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Pilgrimage — the new field trip

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Middle school students from St. Rita School in Alexandria did not take a field trip, but instead made a pilgrimage to the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington Oct. 26. 

Melissa Manaker, assistant principal and sixth-grade religion teacher, described their journey to the shrine as a “blessing” to see the relics and histories of Sts. John Paul II and Thomas More. The pilgrimage was prompted by studying religious freedom in social studies. 

For early Christians, “pilgrimage was a process of conversion, a yearning for intimacy with God and a trusting plea for their material needs." Pope John Paul II in 1998.

“God raises up examples of saints in each century,” said Manaker.

The act of making a pilgrimage is a Christian tradition defined by faithful traveling to a sacred place or item to draw closer to Christ. The experience of the pilgrimage in its entirety can be seen as a prayer.

“We see (the shrine) primarily as a place of pilgrimage,” said Joe Swick, pilgrimage and visitor services specialist. 

For early Christians, “pilgrimage was a process of conversion, a yearning for intimacy with God and a trusting plea for their material needs,” said Pope John Paul II in 1998. 

The visit of the 75 St. Rita students was seen as a “pilgrimage” rather than a “field trip” because it not only incorporated education but also opportunities for spiritual growth.

Before arriving, each student chose a deceased family member to pray for throughout their visit and at the end of their tour they gathered in the shrine’s Remdeptor Homilis Church to pray.

The middle-schoolers were spilt into groups of three based on their houses — similar to Harry Potter — each named after an archangel with a specific intention. 

“Each house has a vocational mission through each saint,” said Manaker. 

House Michael students have the charism of protecting, so those students mentor their younger peers. Students of House Gabriel proclaim school announcements on the PA system. House Raphael students are healers and distribute milk at lunch.  

The students toured the shrine’s permanent exhibit, “A Gift of Love: The Life of St. John Paul II”; the featured exhibit “God’s Servant First: The Life and Legacy of Thomas More”; the shrine’s Luminous Mysteries Chapel; and Redemptor Hominis Church. 

The groups quietly listened and gazed at the mosaics as tour guides questioned students’ knowledge of the Christian symbolism and the histories of both Sts. John Paul II and Thomas More. 

At the St. Thomas More exhibit, students had a moment to kneel before the relics of the Arlington Diocese’s patron saint and recite a prayer the saint wrote while imprisoned.

The students’ visit came four days after the shrine dedicated a new St. John Paul II bronze statue by artist Chas Fagan, who also painted the official portrait of St. Teresa of Kolkata that was displayed at her canonization.
Students finished their pilgrimage with a group photo in front of the statue of the saint they came to learn about and to imitate.  

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016