Melbourne pilgrims en route to World Youth Day have begun their pre-pilgrimages in earnest, with one group walking in the footsteps of Mary and Jesus in the Holy Land; another visiting the Church of the Gesu in Rome (which our own St Mary of the Cross MacKillop frequented) and the Emerging Leaders program beginning their immersion experience with a talk by Rev Dr Stephen Wang on the ‘living history’ of Rome.

Fr Stephen Wang is Rector of the Venerable English College in Rome and began his talk by encouraging the young leaders to ‘be open’ to God’s prompting while on pilgrimage. ‘You are a pilgrim, and pilgrim comes from the Latin word [for] “to go abroad”,’ he said. ‘You’re leaving the security of your home of Melbourne and you’re crossing a field into unknown territory.’

‘God wants to give each of you a special grace on this trip. He wants to help you in a particular way in your faith—in your life as a Christian, as a disciple, in your discernment about your present and your future … in some personal way that you’ll look back on I believe and think, “Something changed when I was on that pilgrimage.”

The reason that brought you here—the reason you thought you were coming—may not be the reason why God wants you here. And that’s very often the case. We do things for good reasons, and then we find that God had a bigger one.

A city of saints

Fr Stephen described Rome as ‘a city of saints’, reflecting on the long list of women and men who chose to follow Christ and inevitably spent time in Rome. ‘Saints of the Middle Ages like St Bridget of Sweden … St Catherine of Siena who lived her last years here and is buried just around the corner … and saints of the early modern age like St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and St Philip Neri, known as the apostle to Rome. And saints of the modern period … How many saints you will see in St Peter’s Basilica alone!’

He also reflected on the ‘everyday saints’, people who daily give of their lives in the service of others, courageously living out their faith and love for Jesus. ‘But also those who have died recently, and have given their faith in Rome.’ This includes the 28-year-old Chiara Petrillo, who died in 2012 and is buried at Campo Verano in Rome. In 2018, Chiara was declared a Servant of God, the first step towards canonisation.

‘I go to her grave every year to pray,’ Fr Stephen shared, explaining how Chiara gave her life ‘because she didn’t want to have cancer treatment when she was pregnant with her child, and that sacrifice—in order to bring her child to term—cost her her life.’

We are part of a living history

‘How many beautiful saints there are dotted around here [in Rome] and amongst us today. This is where St Peter gave his life for his love of Jesus; where St Paul built up the Christian community. He was imprisoned just a five-minute walk away, behind me. He was executed outside the city, and you’ll be going to the church where he’s buried,’ he said.

‘This isn’t just a theory or a story. It’s living history.’

‘An ancient city rises by 12 inches every year. So the time of Jesus is 20 feet beneath us. And 1,000 years ago, it was 10feet beneath us. You see the layers of the city around you. History is not just a theory. You don’t have to just learn it in a book. Here, you see your Catholic history all around you.’

Fr Stephen is the first in a series of guest speakers to explore the foundations of Christian leadership, evangelisation and how the mission of Jesus Christ might be lived in today’s world.

Andrea Collier, a teacher from St Teresa’s Primary School in Essendon, shared how much Fr Stephen’s talk resonated with her.

‘He was incredible! He asked us, “What is it that you’re seeking?” and I had never really asked that question. I think what captured me the most and that I want to take back to my school is that God loves us so personally and that when he gives us a gift, it’s not just for us but it’s for us to share with others.’