Maureen Polasek is glad that she has a photo of Pope Francis giving her a personal blessing in St. Peter’s Square. Otherwise, she might have trouble believing it actually happened.
Polasek, an upper-level math teacher at Rosati-Kain High School, traveled to Rome on a spring break pilgrimage with 35 members of the Rosati-Kain advanced chorus and several other faculty, friends and family members. After Pope Francis’ general audience on March 15, the chorus sang three songs for the pope in the square, where he greeted the group and prayed over Polasek.
“I was just trying to soak in the moment,” Polasek said. “I just remember feeling so blessed.”
Polasek is currently undergoing cancer treatment, and being able to share that experience with her students standing right next to her was especially meaningful because “they are going through this with me,” she said.
The eight-day pilgrimage was designed not as a field trip but as a special opportunity for students to grow in their faith, said Dr. Elizabeth Ann Goodwin, Rosati-Kain president. Through a connection Goodwin had in Rome, the chorus secured dates to perform concerts at churches in both Rome and Florence and sing at Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica and Saint’Andrea della Valle in Rome, in addition to singing for Pope Francis.
Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski supported the endeavor by writing two letters to Vatican officials, and donors covered nearly all the costs of the trip for the students, who had been rehearsing their music selections since the first week of school.
Being able to meet Pope Francis was powerful for all of them, Goodwin said. “He inspires us to live out God’s call for each one of us,” she said. “His message in his general audience on that particular day was that we are called to be apostolic. We’re not called to stay in our same, safe place — we’re called to go out to the world.”
Singing in St. Peter’s Basilica and other centuries-old churches was a real-life lesson in Church history, said junior Audrey Zelenka. She recalled seeing a painting of the basilica in the St. Louis Art Museum and feeling amazed that she was standing there herself now. “I liked thinking about all the people who had previously been in these churches and worshipped God there,” she said.
The group also visited visited the Sistine Chapel, St. John Lateran and many other churches. They learned about the Church’s early martyrs while touring the catacombs and the Colosseum, walked through the Vatican gardens and went biking on the Appian Way.
Another impactful experience was climbing the Scala Sancta, the “holy steps” which Jesus walked up to be judged by Pontias Pilate, Goodwin said. They climbed the 28 marble steps on their knees, saying a prayer of gratitude on each step. Every night after dinner, the group gathered to reflect and share where they saw God throughout the day.
Sophomore Rayne Little found God in the beauty of the sacred spaces they visited, she said. After returning home, she continues to feel inspired by the time she spent focusing on her faith.
“I’ve been working on myself and my relationship with God a lot over the past year,” Rayne said. “This trip changed me a lot in the sense that I know God is always here for me and He’s always going to be here for me. Being on the trip really motivated me to build a better relationship with Him.”
Music at Mass has always been one of the ways that sophomore Amari Quinlan feels closest to God.
“It makes me happy to spread my faith and love for this music,” she said. “…I definitely felt the Holy Spirit on us whenever we were singing.”
A Jesuit experience
A group of 45 band students from St. Louis University High School was also at the pope’s March 15 general audience. They played a song during the audience and then greeted Pope Francis afterward, standing just feet away from the Rosati-Kain chorus on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.
“He asked us to pray for him, which is a pretty powerful moment, to have the leader of the largest Church in the world to ask that of you,” said Jeff Pottinger, SLUH band director.
The general audience was one of the highlights of the band’s 10-day Ignatian pilgrimage. They visited important places in the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, in both Italy and Spain.
“It meant a lot to the boys and families, and the teachers and administrators, for us to retrace those steps,” Pottinger said.
“...This trip took a boy who had a really deep faith life and solidified it. And we have another boy who said, ‘I’m not a very religious person, but for the first time, I can see the beauty that’s in the Church, which hasn’t always been perfect in my mind.’”