In the spring of 2011, I had everything planned out. I was heading to Italy for a six-week study abroad programme. My primary goal was to enjoy Europe, so I avoided classes related to my majors – accounting and finance – and opted for a travelling art history class that would take me to Rome, Florence, Venice and Arezzo.
Joining me on this adventure was my roommate, John. One thing I had noticed about John was that, on Sundays, he always managed to attend Mass at the Catholic parish near campus, St Thomas More. I was raised a United Methodist, and my family attended services every Sunday, but I had not kept up with this habit in college.
A few days after the semester ended, John and I took off for Europe. It was my very first time travelling outside America.
The day before our class began, John and I spent the day exploring Rome. I knew exactly two things about the Vatican: it is a tiny country inside the city of Rome, and the Pope lives there.
The third thing I learned about the Vatican was that St Peter – Simon Peter from the Bible – died and was buried there. I was instantly fascinated by this fact. While I certainly believed what I had learned growing up about Jesus and His disciples, I never connected the stories to any specific time or place. Wandering the streets of Rome, all I could think about was my newly acquired knowledge that one of the main characters from the Bible was literally buried nearby.
John, a cradle Catholic, was naturally excited to visit the Vatican, but even he found it peculiar how excited I was to see St Peter’s Basilica. As we walked from our hostel to St Peter’s Square, I asked John a million questions about Catholicism, never pausing to listen to the answers. Despite my enthusiasm, I had no intention of becoming Catholic.
Stepping into St Peter’s Square was such an exciting experience. Seeing the massive columns and all of the saints surrounding the square was another reminder that Christianity was not simply a concept from a book, but was a truly historical movement that began with the man Jesus Christ.
We fought our way through the crowds to enter the Basilica. I was so struck by the beauty I encountered that, for the first time in my adult life, I was speechless. As I approached Michelangelo’s Dome, I looked up and saw a verse from the Gospel of Matthew painted in gigantic black letters: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
Looking down, I realized that Peter, the man from that verse, was buried beneath my feet. As we continued to tour the Basilica, I found a large plaque with the name of each pope since St Peter. An unbroken line from the time of Christ to the present day.
This was an incredibly new, tangible way to see the Church. Instead of being an organisation inspired by the words found in Scripture, the Church is a visible, organic society founded by the man Jesus Christ and governed by the successors of St Peter.
My roommate and I returned to our hostel, ready for class to start the next day.
As I had not read the syllabus, I was surprised to learn that we would spend our second day of class touring the Vatican. As before, all I could think about while walking around St Peter’s Basilica was “Peter is literally buried under all of this.”
The next stop on our tour would change the course of my life: we were going underground, and we were going to visit Peter. As the guide led our class on the Scavi Tour, he explained the history of the Basilica and the tomb of Peter. He told us of the graffiti wall, where visiting Christians would write their petitions to Peter in the 3rd century.
We approached St Peter’s tomb in silence, and the tour guide lead our class in praying the Our Father. Standing at the tomb of Peter, the man chosen by Jesus to lead the Church, I spent a moment in prayer. I knew at that moment that I would join the Church founded by Jesus Christ, the Church governed by Peter, the Roman Catholic Church. It was time to make new plans.
Back in Oklahoma, I met Fr Jim Goins, pastor of St Thomas More parish, who instructed me in the faith. Eleven months later, at the Easter Vigil, I was received into the Church. My roommate, John, was my sponsor and St Peter my confirmation saint.
Whenever anyone asks me why I chose St Peter, I tell them it was him who chose me.
Zac Mabry is the co-host of the Roman Circus Podcast and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald
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