By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
A prayful pilgrimage to the Vatican
UNG student, members of St. Lukes view Vatican sites
From her hotel’s terrace, Gabrielle Cubera had a great view of the dome on St. Peter’s Basilica in Italy.

In her own words: To read about Gabrielle Cubera’s trip in her own words, visit

As Gabrielle Cubera prepared for her pilgrimage to Rome, she asked everyone she met if they had any prayer requests.

By the time she was ready to leave, along with 35 other pilgrims from St. Luke the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Dahlonega, she’d collected a stack of requests.

The 22-year-old history student at the University of North Georgia promised to carry the requests in her journal as she traveled throughout the ancient city. A few of her friends asked if she had any requests of her own. She did.

Cubera, a Dahlonega native, admits she has a tendency to worry and wanted her friends to pray for her and the group to have a safe and peaceful journey. Cubera said the prayers were answered.

“When we were waiting to board the plane I just had this unusual sense of calm and peace,” Cubera said. “I wasn’t jittery. I was just like ‘OK, time to fly across the world.’ I maintained that the whole week. I just had this sense of peace and calm like this was going to be a good journey.”

The pilgrims traveled with Georgia-based St. Francis Pilgrimages, to Rome to visit several holy Catholic sites such as the Vatican City, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, the Basilica of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere and basilicas of St. Clare and St. Francis in Assisi. The group departed March 16 and returned eight days later.

While many of the destinations might be popular tourists locations, the group’s focus wasn’t on simply seeing sights. The purpose of the journey, Cubera said, was to travel in faith and hope. She said her intention was to focus on her prayer life there.

Each day the group celebrated Mass in a different location.

Neil Dhabliwala, priest of St. Luke’s church, said celebrating Mass in the historic locations was particularly important to him.

“This was the first time I’ve gone since I was ordained a priest,” said Dhabliwala, who visited the city once before in 2000 before he was a priest. “It was really special for me to be able to celebrate Mass in all the different churches we visited.”

Dhabliwala said his favorite experience was holding the ceremony in a small side alter near the tomb of St. John Paul II inside St. Peter’s Basilica.

“(Pope) John Paul II was such a huge inspiration for me,” Dhabliwala said. “He’s one of the reasons I became a priest. He was just such an incredible priest and holy man. He certainly inspired me to want to imitate him. It was powerful for me to be there at his tomb and to be able to say Mass as a priest there.”

The late pope’s tomb wasn’t the only burial site the group visited or celebrated Mass.

“We were able to have Mass in some of the most holy of spots in Christendom,” said Connie Hagler of Gainesville. “That was just phenomenally rich. We were walking with a lot of the martyrs in a lot of ways. It was humbling. It was just inspiring and richly spiritual to be in those places.”

One of the most moving locations was deep underground in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, Hagler said.

“The early Christians were down there hiding, keeping the faith alive,” Hagler said. “Many of them, of course, were buried down there. That was also a very inspiring place to be to appreciate what they’d gone through. It was beautiful. I don’t know that words can express a spiritual experience like that. It’s kind of hard to even express how moving and beautiful (the experience of being in the city) was. You read all the things in the Bible for so long, but it’s another thing to go to those spots that are still there and the history to still be in those places.”

Cubera said she, too, felt moved inside the catacombs.

The dark, underground catacombs stretch on for miles in all directions. Stacked tombs line the walls ranging in infant to adult sizes. Family names carved in Latin often top the walls.

Huddled together in a small room beside the tombs of ancient Roman Christians, the group sang “Faith of Our Fathers” to remember the people who came before them.

“At the catacombs Mass, just being surrounded by our ancestors it was really special,” Cubera said. “You know they were present with you. Some people could feel an energy. I didn’t feel an energy, but I was just like ‘Yeah, they’re totally here.’”

On other occasions, the group was surrounded by other Christians, too.

The group attended the Papal Audience on March 19, St. Joseph’s Day and Father’s Day in Rome, along with more than 60,000 other people.

The pilgrims in attendance from around the world were personally recognized during the service — though the bishop who recognized the church did mispronounce Dahlonega.

Cubera said it was a wonderful experience to see Pope Francis in person.

“He does have just the most genuine, beautiful smile,” she said. “It was really great just getting to see him.”

The pilgrimage was a deeply spiritual journey for many in the group but also provided an opportunity to see another piece of the world and its history.

“It was clearly a spiritual pilgrimage,” said Richard Hagler, Connie Hagler’s husband. “Of course, there was a historical perspective at Scavi (necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica) as well as the Coliseum and other Roman ruins. It was an amazing blend of the history of mankind back two or three thousands years as well as the history of Christian church.”

Dhabliwala said he, too, was struck by the depth of history and the magnificence of the church.

“Our Christian faith is so rich,” Dhabliwala said. “It consists of such a beautiful history and a beautiful patrimony of art and architecture and beauty. It’s something that I think has enriched the whole world.

“One of the sort of challenges that oftentimes in the Catholic church, is being accused of having all this richness and wealth,” he said. “But the fact is, that it exists for everybody. It’s not just a private collection. That’s something that I think is important to understand. Anybody can go to Rome and go to St. Peter’s (Basilica) and see the beautiful history and traditional and patrimony that the church has. It’s not a private collection that we want to keep to ourselves, but it’s to show forth the beauty of the church and the beauty of God most importantly. Everything the church has it meant to show forth God’s glory and God’s beauty.”

Regional events