By Kristin Agostoni, Alison Mullin and Kate Shirley, Marketing and Communications, Loyola Marymount University
For twelve days this summer, Rome will provide the perfect classroom setting for a group of Loyola Marymount University (LMU) students learning about the city’s rich history through the lenses of Christianity, art and architecture.
Co-taught by Rev. Marc Reeves, S.J., professor of theological studies and director of Catholic studies, and Kirstin Noreen, professor of art history, the course, “Christian Faith and Visual Culture in Rome,” will take thirteen students on a curated trek throughout the city in just under two weeks – providing an interdisciplinary summer study abroad experience that is grounded in the service of faith and promotion of justice.
This May will mark the sixth year that Loyola Marymount has offered the class – one of several condensed summer study abroad opportunities in locations around the globe. In a similar vein, LMU’s Global Immersion courses take students overseas for a week or two during the course of a semester.
When Fr. Reeves, Noreen and theological studies professor, Anna Harrison, first designed the course in 2014, the professors combined their various academic specializations – theology, history, art, art history and architecture – and set out to make a study abroad experience in Rome more accessible to students who may not be able to spend an entire summer or semester overseas. Fr. Reeves explained, “We developed our condensed, or intensive, study abroad program out of a desire to open up more study abroad opportunities to all LMU students. Because of the shorter time abroad, the cost is far less than longer programs. Moreover, the shorter program allows students to return to jobs and internships and earn more for their college expenses.”
Because of its condensed time-frame, the course actually begins during the prior winter break, when students are asked to read “The Confessions” by St. Augustine and prepare a written essay due at the start of the spring semester. In addition, a trio of three-hour seminar sessions are planned in the spring – the only time that students spend in a physical classroom. Students in this year’s cohort represent a range of majors: sociology, art history, studio arts, mechanical engineering and screenwriting, to name a few.
Once the LMU group lands in Rome, the instructors will follow an interactive and engaging curriculum that unfolds across the city. Students will attend class for all twelve days, and on some days from 9 AM to 7 PM.
The course is taught in situ: in the Roman Forum, at the Colosseum, inside Roman churches, underground in the catacombs, at the Jewish synagogues in Rome, in the Vatican Museums, and in the rooms where St. Ignatius of Loyola lived and worked for the last twelve years of his life.
“Rome’s status as a city filled with relics of different periods in the past helps students to understand how the city evolved and changed over time and the role that Christianity had in that process,” said Noreen, a professor in LMU’s College of Communication and Fine Arts. “From early Christian catacombs and medieval churches to the Church of the Gesù’s role in the Catholic Reformation and the rooms where St. Ignatius lived, each example of Roman art and architecture represents a different moment in history.”
Rome is especially significant for LMU students because of its Jesuit history. For students enrolled in the summer course, the final day of class is dedicated to learning about the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the development of the Society of Jesus, and the artistic traditions of the Jesuits.
A visit to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore for the celebration of Mass at the side altar where St. Ignatius celebrated his first Mass in 1538, offers students an opportunity to steep themselves in Ignatian history and consider the spiritual legacy left behind to deepen and enrich the lives of Christians.
A moving experience for students in last year’s cohort was visiting the Scala Santa, or Holy Staircase, which Jesus is said to have climbed at the palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, where he was sentenced to death. Christian pilgrims climbed the marble staircase on their hands and knees for centuries until 1723, when the stairs were covered in wood to preserve them. As part of a restoration project undertaken by the Vatican Museums, the wood was removed temporarily so that the stairs could be cleaned and re-covered with fresh wood.
“For a brief time (last year), 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,” said Fr. Reeves. “The misshapen marble steps make for a painful climb, but 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.”
The course – which is open to students of all faith traditions and those without one – encourages personal reflection. “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,” said Fr. Reeves. “They were exposed to the incarnational vision that St. Ignatius possessed and so desired to share with others.”
As one student who completed the course explained, “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.”