CAMPELLO ALTO, Italy — As several Italian cities were issuing Code Red heat-wave advisories in early August, a group of young Italian scouts rented three donkeys and set off walking on a 65-mile pilgrimage across the country’s mountainous center.
The Rome-based troop’s itinerary led them from St. Benedict’s birthplace in Norcia to St. Francis’s birthplace in Assisi via a network of medieval trails. Passing through farms and olive groves, scaling mountains and crossing valleys, the seven-day hike was designed to help the 15 young men and women reconnect with nature and grow closer to God.
The scouts set off to “discover these two great giants of Christian spirituality — Benedict and Francis — and unite that to an interesting journey with donkeys accompanying us,” said Giuseppe Malafronte, leader of the group from Sacred Heart in the Fields Parish near the Vatican.
According to Malafronte, strenuous outdoor experiences help instill Christian virtues in the 16- to 21-year-old scouts in his troop.
“One of the most beautiful things we learn, the centerpiece of being a scout, is to be a servant, a citizen and a pilgrim,” Malafronte said. “The route we are taking is teaching us precisely that: to listen to the people we meet, to listen to the needs of others around us and our needs when we are walking and to always step up to that challenge.”
Even caring for the donkeys provided opportunities to grow in charity, he said. “There was the challenge of learning to understand them and relate to them, but also to respect their pace and their needs, whether large or small.”
The pilgrims’ day began at 6 a.m., except for whoever’s turn it was to rise earlier to prepare breakfast. Then they dismantled and packed their tents, prayed, saddled the donkeys and set off.
Michele Conte, 19, coordinated the group’s communal prayer, but he also said he enjoyed the intentionally silent and meditative moments of work, such as brushing the donkeys and preparing their saddles.
“I have been very inspired by the life of monks, by the idea of praying in silence, reflecting while working, getting to know the Psalms better,” he said.
Cecilia Zucconi, 20, said her parents encouraged her to be a scout when she was very young and, at first, she saw it only as a social activity. But little by little, the ideas that underpin scouting “became convincing.”
“Through contact with nature but also meeting people you wouldn’t usually meet, it increases and helps deepen your spirituality and your knowledge of yourself in your search for faith,” Zucconi said.
Vocational discernment is an important theme in contemporary scouting, said the group’s chaplain, Jesuit Father Antonio Ary, a 35-year-old Portuguese priest.
“I want to help each of them listen to their hearts, to listen also to God,” Ary said of his ministry with the scouts.
They should be asking God, “What do you want from me? What will make me most happy and most useful to everyone?” Ary said.
In October the Synod of Bishops will meet at the Vatican to discuss “young people, faith and vocational discernment.” Malafronte said his experience as a scout leader has given him ideas about how best to engage young people.
“As an educator, the only advice that comes to my mind is: listen. That is, don’t presume, don’t put yourself on a pedestal,” he said.
“As St. Benedict wrote in his Rule: even the novice, the youngest, has something to say. Sometimes he is the one with the right answer,” Malafronte said. “So, don’t give answers, but give an ear.”