It all began in 2014, when Father Francis of the Child Jesus, of the Community of St. John, was assigned as a campus minister to Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Father Francis recalled that the campus ministry director asked the Brothers of St. John to think about what they wanted to do in the next year of ministry. It was an easy choice for Father Francis: He “wanted to do something that he himself would really enjoy.” His reasoning was that “when you share with others what you love and enjoy, others will jump into it.” So he suggested watching The Lord of the Rings movies and studying their Catholic themes.
Father Francis had only been introduced to The Lord of the Rings books by J.R.R. Tolkien in 2009. At the time, he was leading a camp for teenagers and youth in Lithuania, his home country, for the Community of St. John. Father Francis learned about the Tolkien canon when young volunteers helped the camp’s teenagers recreate the cinematic adaptation, using a simple camera. The experience was such fun that Father Francis dug into the books afterward, discovering how Tolkien sheds light on human problems and the Christian journey in his writing.
Father Francis realized that Tolkien was looking for a way to reach out to the post-Christian world. He reflected on how it “is the intuition of Tolkien to evangelize the imagination, through the things that really excite.”
“Tolkien put into literary creation the biblical patterns of light and darkness,” he added. “You will not find a single Christlike figure in Tolkien’s work, as he purposely did not want to create allegory. But at the same time, you can see Christ in Gandalf, Aragorn and even Sam.”
Now, years later, Father Francis introduced his students at Seton Hall to the themes in The Lord of the Rings. They would watch 20 minutes of the films each week and discuss the Christian elements.
As an inspiration to keep the students attending the movie-watching sessions, Father Francis suggested a Lord of the Rings pilgrimage to the movie locations, now tourist attractions, in New Zealand.
“I wanted the trip to New Zealand to work like bait for the students, and it worked amazingly,” Father Francis said with a laugh, admitting he wondered at first if the pilgrimage would ever be logistically possible. Nearly two years later, through the generosity of donors and the hard work of the students, the dream came true. The tight-knit group of young students set out for Christchurch, New Zealand, on Dec. 27, 2016.
For nine days, the group traveled across New Zealand. Beginning with the South Island, they crisscrossed their way from one movie site to the next. The days were full of hiking, camping, driving and very little sleep.
The long, arduous trip quickly made the entire crew understand why Bilbo Baggins so appreciated the comforts of home. Adventure is grand and memorable, but it also includes a good deal of sacrifice. Reflecting on the journey, Seton Hall student Matthew Peluso was impressed by the group’s physical efforts “to scale the mountains and get back down safely” and “what they had to do to pack, cook and get to each location.”
“Just being able to get all of that done and have such a great trip really showed me what hard work could do,” he said.
Asked why he loves The Lord of the Rings, Peluso reflected on how “they show that the works of God aren’t always as direct and obvious as we may see them. Sometimes they are hidden behind daily actions and activities, so it reminds us to always look for God in the things that we do and the people that we see.”
Fellow student Jocelyn Rogalo’s favorite moments came at the Masses at the various movie locations. “This was the most beautiful place I have ever been in my entire life,” she said of New Zealand. “Seeing a place so filled with beauty in nature, and being able to celebrate Mass or adoration outside in that beauty was really special to me. It brought such a spiritual and heartfelt memory to the trip.”
“I think there is something in all of us, when we watch a movie as children, we just want to be in this world we see,” said Father Francis.
“So I hope that what we discussed in the movies now they can really live, precisely through their imagination.”
“I hope that this strong emotional experience they have had will open them to this deeper reality: that there is Someone who is even so much more important,” he added.
“It isn’t so much Tolkien, even what his finger points to, but this literary work points to Jesus — it is his mystery; it is the salvation of God.”
Register staffer Rachel Zamarron
traveled with the Seton Hall group as part of a special
Read more about the journey