May 9, 2014

Incredible journey: Students learn strength of ‘living Church’ in trip to see school’s namesake canonized

Roncalli High School students Lucas LaRosa, left, Dolan Monroe, Kristen Henke and Abby Whalen are all smiles as they pose for a photo during their journey to Rome for the canonizations of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II on April 27. (Submitted photo)

Roncalli High School students Lucas LaRosa, left, Dolan Monroe, Kristen Henke and Abby Whalen are all smiles as they pose for a photo during their journey to Rome for the canonizations of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II on April 27. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Lucas LaRosa’s smile still beamed, the afterglow of the most amazing journey in the 18-year-old’s life.

That same feeling of joy filled Kristen Henke, Dolan Monroe and Abby Whalen as they also recalled that incredible night in Rome when they were right in the middle of a huge crowd pressed together near St. Peter’s Square while people danced and sang for hours—until all the excitement and anticipation of the night transformed into the awe and reverence of the morning as they and 800,000 other people witnessed Pope Francis canonize St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II on April 27.

Three days later, all those thrills and images kept replaying in the minds of these four students from Roncalli High School in Indianapolis who had been chosen to represent their school at the ceremony.

Now back at their school that had been named long ago in honor of Angelo Roncalli—the birth name of St. John XXIII—the four students joined the rest of the Roncalli community for a Mass on April 30 that celebrated the canonization of their school’s namesake.

The smiles of the four students glowed again as they saw the larger-than-life image of St. John XXIII on a video screen above the makeshift altar in the gym, an image that proclaimed the new saint as “The Original Roncalli Rebel.”

The four youths also felt a wave of emotion and understanding when Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin—the principal celebrant of the Mass at Roncalli—said, “Once in a while, somebody will ask me, ‘What’s the best part of being a Catholic?’

“I say, ‘It’s being connected. Being connected first and foremost with Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity. And it’s being connected with people across space and across time, with 1.2 billion people across the world today, and all those people who went before us and came after us.”

Abby, Dolan, Kristen and Lucas knew exactly what the archbishop meant because that feeling of being so connected is just what they experienced as they stood together for more than 11 hours in the middle of that huge crowd on that incredible night and morning in Rome.

A contagious excitement

Led by Roncalli president Joseph Hollowell and principal Chuck Weisenbach, the four youths had spent the day of April 26 in Assisi, visiting sites dedicated to St. Francis and St. Clare.

When they came to Rome that night, they lined up at 11 p.m. near St. Peter’s Square, joining the hundreds of thousands of other people who had already gathered—some camped out for days—in the hope of seeing Pope Francis canonize two of his predecessors.

“To hear all the different languages was really cool,” Kristen said.

“The Polish people stood out,” Abby noted. “We heard some people had walked from Poland to Italy to be there for the canonization of Pope John Paul. It was really interesting to see their faith.”

A connection with some of the Polish people grew even stronger when the Roncalli group reached out to two Polish youths who had been separated from their group in the massive crowd. The Polish youths and the Roncalli youths banded together as the hours wore on—and the celebration did, too.

“People were singing and dancing in the streets,” Lucas said. “They had bongo drums and guitars. We didn’t know what we were singing, but we joined in.”

“It was so crazy that people could be excited that long,” Dolan said with a laugh.

‘To live a meaningful life every day’

That excitement matched the joy that Dolan, Abby, Kristen and Lucas felt when they were selected for the all-expenses-paid trip to see the canonization in person—by virtue of an essay contest sponsored by Roncalli’s campus ministry team.

As part of her essay, Abby wrote: “I look to Pope John XXIII as a model of courage, a fearless man who followed Christ unfailingly, revolutionizing Church tradition through the Second Vatican Council. I look to his intercession when I am in need of a friend at school, the courage to step out against the tide as my own person, and for the patience to love all around me as he did.”

Kristen wrote: “Losing my father taught me that death really is on its own time, and that it truly is crucial to live a meaningful life every day. I realized my purpose on Earth is to dedicate my life to serving and reaching out to others. Pope John XXIII was the epitome of a servant to God and the poor, proving so when he visited the sick and prisoners on Christmas Eve.”

