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Firmes en la fe

I feel the warmth of the sun as it shines through the windows. I look around and I see decorations typical of a Catholic Church: the altar, the crucifix, candles, and paintings. Sitting in the University of Washington Catholic Newman Center brings back a flood of memories that tie my life in Washington State and my travels outside of the United States with my experiences from studying abroad in Rome.

I look at the Newman altar. It’s simple, made of wood. But it’s while staring at this humble yet beautiful table that I suddenly find myself back at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, the church I would attend on Sundays when I lived in Rome. The Italian air is warm and moist. The local Italians are all taking their seats.

The ceiling is plated and layered with gold. There are pillars throughout the basilica that hold up the heavy weight of the ceiling. One pillar has a staircase that twists around it, leading to a podium where the priest will give his homily.

The mass begins. The altar servers process in, carrying a crucifix and candles. The priest walks slowly behind them while the choir sings beautiful songs in Italian. The entire congregation knows the songs, as I struggle to read the lyrics and guess the tune. I make out the words “Padre,” “Dio,” and
“Gesu,” which mean Father, God, and Jesus. The priest begins:

Nel nome del Padre,

E del Figlio,

E dello Spirito Santo.


The words are foreign to me, and yet I recognize that this is the same opening prayer we would say at all of the masses that I attended as a child.

There aren’t very many young people at the mass. I glance around the basilica and realize that I am one of the youngest people in the building. As my eyes scan the church, I catch sight of the altar servers. Looking at them reminds me of the days when I would serve at my home parish in Washington. As a kid, I was often asked by my pastor to altar serve at funerals. I remember feeling extremely nervous about being in front of an assembly of strangers. I would hide my hands in the alb sleeves and curl my little fingers up into a tight fist. Despite my nervousness, I loved altar serving. I often dreamed of serving in a beautiful basilica, swinging a thurible, and then watching as the clergy reacted when the strong incense hit their senses.

I look back at the altar servers in Trastevere and wonder if they know that there are little girls in other countries that dream of having their position in a basilica.

At the end of the mass, the priest says a prayer and makes an announcement to the clergy about local events. In his announcement he mentions “Papa.” It takes me a few minutes to realize that he is talking about Pope Francis.

The Pope has always been a prominent topic at my home in the Seattle area. From a young age, I was taught about the long line of leaders in the Catholic Church. Peter was the first pope, and then over 260 popes later, Pope Francis now holds the position of head of the Church.

I remember one of the first times I saw a pope. It was during the summer of 2011 when I saw Pope Benedict XVI at World Youth Day at a deserted airport in Spain. Over 1.5 million people from all over the world attended the event. I remember caravanning across a bit of desert—amidst hundreds of travelers—to get to the airport. To my right was a group of pilgrims from Africa and to my left was a group from Asia. They were all singing at the top of their lungs, playing instruments, and waving their countries’ flags to the tune of the 2011 World Youth Day theme song:

Firmes en la fe, firmes en la fe

caminamos en Cristo, nuestro Amigo, nuestro Señor.

¡Gloria siempre a Él! ¡Gloria siempre a Él!

Caminamos en Cristo, firmes en la fe.

I remember how excited I was. One and a half million people from countries all around the world surrounded me. Everyone was jumping up and down and screaming like fan girls at a concert. We waved our home countries’ flags. We sang. We prayed. As night drew near, there was a freak-lightning storm. Huge tents collapsed. A giant cross fell down. But despite all of the wind, rain, and lightning, all 1.5 million of us stood together and sang at the top of our lungs “esta es la juventud del Papa!” meaning “we are the youth of the Pope.”

Time freezes as I let the moment sink in. The memory of seeing Pope Benedict reminds me of my experience witnessing Pope Francis on this study abroad in Rome.

The scene was very similar. My friends and I stood amidst hundreds of visitors all eager to see the head of the Catholic Church. My neck felt strained as I looked up at the pope’s window and waited for his figure to become visible. In my excitement, I felt my fists clench up, which brought back feelings and memories from different aspects of my life. Watching the clock tick, the crowd grew louder and louder with the anticipation of Pope Francis. When the moment finally arrived and he became visible, the pope was greeted with loud cheers, music, and dancing. I looked around me. Memories from World Youth Day hit me from all angles. Pope Francis smiled his sweet, humble grin and the crowds grew rowdier. When we finally calmed down, the pope gave a speech in Italian and then ended in prayer. I recognized some of the words. This was a prayer that my mom had taught me to pray in Spanish. As Italian and Spanish are very similar languages, I was able to pray along with the pope and the locals standing in the audience. I felt a strong solidarity to my church as I stood among strangers who all shared the same faith.

I pause as I let go of my thoughts and bring myself back to the cathedral in Trastevere. The mass has ended and the priest has left the altar. I genuflect and proceed to leave the cathedral with memories still racing through my head. On my way out, I take a moment to turn around and look at the mosaics.
Most of the images are of angels and saints. The image that catches my eye the most is the large image of

Jesus and his mother Mary. I consider that Santa Maria in Trastevere is named after Mary. This reminds me of the Saint Joseph of Cupertino pictures that I saw in the Alenia Aermacchi airplane plant that my class visited on this study abroad. At the plant, I remember walking through the production line and watching as a plane was slowly pieced together. As we passed by an office in the facility, I glanced into the room and noticed a picture on the wall of a male saint. Curious about this finding, I researched the patron saint of airplanes when I arrived back at my apartment and discovered that it was Saint Joseph of Cupertino. I found this quite fascinating. Not only were there religious images in Italian churches, but there were also pictures of patron saints in factories and business offices alike. Religion can be found in all facets of life, no matter where you are or what you’re doing.

I exit Santa Maria in Trastevere all by myself, as I am the only student who is Catholic on my study abroad program. As I walk out of the basilica, I don’t feel lonely, however. In fact, I feel even more closely tied to memories and experiences that I have made. I realize that I have gained a closer tie to my Catholic identity while on this program, something that I was not expecting when I registered to study abroad.

I close my eyes.

I open them.

I am back at the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Washington.

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