The rich history of Rome made the perfect classroom for 16 students this past May in the biennial study abroad class, “Christian Faith and Visual Culture in Rome.” The course is a 12-day exploration of Rome’s history through the lenses of Christianity, art, and architecture. Co-taught by art history professor Kirstin Noreen and theological studies professor Marc Reeves, S.J., the class gave students a hands-on experience learning about the role of Christianity in the development of such a cultured city.
The course kicked off with three Saturday classes during the spring semester leading up to the trip. Upon arrival in Rome, students moved into their shared apartments and began their curated trek around Rome.
The instructors designed an interactive and engaging curriculum that unfolded across the city. Students took quizzes inside historical locations like the ancient Mithreum, the colonnade of St. Peter’s, early Christian catacombs, and the Jesuit mother church, Il Gesù.
In addition to taking in landmarks like the Colosseum, ancient Roman Forum, Pantheon, and the Sistine Chapel, they also went to more difficult to access locations like the tomb of St. Peter, located two levels underneath the current church. Inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Professor Noreen gave a lecture on the fifth and 13th century mosaics adorning the walls. Building on the art history component, Father Reeves took students down to the next level to see the altar where Saint Ignatius celebrated his first mass.
Unique to this trip was the rare opportunity for students to climb the Scala Santa, or Holy Staircase. The stairs are said to have been climbed by Jesus in the Palace of Pontius Pilate. The original marble stairs, which pilgrims have climbed on their knees for centuries, had not been touched since 1723. At that time, they were covered in wood to be preserved. However, as part of a Vatican restoration project, the stairs were uncovered to be cleaned, and were briefly open to the public.
“During this year’s Easter Season, pilgrims to Rome had the opportunity to climb up the original marble stairs that have been severely worn down over the centuries by knees of pious pilgrims. The misshapen marble steps make for a painful climb. However, those of us who made the climb on our hands and knees found it to be a very prayerful and moving experience that we will never forget,” shared Father Reeves.
Rome is especially significant for LMU students because of its Jesuit history. The final day of class was dedicated to learning about the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the development of the Jesuit Order, and the artistic traditions of the Jesuits. The site visit to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore offered students an opportunity to steep themselves in Ignatian history and consider the spiritual legacy left behind to deepen and enrich the lives of Christians.
In addition to transformative educational experiences, the course also encouraged personal reflection, all of which were deepened by being in a city of such spiritual significance. Open to students of all faith traditions, the course provided a welcoming space to learn about the many ways religion can shape a city and culture.
“Each of our students, through their engagement with Christian art, architecture, history and theology, reflected deeply on matters of faith, transcendence, and the existence of a God. They were exposed to the incarnational vision that St. Ignatius possessed and so desired to share with others,” said Father Reeves.
One student who completed the course reflected, “I was able to come in without any sense of faith, and still be moved by LMU’s commitment to Jesuit tradition and education. Meeting people from around the world, I have been able to discuss inter-religious views with my friends, which we are encouraged to do. The openness and dedication that LMU has to religion comes from the values of St. Ignatius. I am grateful to have chosen a university that has enriched my life in ways that I did not expect.”