Drs. Benjamin White (Philosophy and Religion) and Emily Wood (History) led 16 students to Italy from May 16-31 to explore the conversion of the Roman Empire from paganism to Christianity. Under the course title “From Jupiter Capitolinus to Jesus Christ,” students spent time in Rome, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum, Naples, Florence, Milan and Venice, visiting archaeological sites, museums and Christian basilicas.
Of the numerous highlights of the trip, two stand out. First, our students were given special permission from the Pontifical Commission on Sacred Archaeology to visit the Catacombs of Santa Thecla just outside of the ancient city wall of Rome. The Catacombs are famous amongst scholars of early Christianity for a very important discovery made there in 2009. In that year Vatican archaeologists uncovered the earliest known images of the Apostles, dating from the fourth century. They are closed to the public but the Vatican grants special permission for scholars to visit these catacombs with one of their archaeologists. Dr. White asked if he could bring along some students and they eventually obliged. Raffaella Bucolo, one of the site archaeologists showed us around and, needless to say, our Clemson students got to see what few undergraduates anywhere in the world get to see: fourth-century paintings of Peter and Paul and others looking down at us from inside the tomb of a wealthy Christian family from antiquity. No pictures were allowed inside of the catacombs, but we did get one of the entrances, which, like all things in Rome, was just underneath a modern building.
The second major highlight occurred two days later when our group visited the Vatican for a regular Wednesday audience with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square. We were there with an estimated 80,000 people as it was the last audience before Francis’ first trip to the Holy Land. We got there early in order to get good seats and indeed we ended up right next to the 4,500 year old Egyptian obelisk in the center of the square that was once prominently displayed in the Circus of Emperor Nero, where Christians were likely persecuted. Our seats were next to the central aisle where Francis normally rides through the crowd in a little pod-like vehicle, offering blessings to visitors and the sick. Unfortunately, due to the number of those in wheelchairs in the central aisle that day, he was unable to get closer than 60 feet or so to us before the service. As he approached our section we all cheered because we heard “Clemson University” announced over the PA system – the Vatican welcomes all registered groups. But our group didn’t give up in getting close to the Pope – particularly since Dr. White had had a Papal Fathead (like those that students wave at basketball games) made up before the trip and we happened to have it with us in St. Peter’s Square. It was drawing a lot of attention amongst all of the other banners and signs being waved in the audience, so after the service and the 80,000 filed out of the square, we went forward toward the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica in hope of being noticed by the Pope.
As we approached the steps, along with several hundred other lingerers, we were stopped by the Swiss Guard, who wouldn’t allow us any closer to the Pope since he was busy greeting dignitaries and blessing the sick. But we began to wave the Papal Fathead in the air and instantly the lingering crowd began to chant “FRANCESCO – FRANCESCO – FRANCESCO,” trying to get Pope Francis’ attention to come over and see us. The Papal Paparazzi also sped over to our group and started snapping pictures of us with the Papal Fathead. Groups of individuals, mainly nuns, speaking all sorts of languages wanted a picture with the Francis Fathead as well. We were so popular that we ended up making the Catholic News Agency and Catholic News Service websites the next day (these were several of the pictures that ended up on their websites). Francis’ bodyguards pointed the Fathead out to him from afar and as he passed down the stairs to go touch the sick he looked at us, smiled, and waved. We waited for over an hour for him to finish with his official business with the hope that he would eventually come over to our lingering group and greet us. By the time that he was done with his official greetings, however, he was exhausted and they put him in the Pope Mobile. He was driven within six feet of us, smiled, and waved and then one of his bodyguards stepped out of the caravan and asked us if we would like to give the Fathead to the Pope as a “regalo,” Italian for “gift,” to the Pope. Of course we said “yes.” So somewhere in the Vatican archives there now exists a cardboard Papal Fathead, provided by Clemson University. Dr. White also gave the bodyguard his business card and is holding out hope that Francis, who is in the habit of randomly calling people, will express his gratitude for Clemson’s unique gift to his Holiness. Sadly, the Fathead wasn’t yet on display when we visited the Vatican Museums later that day, but that was of little concern to us as we wound up awe-inspired in St. Peter’s Basilica at the end of the day. These are just several of the amazing experiences that we had in our two jam-packed weeks in Italy. Students of religion and/or history are encouraged to get in contact with Dr. White (firstname.lastname@example.org) about future trips to the Mediterranean. He also leads trips to Turkey and Greece and is in the planning stages of a trip to Israel in the future.
By Dr. Ben White, Clemson University Assistant Professor of Religion