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Every year the UNIV Forum takes place in Rome, the Eternal City.

It's organised for university students and young professionals to discover their Christian roots, appreciate history and culture and take part in the Easter ceremonies with the Pope. Often some of the participants get to meet the Holy Father himself.

Questions or queries? Contact Tim Helbano on 027 247 7027.

Following is a personal account from a past UNIV trip.

"Heading home to Rome"

There is an immediate drop in temperature when you step down into the underground burial chamber that once housed thousands of bodies.

The complex of catacombs of St Callixtus lies on the Appian Way, on which so many ancient Romans – including many Christians – travelled, some as they fled persecution from the vicious emperors of Rome. Up to 20 hectares of interconnected chambers have now been uncovered underneath the quiet pasturelands lined with Cypress Pines.


Here persecuted Christians were buried, about 50 martyrs along with 16 Popes, and from here many took their families, their livelihoods and their faith to foreign lands.


Perhaps they dreamed that one day the message of Jesus Christ would reach the far ends of the earth.

Last Easter, faith-filled pilgrims from the most remote corner of the earth came home to Rome for the first time. The New Zealanders had only heard the Word as recently as the 19th century, thanks to the heroic acts of Marist missionaries from France – one of whom was martyred on a tiny Pacific island.


For those from Australia and New Zealand, the old world of Rome is something new. Basilicas and piazzas, frescoes and statues, seen before only in the pages of coffee-table books and the fleeting images of a YouTube video suddenly assume epic proportions and come to life. Pilgrims reached out to touch the closest column of Bernini’s colonnade just to confirm that it was real, before stepping into the welcoming arms of the mother that is St Peter’s Square.


And here, in Rome, for the 50th time, students met their counterparts from all over the planet. The UNIV Congress, held at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, was delivered, broadcast, translated for all to hear and understand.


As were the words of Pope Francis, spoken in Holy Week and Easter to ‘the city and the globe’. The man who like Peter, stands in the place of Christ, welcomed those of many languages. Instead of Parthians, Medes and Elamites, Pope Francis spoke to Kiwis, Aussies, Trinidadians, Canadians and Singaporeans, and told them to look even further out to the horizons and leave behind their old selves. To keep searching for how they might give themselves to others, and this changing world.


He told them to “get out of yourselves, overcoming comfort-seeking and the selfishness of thinking only about your own concerns, in order to set out on the path of encountering those in need and serving them with your talents.”

And to those lucky enough to meet the Holy Father face to face, and embrace him, he again asked for commitment: “Pray for me, every day,” he said.


“Don’t forget!”

The sense of commitment was reinforced not only in stepping through the damp corridors of the catacombs and attending Holy Mass in a small burial chamber, but also passing by the monuments in which they died. The hallowed arches of the Coliseum were poignant not so much for the long-lost glory of Rome, but the glory and the wreathes won in Heaven by those committed witnesses that faced the claws of beasts and the devouring flames.


Rome is full of treasures. From the true relics of the Cross, the bones of St Peter, to the unsurpassable works of Michelangelo, Bernini and their peers. Each one will treasure those images, and preserve their favourite moments, perhaps the inspirations gained from a moment’s respite and prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament in an ornate church. Perhaps the scenes of joy as new catechumens received the waters of new life in the baptisms of the Easter Vigil, under the regal arches and blue canopy of Sancta Maria Sopra Minerva.


Perhaps the clearer sense of a call, amid the esprit de corps felt with so many other young faces from around the world yearning for meaning and a sense of purpose.


For there is much to be done. “If we could just have one of these chapels,” said one New Zealander, standing in a small church and staring at a simple but beautiful wooden crucifix, “it would be a national monument”.


But the message from UNIV Congress 2018 was not so much to build up our countries with bricks and mortar, but to engage with our friends and build up Christ’s kingdom in them. To have the courage to speak, to ask, to ponder aloud and share our beliefs.

With bags packed and departure cards in hand, the reality of such a call hits home with the very earthiness of the cold walls and floor of those catacombs. Notebooks in hand, they’re etched with the few but demanding resolutions to work harder and try to become another saint, in our own natural way.


The words of Pope Francis still echo: “Our Lord is inviting all of us to follow Him with joy and to love God and neighbour with an unconditional love.”


“He invites you to go back to the time and place of your first love and he says to you: Do not be afraid, follow me.”


The Australians and New Zealanders returned to their natural paradise – fresh lands with soil ripe and ready for sowing.

And a deep desire to return next Easter – bringing others back home from the horizon.

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