In May of 2008, while still in high school, I traveled to Southern Italy with the Campbell University Choir and my father, who is conductor of the group. Although it was not my fist time traveling abroad, I was eagerly anticipating the sightseeing, concerts, and food that lay ahead. Navigating airports, experiencing new cultures and languages, and the general splendor of exotic scenery were all things that I had grown to expect from overseas travel, and I welcomed them with excitement. Our first stop was Rome. Sightseeing highlights in this bustling, historic city included visits to Vatican City, the Coliseum, and the Pantheon. We traveled farther south to Pompeii, Sorrento, and the Isle of Capri. We performed concerts all along the Amalfi Coast and encountered the beautiful sights and delicious foods unlike any I have ever experienced. The most enduring memory of my Italian adventure, however, wasn’t the magnificence of the Coliseum, the astounding preservation of Pompeii, or the breathtaking cliffs of Capri. It came from a humble priest in Chiesa dei Santi Felice e Bacolo via Tasso, Sorrento, who, in thanking us for our performance, gave us a gift that significantly exceeded the gift that we gave to him.
When the applause died down in the small church packed with both parishioners and tourists, a stubby and timeworn priest stood up with a grin on his face and began to thank us for our concert in his thick Italian dialect. A woman translated to the choir that the priest felt blessed by our musical gift and that he too wanted to give a gift. The priest then revealed a stack of rosaries, cards of the Virgin Mary, and letters of appreciation. Next, he came around to each member of the choir and personally gave us our gift; blessing us with words we couldn’t understand. Tears welled up in my eyes as the priest muttered words under his breath and placed a beautiful rosary in my hands. After the concert, we retreated to the priests’ robing room to change into our tourist apparel and enjoy a reception. As we began to gather in the small backroom of church, the 90-year-old priest came around and personally served each of us food and drink, insisting on waiting on us himself. Watching the looks on the choir members’ faces as the venerable priest made rounds with hors d’oeuvres was a priceless moment. The eminent gratitude, humility, and service shown by this priest to a group of American strangers left a lasting impression on everyone in our group.
I can still recall the musty smell of the Catholic Church, the low ceilings and clutter of the back rooms, and the cobblestones that paved the way there from shops and restaurants. Had someone asked me before the trip what I most wanted to learn or carry with me from my Italian journey, I might have replied “new shoes!” or “photographs with cute Italian boys,” or “a belly full of incredible food and a memory full of famous sights.” What I received, however, wasn’t simply the grandeur of historic sights and the cultural experience of a new country. Rather, it was something that could have been easily overlooked and ultimately unappreciated. My advice to future travelers is to look for things that cannot be replicated; things found through people you encounter and ideas you develop, because each leaves a lasting impression. In contrast to the hustle and bustle of Trevi Fountain, the lesson I learned from a warmhearted priest is to slow down and take time to thank the people who bring joy into your life.
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