Fr. Michael Baggot, LC
More than 70 persons with special needs walked the red carpet to enjoy a prom in their honor hosted by the Tim Tebow Foundation at the European University of Rome run by the Legionaries of Christ in the Eternal City on February 4. Former professional football player Tim Tebow and his new bride Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters spent the evening cheering for the guests of honor, dancing with them, and greeting the guests’ caretakers. The evening culminated with all the guests crowned as kings or queens of the prom.
“Night to Shine is an unforgettable prom night experience, centered on God’s love, for people with special needs ages 14 and older. On one night, more than 725 churches from around the world will come together to host Night to Shine for approximately 100,000 honored guests through the support of 200,000 volunteers!” according to the ministry’s official website.
The guests were provided with suits and formal gowns to recall their dignity as children of God. The well-dressed invitees were directed upon arrival at the university to enjoy a few moments in a vintage limousine. Italian and American student volunteers then escorted the guests down the red carpet, where other volunteers surrounded them to cheer them on. Many of the visitors beamed with joy in response to the crowd’s affection and sometimes offered a playful strut towards the dance hall.
There were roughly two student volunteers per guest to aid visitors with makeup or other needs as the time for the dance approached. Although many of the American students were less than fluent in the Italian language as recent arrivals to their respective study abroad programs, they had no trouble communicating their loving support to the participants with special needs. Students of the European University of Rome provided helpful translations when necessary.
After the dramatic entries into the university, guests of honor, caretakers, and the volunteers gathered downstairs in the space prepared as a dancehall. A group of speakers greeted the crowd before the dancing started.
First, Rector of the European University of Rome Fr. Pedro Barrajón, LC addressed the group. In both Italian and English, he passionately expressed how much God loves and values each one of the participants at the event. He also commented upon how happy the faculty, staff, and students of the university were to collaborate in the first Night to Shine event ever hosted in Italy.
Fabrizio Mastrofini, Communications Director of the Pontifical Academy for Life, next spoke to the crowds about the Vatican’s support for an event that celebrates the gift of human life. Mastrofini also extended the greetings to the participants from Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the President of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
Tebow then took the stage to explain his vision and invite the eager attendees to dance. He began with a brief greeting in Italian before shifting into English. He reminded the guests that the elegant cars, chic dress, and festive dancehall were all details meant to highlight their dignity as sons and daughters of God. Tebow insisted that each participant is valued and loved by their Creator and by all of those present at the event. Tebow spoke with the enthusiasm of a pregame pep talk and helped the group transition into a few hours of joyful dancing.
A professional DJ then led the group all evening through a variety of music styles, new and old. A respite room was provided for guests and caretakers who needed a break from the music and dance. However, most of the participants had the energy to pass the hours on the floor without pause.
Following the event, Professor of Bioethics at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum Fr. Michael Baggot, LC gave the Tebows and their foundation staff a private explanation of the university’s Shroud of Turin exhibit. Tebow and the group were deeply moved by the images that many scholars conclude give today’s world the most detailed accounts of Jesus’s sacrificial death available.
Carmen Bizzarri, a professor in the Department of Human Sciences, watched on proudly as her daughter Elena provided the simultaneous translation of Tebow’s impassioned English address into Italian. Carmen Bizzarri worked tirelessly behind the scenes to prepare the event on behalf of the university with the organizers of the Tim Tebow Foundation in the United States of America.
In particular, Barrazzi worked closely with the Foundation spokesman Ryan Thomas to bring Italians and Americans together for the event. The American Thomas had formed many connections in Rome during his prior work as director of news operations for EWTN.
Thomas also helped to ensure that the newlywed Tebows met the Holy Father Pope Francis after the Wednesday Audience the morning after the Rome Night to Shine. In their brief conversation following the public audience, Tebow informed the Pope about their charitable activities in Rome and throughout the world. Pope Francis expressed his gratitude to Tebow and his wife and encouraged them to continue their crucial service.
The Tebows, both Protestant, visited Rome for the first time for the sake of the Night to Shine event. During their brief stay, they received a guided tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica before exploring the Colosseum. They were captivated by the history and beauty of the city and hope to return for a more extended visit in the future.
Thomas’s current work with the Tim Tebow Foundation also shows the strong presence of Catholics in the ecumenical project that takes place in Catholic and Protestant structures throughout the world.
“The Tim Tebow Foundation is excited to welcome them to this worldwide movement that is uniting churches of different denominations all over the world with the common goal of celebrating people with special needs.” stated Thomas.
The Tebow couple traveled from their honeymoon to Albania for the first of three international Night to Shine events during the week. They arrived in Rome on the morning of the Eternal City event and left the next day for Paris to prepare for another prom.
Tebow and his wife Nel-Peters were married only on January 20 in Cape Town, South Africa, only two weeks before the week of international Night to Shine dances. Nel-Peters is a native of South Africa and gained international notoriety when she won the Miss Universe competition in 2017.
Tebow and Nel-Peters first met during a 2018 Night to Shine event. Nel-Peters shares Tebow’s passion for work with individuals with special needs since her late younger sister Franje suffered from cerebellar agenesis until an untimely death at 13 years of age in May 2019. Nel-Peters fondly recalls that Franje was the matchmaker responsible for introducing the former Miss Universe to the man who is now her husband.
Tebow, who is the son of Christian missionaries, had a powerful encounter as a teenager with a boy named Sherwin in the Philippians who was shunned from society due to his severe physical deformities. Tebow was distressed that a child of God could be so publicly mistreated and resolved to make known the Lord’s love for all of those who were marginalized.
The first two weeks of February witnessed Night to Shine proms in 721 churches in 34 different countries. After six successful years of Night to Shine events, the Tim Tebow Foundation shows no sign of slowing their efforts to spread the moving event to other locations. Every state of the United States, as well as other major cities outside of the country, host a Night to Shine prom on the Friday before Valentin’s Day. Moreover, Tebow and his staff spend the prior week inaugurating new sites for the dance. Those institutions interested in begin their own Night to Shine tradition are welcome to contact the Tim Tebow Foundation at this referral site.
The Foundation’s mission statement indicates that the group is committed “to bring Faith, Hope and Love to those needing a brighter day in their darkest hour of need.” In addition to the Nigh to Shine events, the Foundation offers a host of other services. The W15H ministry gives youth with life-threatening illnesses a customized weekend experience of tender care. The Foundation also assists family’s in adopting children with special needs.
“I thank God for the Night to Shine held at the European University of Rome. I was blessed to see the joy of our special needs guests of honor who were each crowned kings and queens of the prom” said Baggot.
“As MC, I was privileged to introduce Tim Tebow to share his message of love for life. It was also a joy to explain briefly our Shroud of Turin exhibit to the attentive Tim Tebow Foundation group. The long and beautiful night concluded with a celebratory dinner where I enjoyed talking about faith, history, Rome, and the culture of life with Tim and his gracious wife Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters,” he added.
Two days after the world enjoyed the Superbowl football game, participants in the Rome Night to Shine were able to experience a superbowl of charity.
A video brief on the event is available here:
Other news stories include the following: