Our Pilgrimage to Italy
Written by Rev. Rob MacDonald
When Dr. Nolasco first introduced the idea of taking a group of students to Italy for an educational travel trip, my first thought was that such a trip was a bit outlandish, along the same lines as dreaming of being a pastor or counsellor in Hawaii instead of having to face our never ending winters here in Canada. However, after thinking it through it became obvious that such a trip would be uniquely valuable to our students.
Dr. Nolasco along with a few other students had stopped in Assisi for debriefing while on their way back from another PTS journey to Rwanda the year before, and had immediately recognized the value in bringing students back to Assisi to study. While the Rwanda experience demanded intense application of counselling skill in therapeutic and psychoeducational settings, it was recognized that it would be valuable to offer students a training opportunity that centered on their personal and professional development.
Our counselling psychology program is focused on being integrative in nature, seeking to develop competency in counselling psychology as well as theology and spirituality, and being immersed in particular locations of church history offered an opportunity to examine these disciplines from different vantage points. Italy offers a particularly rich look at the development of Christianity, and while we did look at some macro elements while in Rome, we were able to concentrate our efforts on the 13th century while in Assisi. During the life times of St. Francis & St. Clare, Christianity had existed for quite some time and had taken some dramatic twists and turns. We wanted to explore how these Christ followers tuned their ears to the voice of the Spirit, followed God’s leading in very tangible ways, and offered a correction to the trajectory of the church that is surprisingly transferable to the church of the present. The values of the church, culture and politics had become so intermingled that Francis’ calling to “rebuild my church” became one of attempting to correct the love of power, financial gain and complexity that in his view was hindering the work of the Gospel at that time.
Our team was comprised of 12 persons: two PTS professors, Dr. Nolasco and Rev. MacDonald; Jordan Bell, a senior student tasked with handling the logistical components of the trip; and 9 other students at various stages in their MA Counselling & MA Counselling Psychology programs. There were four men and eight women, and the sense of community, unity and care for each other developed very well during the two weeks.
Three courses were offered for credit; Integration of Theology and Psychology, Counselling Across Cultures, and Theology & Practice of Christian Spirituality. Before the trip, students were expected to complete a significant amount of reading and research related to their individual courses and aspects of history and culture specific to the locations of Rome and Assisi. During the trip they were expected to demonstrate an ability to use the various locations, art, and narratives to reflect on spiritual and psychological realities in their own lives. There were also academic projects associated with each course that students had to complete following the trip.
Italy has played a central role in the development and history of the Christian church, and we wanted our students to be able to explore and experience this history in order to make connections and appropriations to their own journeys of faith. Spending time contemplating the writings of and stories about major figures such as Francis of Assisi and Clare in the actual locations that they received their callings and performed their ministries is a powerful experience and something altogether different than through the text alone. We were able to immerse ourselves in the experience of these sometimes larger than life personalities, and start to make explicit connections to our own contexts, which in many ways are not that different. Most of us were startled at how easy it was to make connections from their lives to ours, as it became painfully obvious how each of us struggle with these very themes.
We focused our time in Rome, Assisi, and other sites particular to Franciscan spirituality; we engaged in side trips to areas of interest such as Siena, Florence and Cinque Terra. Italy has long been one of the most popular sites for spiritual pilgrimages, along with Jerusalem and Santiago de Campesena in Spain, and it was of particular importance to us to offer students the chance to experience a concentrated few weeks of focus on their experience of and walk with Christ in such a location.
Formal Class Times
We gathered for formal sessions of instruction and processing on average two times per day, one in the morning and the other in the evening. Students participated in all classes regardless of the courses they were taking. These sessions provided an opportunity to integrate experiential learnings from throughout the day with course content, assigned readings, and various projects given along the way.
A key mechanism for connecting with the lives of these figures and others throughout history is art. Throughout the history of faith, artists have played a crucial role in communicating God’s gracious acts of revelation and redemption. We wanted our students to reflect on the Gospel story by focusing on how some of these major figures in history attempted to know God and imitate Christ through action in the world. Rome and Assisi are particularly well equipped to assist in this regard by providing a wealth of various artistic mediums. The viewer is encouraged to reflect and contemplate what is being communicated about God and his work in the world, while at the same time realizing that God still reveals himself to his people in the present and that as his people we testify to his presence in the world.
Our students had the opportunity to spend time in two key locations to facilitate this reflection, the Vatican Museum and the old city of Assisi. The Vatican Museum holds one of the world’s most incredible art collections, offering endless opportunities for reflection on biblical and church history. For me personally, seeing Michelangelo’s renditions of the Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel and others brought on a rush of emotion as I was encompassed by a deep sense of continuity with God’s plan of redemption. I was suddenly in the ‘company of a great cloud of witnesses’ and I couldn’t escape the conviction that this was my history and I too was being called to faithfully live out the Gospel story in my own context. In Assisi, the Gospel story is communicated tangibly through the telling of the lives of Francis and Clare. These two figures and their followers used their lives, teachings, lifestyles and experiences to imitate Christ as best they could in order to demonstrate Jesus to the world. We were likewise challenged to do the same.
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