feel like what I do matters.

“The simplicity and the humility are the two things I’m going to try to focus on with the students—to help them understand that they can do what Angelo Roncalli did, that this is what makes us Catholic. That’s what the saints can give us.” †

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