Those legacies of Pope John XXIII became part of the story of a saint as night turned into morning in Rome on April 27. As the massive crowd was allowed to pour into St. Peter’s Square, the four Roncalli youths saw the banners for each of the two popes hanging on the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica.

With some of them wearing Roncalli shirts and sweatshirts, the group members held up signs during the canonization that read, “Roncalli, The Original Rebel.”

“Italian women came up to us,” said Dolan, who wore a long-sleeve gray shirt inscribed with “Roncalli” across it on the day of the canonization. “They were extremely excited that we knew the whole story.”

Emotions swept over the members of the Roncalli group during the canonization.

“It was really moving,” Lucas said. “I realized the universal power of the Church. They knew these two popes changed the world, and all these people showed up to say thank you. It showed how people love the Church.”

Weisenbach thought it was especially fitting that Pope Francis canonized the two popes together.

“Without the Spirit leading Pope John XXIII to ‘open the doors of the Church’ and allowing the Church to move into the ‘new world,’ I really do not think there would have been a Pope John Paul II,” the Roncalli principal said. “From that perspective, it made it all the more special that these two beloved, holy and great popes were canonized on the same day.”

‘Face the future with hope’

Archbishop Tobin also captured the spirit of St. John XXIII in his homily at the Mass at Roncalli.

“Anybody who knows anything about John XXIII knows he was characterized by a sense of humor that was born of his humility.

“He wasn’t hung up on himself. He was proud of his peasant origins. He said, ‘I was born poor, and I’m particularly proud to die poor.’

“He was open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Because he was guided to do so, he was able to convoke a game-changing event in the Church, which was the Second Vatican Council.

“His humility and his sense of humor were born of his freedom. He was free to be himself because he knew he was beloved by God, and there was no honor on Earth, no accomplishment that could top that, because God so loved the world that he sent his son to Angelo Roncalli to live and believe in God.”

Looking around at everyone in the packed gym of the Roncalli Rebels, the archbishop smiled and asked: “Now what do you think Angelo Roncalli, St. John XXIII, would say to the Rebels this morning? He would say, ‘Wow, it’s very nice of you to name a school after me.’

“But I think he’d also say this because he wrote it to some friends, and I think he would consider you his special friends. It’s this: ‘Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you have tried and failed, but what it is still possible for you to do.’

The archbishop concluded his homily by saying, “So face the future with hope. St. John is on your side. This, the original Rebel, would ask you to never forget that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. So that you who believe in him may not perish, but may live.”

Sharing the legacy of a saint

After the Mass at Roncalli, Lucas, Abby, Dolan and Kristen met with the archbishop. They shared their impressions of their whirlwind six-day trip to Italy. They thanked him for celebrating Mass at their school in honor of “their saint.” They posed for a picture with him.

In the last remaining weeks of the school year, the four youths hope to share their thoughts and adventures of their journey with as many of their classmates as possible.

They can tell them how a peasant boy named Angelo—the third of 13 children in a family of sharecroppers from a small Italian village—grew up to become one of the most loved and influential leaders that the world and the Church has known.

They can recall how they visited the church in Rome where Roncalli was ordained a priest in 1904.

They can share how Pope John XXIII added diversity to the Church by naming the first African cardinal, the first Mexican cardinal and the first Filipino cardinal.

With only Lucas graduating, the other three students are considering the ways they can bring to life the spirit and the story of St. John XXIII to the Roncalli community.

“People have been so pumped up to hear our stories,” Dolan said.

“It was an honor to represent our school,” Lucas said. “There’s really no way to put it into words other than I was there, and I witnessed history.”

They all believe the experience has deepened their faith and their appreciation of the Catholic Church.

“The news always says how the Church isn’t relevant to our generation and the world,” Abby said. “But to see all those people standing in line for all that time, it shows a desire to be there. People talk about how young people no longer need the Church, but there were so many young people there. This showed the universal need for the Church.”

That realization is the lasting memory of an unforgettable experience.

“The architecture was amazing, and the churches we toured were gorgeous,” Abby said. “But it was the living Church that was so memorable.” †

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