Rachel Lanz worked as a social-media specialist for World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow, Poland, and continues to volunteer on the WYD social-media English team. She has a B.S. from Benedictine College in Journalism and Mass Communications. After taking a year to teach English in Spain, she went back to writing, working as the journalism intern for EWTN in Rome. She is now a Register staff writer based in Rome.
It’s not every day you find a group of young men, ranging from 15 to 18, who willingly make a three-year commitment to wake up at 6:30 a.m. every Sunday morning to pray and study in the house of the pope.
“The boys’ willingness to come in the first place is a sign of a certain interior disposition to follow a path of faith,” said Monsignor Joseph Murphy, spiritual assistant for the association.
The Allievi Group, started in 2010, belongs to the Association of Saints Peter and Paul, which was formed by Pope Paul VI in 1971 after the Palatine Guard of Honor was dissolved. The association, located in the Apostolic Palace, answers directly to the Secretary of State and was assigned to serve and give life to young people.
“This is a new departure for the Vatican,” said Msgr. Murphy.
There is no other group like it inside the Vatican. It offers a complete integral formation for the human person after confirmation. Their mission is to educate young men, ensuring spiritual, intellectual and human formation, and to cultivate service in their daily lives with the unique opportunity to serve the pope.
“We are not a school, we are a spiritual path,” says Andrea Barvi, vice supervisor of the Allievi group and former student.
Every Sunday starts with Mass at 9:00 a.m. in the chapel of the association. From there they have two hours of classes related to religious formation, liturgical service and cultural formation.
“I’m surprised to see the pilgrimage of men my age come to the Vatican and to see this faith in them,” said Lorenzo Fantori, 19, a second-year student.
The group gives equal importance and time to catechesis, sports, cultural excursions and most importantly, service. This is emphasized as the first and critical step for the young men to learn the value of service in life.
“We don’t teach a class, we teach how you can live your life, with our first example being Jesus Christ,” said Barvi.
So who are these young men? As stated in their statutes, and following the tradition of the Palatine Guard, they are the heirs to a Vatican legacy to give “a particular witness of Christian life, apostolate and fidelity to the Apostolic See.”
“I didn’t know how this group would be, and at the beginning, it was heavy to wake up early to come to the Vatican,” said Fantori. “But I can say after two years, it is an amazing group because I can share my experience of faith with people my same age.”
Waking up early every weekend is a commitment at this age. They are motivated by a fire inside them to learn about the Church and to serve the pope.
“When I entered St. Peter’s Square to serve, I physically froze. For the first time, I was entering the square not as a pilgrim, but to serve the pope. I felt great emotion inside of me,” Andrea Verardi, 19, a first-year student said.
Service on the altar prepares the men to understand the significance of the Mass when they are called upon to serve papal Masses and ceremonies alongside the pope. After the three years of training, the students take an oath of service to the pope and enter as complete members in the association.
Fantori expressed that he likes to study the liturgy, to understand every movement on the altar to live the Mass more profoundly.
“It’s beautiful walking with my friends to meet Jesus Christ in the Mass,” Fantori said with a smile.
The Mass is the center of the life of the association and it is rare to find young, single men serving on the altar. Therefore, it is their first testimony of faith, Barvi explains. They also make a point to serve the poor, to see the faces of hardship and to be close to the needy.
Before the group, Fantori had never served the poor. He thought his generation wasn't close to the poor. But for him now, it is important to do acts of charity and he is grateful it is a part of his monthly ritual because as Pope Francis has said, “poverty demands that we sow hope.”
Each enters the group at a different stage in his faith life. Some come with explicit questions of faith or haven't been practicing, and others changed their outlook on life through catechesis or charitable works.
“I learned a lot about my life when I started to study the Catechism. I used what I learned in that class to live a simple spiritual way and to be open about my faith with my family and friends,” Fantori reflected.
Verardi agreed, “I fought with this problem of speaking about Christian things with my friends and thanks to this group, I have the ability to speak about my spiritual life with others. For me, this is the most important thing.”
Inspired by their patron, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, the Allievi Group goes outside the Vatican one Sunday a month to trek in the mountains, see new places and share in other spiritual ways, including the Benedictines and Franciscans.
“The Church is Catholic; everywhere,” said Barvi.
Hiking in the mountains for an entire afternoon with no cell phone service can be hard for young men as well. By following the footsteps of Bl. Frassati, they have found that solitude with oneself and with friends is a special element that the life can offer.
“I can leave all my problems and daily habits in Rome to do nothing but really be with my friends and share with them in prayer,” Verardi said.
These excursions give them a cultural experience, but most importantly, a chance to find something different in themselves and to share that with their peers. When Fantori joined the group, he never thought that he could go beyond the Vatican with these friendships. The young men have expressed their relief in finding a group of peers who support their Catholic faith.
“Doing things together is a great help. It’s not easy as a young person to live the faith on your own if people around you aren’t supportive,” said Murphy.
Prayer is not the only thing that brings them closer together. Through sports, they also find comradery. In 2016, the group embarked on a new athletic challenge of Irish Gaelic Football and train every week to represent the Vatican in the Gaelic Athletic Association by travelling to compete in matches across Europe.
There can be obstacles in living the faith and finding the truth. The Vatican’s Allievi Group, for such a small group, contributes to many pursuits in rediscovering a path of faith. It is an example on educating and preparing young people for the future.
“I would say three things changed me as a man from this group," Fantori said. “First, I found hope to share with other guys my age serving with great charisma. Second, serving the pope has been a strong experience and third, studying the Catechism because it has broadened my horizon.”
“I learned to listen and love my neighbor,” Verardi reflected. “I live this group like my second home and found peace in prayer.”