For two weeks this past August, I was privileged to travel with the Catholic Studies Department to Spain. This trip was everything and nothing I had expected all at the same time. I met people and saw things I never would have thought possible during my college career.
For our first week in the country we stayed at a dorm of the University of Navarra, the “Harvard” of Spain. We were joined by our amazing professor Isabel, a native of Madrid who taught us all about Spanish history and culture. The Rev. Stanley Gomes also accompanied us on the trip, along with Gloria Garafulich-Grabois of the Chesterton Institute. They were amazing chaperones to us the entire trip.
Our days started by walking to class at the University, which happened to be part of the Camino De Santiago (the route of a pilgrimage to St. James). Isabel would lecture us on the history of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. I had no idea about the deep history of religion in Spain, the rate of change between the three religions and the trails left behind by each that are still apparent today. Every class had a break, which usually ended with a slice of tortilla in the university café.
Along with our daily classes we had daily excursions. I saw everything from old cathedrals and cloisters to the birthplace and home of St. Ignatius and the royal palace in Oliete. All of these places really showed the rich history of Spain and how religion was a major factor in its shaping. Some places were fully guided like a museum, while others were simply the structures left standing and you were free to use your imagination and think about what life was really like there.
Some of the historical places we visited to accompany the topics of our lectures, while others we saw to experience Spanish culture, such as running down the street where San Fermin, the Running of the Bulls is held, going out at night for wine and pinchos with the locals or spending our day off at the beach swimming in the Bay of Biscay in San Sebastian.
Saying goodbye to northern Spain was bittersweet. I had fallen in love with its people and its culture, but experiences that I had in our second week in Madrid touched me in a very different way. The second week spent in San Lorenzo de El Escorial and Madrid reached me on both a cultural and spiritual level.
Staying in El Escorial, seeing so many cathedrals and monasteries and being in the presence of his holiness Pope Benedict XVI truly reconnected me with my faith. I’m not a die-hard Catholic by any means, but having the experience to be 15 feet away from his holiness affected me in a way I did not expect. There was an energy from him that I had never experienced. My favorite part of the trip and the reason I got to see the pope was World Youth Day. The Catholic Church holds this event every few years to bring youths of the world together to celebrate their faith. This was an experience like none I had ever had before. I met people from all over the world– Spain, France, Germany, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Korea, China, Slovakia and so many others. Also, I was proud to my nationwhen I would see people sprint from across the street in order to take a picture with us and our American flag.
I feel so blessed to have had the privilege to go on this amazing trip. I had experiences that I will always remember and friends that I will always have in my life. I left for this trip unsure of how I would feel when I returned and I can now say that I not only reconnected with my faith, but with myself.
Caitlin Cunningham may be reached at caitlin. firstname.lastname@example.org. edu