By Julie DeValk
When I left for Viterbo, Italy, I was nervous, among other things, about my faith life. I had no idea how I would find a Catholic Mass. I couldn’t understand or speak Italian, and didn’t know if anyone else in my study abroad program would be interested in going.
Thankfully, by Sunday I had a found a Mass at the Cathedral of San Lorenzo and a couple of friends to go with. By the end of the week, I’d discovered a citywide Mass schedule and made it my goal to attend a new church every Sunday. It was a struggle some weeks, not being able to understand the readings or homily, but it allowed me to seek Christ’s presence at Communion.
On our third weekend in Italy we traveled to Rome and in the early hours of Saturday morning we visited St. Peter’s Basilica. While wandering around the basilica’s cavernous naves I found what is now my favorite place on earth, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. I couldn’t help but cry in the presence of Christ from the sheer joy that I felt to be in Italy. The quiet time I spent in that small chapel was so meaningful to me. The Mass that Pope Francis celebrated the next day was also a wonderful experience.
From that moment on, I searched for Christ everywhere I went. I made it a priority to stop and pray in every church we passed. I visited the Duomo di Orvieto, St. Anthony’s Basilica in Padua, St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and so many more. By the end of February, I had never felt so close to Christ or so strong in prayer. Sadly, the dream had to come to an early end.
On the morning of Feb 29, a week after the coronavirus had begun to spread through northern Italy, I woke up to dozens of messages all saying the same thing: we were going home. The trips I had planned for the next few weeks fell apart in an instant and my new home suddenly became temporary. For days, I cried until my face was constantly red and my eyes puffy. Stress made me sick to my stomach and for days I stayed up late into the night unable to sleep.
The worst of my sadness came on my final Sunday in Italy. Halfway through Mass at the Santuario di Santa Rosa, where St. Rose the patron saint of Viterbo rests, I broke into tears. I couldn’t understand why this was happening. I had found Christ here, stronger than any of my previous encounters with Christ, and it didn’t make sense to leave.
That night, I received a call from my mom with a change of plans. Instead of having me leave later in the week, she wanted me home as soon as possible. In one day I had to frantically finish packing and catch a train to Rome in order to fly out Tuesday morning. My final day in Viterbo was brief. As my train pulled out of the station, I asked for St. Rose’s intercession that I may one day return to her beautiful city.
Once I arrived in Rome, I lugged my suitcases through the streets, determined to see St. Peter’s Basilica again. I returned to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel I had visited a month before, but this time I cried from heartbreak. I had a sense of closure after visiting St. Peter’s, but since returning home I’ve struggled to adjust. I haven’t been able to attend church in person since my last weekend in Italy due to quarantine and the suspension of all Masses, but my faith keeps me persevering. I’ve found peace now and can finally enjoy my memories of Italy because I’ve learned to always trust in God’s plan especially when life doesn’t make sense.
(Julia DeValk is a junior at the University of Iowa.)