May 23, 2015
Conlon Griesmer, a University of Tennessee-Knoxville sophomore and a graduate of Holy Rosary Academy and Father Ryan High School, decided to do something meaningful for his spring break.
Through the FOCUS – Fellowship of Catholic University Students – program’s Department of Missions, he was able to travel to Rome to do service work for some of its least fortunate citizens.
FOCUS, a Catholic non-profit organization out of Denver, places full-time missionaries at college and universities to help young people stay connected to their spiritual lives. “They believe that the most souls are lost on the college campus,” said Griesmer. “This is when you’re really making decisions on whether to practice your faith or not.”
More than 400 missionaries are currently spread out at 100 campuses throughout the United States. There are four at UT, all recent college graduates. “Their whole job is to run Bible studies and do outreach to students who wouldn’t normally come around to the campus’s Catholic Center,” explained Griesmer. “The FOCUS missionaries here invited me to attend a Bible study, and from that point on I was really connected with them and their mission.”
Another aspect of FOCUS is its promotion and facilitation of spring and summer mission trips. For this past spring break, FOCUS offered several excursions to various continents.
“There were five or six different mission trip options for the week I had off, and Rome was just one of them,” Griesmer said. “Going to Rome had been on my bucket list, and I thought, what better way to go than to go with a service component.”
He applied Sept. 15, 2014, and was notified in early November with a personal phone call from one of the campus missionaries from Harvard University. Although Griesmer was the only UT student attending, he felt comfortable joining Catholic students from other institutions.
Going in, Griesmer did not have a lot of knowledge about the kind of service he’d be providing, primarily because this was the first year that FOCUS conducted a mission trip to Rome; relationships with local contacts and initiatives were uncharted.
“It was a learning experience for everyone involved,” Griesmer said. “We did know that we’d be working with people who were homeless and extremely poor. We also knew that we’d be working with Mother Teresa’s order.”
The program requires participants to fundraise the $2,200 for his or her travel expenses. Each student is issued a packet that outlines ways to seek contributions: starting with prayer, then composing an appeal letter, and eventually making personal calls to “partners.”
“FOCUS emphasizes that not only are you asking for money, you’re inviting your contributors in on the mission,” said Griesmer. “By them donating financially, or even just praying for you and donating spiritually, they’re in a way traveling with you and helping out the people you’ll be serving.”
The journey began on March 13 and ended on nine days later, and wound up being about half service, half pilgrimage. The pilgrimage part included attending the papal audience on Wednesday morning and touring the Vatican. The site where the group resided overlooked the Roman Forum, and had a beautiful view of the Coliseum. There was also a daily hour of adoration built into the schedule to give the Americans time to meditate and talk to God about what they were experiencing on their spiritual sojourn.
The service component was coordinated with the Missionaries of Charity, the order established in 1950 by Mother Teresa, and was comprised of two service projects. One was caring for adult men with intellectual disabilities in the Missionaries of Charity Sisters’ house in the downtown area. Griesmer and his cohorts brought the men food, and entertained them with skits and music.
“Someone in the group was really good at playing the piano, so we sang some songs,” recalled Griesmer. “One of the English-speaking men wanted to hear ‘Don’t Stop Believin.’ So we broke it out, and he was in tears by the end of it, because he had not heard an English song and people knowing what it was in years. It was definitely a moment.”
The second project was helping the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, who live in one of the city’s slums. “These priests live there, in poverty with these people, the poorest of the poor,” said Griesmer. “Their big program is that they serve breakfast every day, for basically, anyone of the slum. We just prayed with the men who were there. It was an amazing experience, to see these people literally living in dirt houses on the outskirts of Rome. Yet they have so much faith and so much joy.”
The Missionary Fathers also distribute food to those who are homeless. Griesmer accompanied them on this task, handing out sandwiches, and visiting and talking with citizens who made their homes under a highway.
“A lot of them don’t have human contact for months,” said Griesmer. “One woman invited us into her ‘house,’ which was made of cardboard and an old mattress. She read a poem to us in Italian. Again, it was so beautiful to see so much faith and joy in someone who has so little.”
Not knowing the native language turned out to be a surprisingly minor issue. Of the 20 people in Griesmer’s entourage, only one spoke fluent Italian. She became the group’s go-to person for the most challenging activities, like navigating through airport security. There were also five fluent Spanish speakers who were able to interact with the Romans very effectively.
“I don’t speak Spanish or Italian, so there was a lot of listening,” said Griesmer. “We talked a lot about this on the trip, about how a smile can say so much about yourself, and how a smile and a firm handshake can mean the world to somebody if you look them in the eyes. We didn’t let the language barriers stop us.”
Back in the states and back in his role as an American college student, Griesmer has had the opportunity to reflect on the mission trip, and its unique gift of allowing him to serve others while deepening his own faith.
“Being in the city of Rome was amazing,” said Griesmer. “There is so much history there. It inspires you, and reminds you that the Catholic faith is more than just your parish down the street. It’s a worldwide group of people who are following the church that Jesus Christ started.”