By Tanya Connor
The Catholic Free Press
Juggling and playing folk songs, he was the featured entertainer at his parish’s festival last month.
You could say he sang for his supper, at the request of his pastor, Father Michael J. Roy, who introduced him as “one of the most refreshing young men I know.”
It was his first time doing a solo act. Group entertaining was a means of survival last year. That’s how Joseph Thrun and his high school class earned money to buy food as they walked the Way of St. Francis from Florence to Rome.
The pilgrimage included encountering gypsies, learning beer-making, castle climbing, talking about vocations and seeing life differently.
This is the story Joseph, 18, of St. Roch Parish in Oxford, tells – with some additions from his parents, Thomas and Joan Thrun, who remained stateside. It’s a tradition at Gregory the Great Academy, a Catholic boy’s boarding school near Scranton, Penn., for the senior class to go on a pilgrimage to Europe after graduation, Joseph said. They either take the Way of St. James in Spain or the one in Italy. Joseph said he and his classmates logged about 400 miles in 30 days in the spring of 2015.
He said he was initially “scared” anticipating the trek. “From the stories I had heard – the guys going hungry, getting lost.” But, he said, “everything always worked out in the end.” By the end of senior year he was excited about the upcoming trip.
“I fasted” to pray for his safety, his mother said.
“I just worried,” said his father. “If it wasn’t for Mr. Culley, I never would have let him go.”
Luke Culley, a school administrator and teacher, led the 12 graduates, with colleague Paul Prezzia. Flying with them was school chaplain, Father Christopher Manuele.
Upon arrival they took a train to Florence, where it took them a day to find Benjamin Strong, another teacher who was joining them. After all, they didn’t even take food or drink with them, let alone cell phones or money, Joseph said.
They did take the means of making a few bucks – or Euros: juggling clubs, knives and torches, a unicycle, and a guitar, drum, accordion and bagpipes. (Students learn music, juggling and unicycle riding at the school.)
Each evening in Italy they put on a show. As they played folk songs, they sang in English. They included the Ave Maria – in French.
“We were mad because we were hungry,” after walking all day, Joseph said of their initial feelings, which they kept from audiences, who loved them. Part way through, they forgot about their stomachs.
They split bystanders’ contributions to buy supper and their next breakfast. If there was extra money, they could save up for treats, often gelato.
“People are five times more generous than they are here,” Joseph said. They kindly gave directions. One day when the travelers were “starving,” a woman gave them 15 pizzas, then left before they got her name. And they didn’t even have to sing for that supper!
For lunch, they helped themselves when passing fruit trees.
“They had plenty,” Joseph said of the large farms where the trees grew.
His mother said the teenagers never took more than they needed.
Joseph indicated that wasn’t quite true, but added, “We had a priest with us, so nobody could get away with anything.”
They did get in trouble when they took a ride on a carousel – they got kicked off for not paying.
“And then we sang for them and then they let us on for free,” Joseph said. Another version of singing for your supper.
The travelers took water bottles to fill at fountains, a few sets of clothes and 10 pairs of socks – so they could discard those that got too worn or smelly. After all, rolling your sleeping bag out under the stars each night also means no access to showers, though the pilgrims managed a brook bath.
The first night, Joseph said, “we slept in the train station, which was a bad idea because there were probably 10 gypsies circling our camp all night.”
Mr. Culley stayed awake to watch the bags, but gypsies stole two anyway.
Awakened from sleep, “we heard Mr. Culley yelling,” Joseph said. He and a friend ran to investigate and the gypsies dropped the bags.
Was that scary or fun?
Another night they stayed in a monastery, where the monks showed them how to make beer.
“They sell their beer for a lot of money, but they just gave it to us,” marveled the teenager.
Perhaps the best things in life really are free.
Joseph said that probably one of the “coolest things” he saw on the trip was when the wind blew some stalks of grain, revealing flowers, as the field changed from brown to red.
One of the hardest days of walking was the trek to Assisi, Joseph said. But then in the middle of the night half the class got up for a side trip.
“About two in the morning we hiked up this really big hill,” which took about an hour, Joseph said. “There was this castle (Rocca Maggiore) that overlooked all of Assisi. We said, ‘We’ve got to check that out tonight.’ It was all stone – a real, legitimate castle! Me and my friend scaled one of the towers,” about 20 feet up, leaving their classmates below.
In the dark, noted his father.
“Then we got into the castle,” Joseph continued. “We’re on the inside on a ledge about this wide.” He held his hands some 8 inches apart. To their surprise, the tower was hollow, with a 30-foot drop.
“That had to be the night I woke up in a sweat,” quipped Mr. Thrun. “I’m glad I didn’t know about this.”
“Just a thrilling trip for young men,” Mrs. Thrun commented.
“I almost fell off,” confessed Joseph.
His mother interjected that the purpose of the trip was to evangelize and discern their vocations.
“To get closer to God, I guess,” was how Joseph put it.
“You almost met him,” his father reminded him, still thinking about the dangerous castle climb.
It took two hours to go through the castle, which was clean and basically empty, except for a room with flags in it, Joseph said.
“The others were calling up to us,” he said. “They didn’t know where we were.” But he and his friend couldn’t hear them.
“And then we finally came out of it,” and got to sleep in, since the next day’s itinerary was exploring Assisi, he said.
During one of their daylong walks, Joseph spent the whole time talking with their chaplain.
“Why would you do that to yourself?” he asked him, in reference to his choice of vocation.
“Would you want to become a priest?” Father Manuele asked.
“Then don’t do it.”
But, Joseph admits, he still thinks about it.
He still thinks about the pilgrimage too, despite the difficulties.
“We were on the home stretch and my foot broke” – just from walking – he said.
Once home he ended up with a cast, couldn’t work, and lost the muscles he’d gained. He recovered in time for classes at Ave Maria University in Florida. But he claims he’d do this trip-of-a-lifetime again, even if he broke both feet.
What did he gain from it?
“A way to see life differently – in a good way,” he said. “You can pick out different forms of beauty that other people can’t.”
At the end of each day he could reflect on what he did that day: “I went to Mass” or “I almost died,” he said. (Most mornings they found a suitable place for Mass, which their chaplain celebrated on a fold-up table he carried.)
“You can fall asleep without any regrets,” Joseph said. “You achieved all that you could have that day.”
“The main goal of the trip was to bring joy to others – good joy,” not joy that doesn’t last, was one way Joseph put it.
How did their performance do that?
“We really got into it,” Joseph replied. “And we looked awful! And we didn’t have any money, but we were still happy.”
He said he was happier then than he’s ever been.
“When you have nothing you have to lose,” he said, “you can only gain.”