The incredible story of one Australian couple’s journey, the risk they took, and the wisdom they gained
ROME — At nearly 70 years old, Barbara and Philip Saks have turned their life together upside down. They sold their home and their car, and gave away the furniture and clothes they didn’t need. Then, last September, they “took a deep breath” and moved to Rome from Australia. Today they don the yellow vests of Jubilee volunteers, and serve pilgrims along the path from Castel Sant’Angelo to the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica.
“After so many years of working, and being paid for everyday work, to be able to do something that you feel in your heart, without thinking of the commercial side of work … to do something for the joy… is just so wonderful,” says Barbara, who worked in publishing in Adelaide.
Barbara and Philip, along with other volunteers, are the first faces of the Church for pilgrims who arrive in Rome for the Year of Mercy. “We feel very privileged to help people,” says Philip, “and we believe that everyone should help each other where possible, like the pope says: be friendly, respect people irrespective of their beliefs or whatever, and that’s what we do.”
Philip and Barbara’s decision left their family and friends surprised, but happy. “Someone told us we were crazy, that we should do the things that people our age do. But our daughter is very proud of us, as are our two grandchildren.”
Married for 50 years, the couple came to their decision over time. “We decided life is too short, and as we are approaching 70 and still have good health, thank God, when the pope announced the Jubilee Year, we thought it would be perfect to spend a year living in Rome and becoming volunteers, so that we could give something back to this place which we love so much.”
Barbara and Philip have visited the Eternal City several times as tourists and were looking for something different, to “live here” and “experience what it means to be laypeople, and at the same time to be able to carry out this incredible task, which we consider an honor,” they say.
And so … “we sold our house, we sold our car, we gave our belongings to charity and left work. We hugged our friends and family, we took a deep breath, and we came to Rome.”
In Australia, Philip and Barbara had a simple but comfortable life. “We wanted a simpler life, we thought we didn’t need a house with three bedrooms, and so many things.” In fact, they had already decided to move to a smaller home; then with the Jubilee, they moved directly to Rome for a year. They arrived with just two suitcases carrying their clothes and some personal belongings, and rented an “apartment with the basics.” In doing so, Philip said, “we realized living here that we don’t need lots and lots of everything: we don’t need big televisions, we don’t need big cars, so we realized that we can now live, when we go back to Australia, a simpler and more fulfilling life.”
“Living here we realize how comfortable life in Australia is, how much we take for granted, the space and opportunities … and how difficult it is here,” Barbara said. On the other hand, she adds, “look what you have around you. Every day, I look around and think: ‘Wow, thank God we’re here and how lucky we are.’ Many people have the possibility of seeing St. Peter’s once in their lives,” she says, “but every day we are at St. Peter’s in 15 minutes on foot.”
Then, there is the friendship with with other volunteers, the pilgrimages together through the Holy Door, but also the daily companionship. “We don’t need quantity, but quality of life: friendship, warmth toward one another, with family and other people. It is very important, and in Rome we have found it.”
When they are on duty, Barbara and Philip don their yellow vests, ready to jump into the mix. They are asked to welcome pilgrims, distribute material, and explain how best to make one’s journey to the Holy Door, pausing in prayer at the five points suggested. But the closer one gets to St. Peter’s, the more questions there are, they say, and sometimes they are bizarre. Like the person in front of St. Peter’s who asked where the Vatican is, or someone else asking what the church is called. Someone even asked if it was the Colosseum.
In their free time, Barbara and Philip explore Rome. When they find particularly lovely spot, rather than posing for photos and selfies, Philip pulls out his notebook and sketches or draws, while Barbara writes. Who knows, maybe one day they’ll publish a little book “to tell the story of our incredible year in Rome.”