Through the eyes of a Saint


Assisi is a small Italian village. With fewer than 26,000 townspeople, its quaintness is its charm. But the main attraction, drawing 4 million tourists annually, is a link to two spiritual giants who, by their saintly examples more than 800 years ago, changed the world. And continue to change the lives of countless global citizens, including two Alvernia students whose recent encounters in the Italian hamlet made a lasting impact.

Kevin Shainline ’15 and Jennifer Toledo ’15 set off on a 10-day Franciscan pilgrimage last December, a trip underwritten by the Alvernia Assisi Fund. The pair were among 33 college students nationally to participate in the Association of Franciscan Colleges and Universities sponsored event. Stops included Assisi and the Vatican, the backdrop for countless experiences that included prayers, Eucharistic celebrations, meditations, visits to historic locations and lectures, all patterned after Francis and Clare’s attempts to “fix their gaze on God.”

“The trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Shainline said. “I will always be able to look back on it and see how it impacted my life.”

Toledo, whose birthday coincidentally falls on St. Francis’ feast day, Oct. 4, nurtured a special bond she feels with the revered saint. “The pilgrimage completely changed my life; I have a better understanding of what Francis and Clare gave up for God,” Toledo said. “And when it comes to helping people, I do it without thinking twice, no matter who they are.”

When they lived in the 13th century, Saints Francis and Clare served the poor and sick and stressed the importance of simplicity, humility and prayer. Francis’ axiom, “Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received — only what you have given,” is emblematic of how he lived his life, and expected others to as well.

Shainline and Toledo aspire to exemplify the same virtues. Both volunteer through Alvernia’s Holleran Center for Community Engagement and are founding members of Alpha Phi Omega (APO), a new student honor society dedicated to community service.

A psychology and theology major from Boyertown, Pa., Shainline is a resident assistant who also works in the Holleran Center and is leading the charge as president of APO. “I have been able to share a lot about my trip with the students and community members I work with, about the Italian culture and my spiritual experience,” he said.

A first-generation student whose parents hail from the Dominican Republic, Toledo is taking full advantage of college — majoring in early childhood education, playing the saxophone, volleyball and using all of her remaining spare time volunteering with the South Reading Youth Initiative. A course in Franciscan studies sparked her interest in St. Francis, so she jumped at the opportunity to visit the region where he lived and preached.

“I went on the pilgrimage to experience everything attached to St. Francis’ spirit — solidity, openness and graced moments,” she said. “Francis was all about looking past differences and finding common ground, which I believe in strongly.”

Toledo had her own graced moment while visiting the Basilica of St. Francis. “We went to the Basilica and had Mass. At the end, we all received a new white candle to pray to at St. Francis’ tomb. I had been struggling with one specific event in my life that I’d never been able to let go of, but that day at the Tomb of St. Francis, with tears streaming down my face, I was able to. It was such an amazing experience to walk outside and feel 50 pounds lighter,” she said.

As part of their journey, the students also visited Vatican City and had a rare opportunity to watch and be blessed by Pope Francis, as he conducted the Sunday Angelus Service from a window.

“I saw how much people truly love the Pope — they go absolutely crazy for him,” Shainline said. Nowhere was this love more obvious than at the Sunday Service. “It felt amazing to be blessed by Pope Francis and to share a common belief with all of the people there.” Both Toledo and Shainline say they have forever internalized the personal and spiritual lessons they learned during their Winter Break overseas. “When I go through my day, I get flashbacks of the trip,” Toledo said. “I apply what I learned to the way I conduct myself — my morals and spirit — whether I am playing volleyball or performing in a concert,” Toledo said.

Shainline agreed. “I will forever appreciate the Franciscan tradition and strive to live by the Franciscan values each and every day,” he said.

To carry on all she learned during the monumental trip, Toledo plans to find a job as a teacher, possibly in the Reading School District, after she graduates next May. “I want to impart in my students a love for sharing and an understanding that people are different, but stress that we shouldn’t build boundaries but instead unite and learn from each other,” she said.

Shainline’s exact career plans are still up in the air, but he knows for sure he wants to help people. “I took a lot of lessons from the pilgrimage, but I think the most important was that I am called to serve humanity in some way, and that God is with me on each step of my journey,” Shainline said.

Francis couldn’t have said it any better.

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