At the Heart of the Church

A seminarian describes a typical day at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.



6:12 AM 

I’ve been awake for a little more than a half hour, and I am now at the mercy of an elevator—a somewhat comical temporal detail of a life lived in the Eternal City. As the elevator door opens at my fourth floor, I step inside and begin my descent to the ground floor of the Pontifical North American College (NAC), the American seminary in Rome, where I have been a student for the past three years, in preparation for priestly service in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The machine, testing the patience of its passengers (I am due in the chapel in two short minutes), stops at each subsequent floor. It is time for Morning Prayer and Mass.

Since 1859, “NACers” have been making a daily early-morning pilgrimage from their rooms to the college chapel. For almost 100 years, they worshipped, studied, and lived at the college’s original campus on Humility Street in the heart of Rome. In 1953, the NAC relocated its main operation to the Janiculum Hill, next to the Vatican Hill, just across the Tiber from the Roman city center. The original campus was renamed the Casa Santa Maria and became a residence for American priests doing graduate studies in Rome.

The history of the North American College is something of a micro-history of the Church in the United States. Pope Blessed Pius IX, in collaboration with the American bishops, founded an American seminary in Rome so that the Church in the United States could form priests who would be faithful to the Holy Father, trained in the best Catholic theological traditions, and consciously aware of the relationship between the universal Church and the particular Church.

These noble purposes of the Pope remain the raison d’etre of the North American College. I am not particularly conscious of these pillars of our mission this morning, but, in more alert moments, I realize that they have shaped me in a profound way.

6:15 AM

As Morning Prayer begins, the community of more than 175 students, from all parts of the United States and even from Australia, joins in a morning psalm, which serves as a sort of call to worship. This invitation to prayer sets the tone for the day.

This Tuesday morning in early November in Rome during the third year of my formation for the priesthood of Jesus Christ—a rather unspectacular day when considered in the grand scheme of things—must become for me a unique day, lived intentionally and entirely for Jesus Christ. Our prayer before dawn impresses upon my day this precise orientation given by the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which are now made active in my soul as I enter into prayer. This is what I am about as a man in formation for the priesthood of Jesus Christ. I must live today in anticipation of a life seemingly far off, but in reality quite near: a life of priestly service to God’s people in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

6:48 AM

Having celebrated the Liturgy of the Word, our Mass has now progressed to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, in which Jesus Christ, through his priest, offers his Body and Blood to the Father, providing for us both perfect worship and healing salvation. During the consecration, I am reminded of the words of the Rite of Ordination, which the bishop says to the newly ordained priest as he presents to him the Eucharistic vessels, the paten and the chalice: “Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” This is everything, I think to myself. My entire formation program, with all of its goals, objectives, and exigencies, can be summed up in this liturgical action. I strive to unite myself to the Offering.

7:57 AM

The sublime has given way to the quotidian: I am on a Roman city bus— the 40-line, to be precise—making my way to the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as the Angelicum. I have been a student at Rome’s Dominican university for three years now, and I have found there a truly fertile theological ground steeped in the glorious Dominican tradition, which finds its roots in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. About one-third of my NAC confreres study at the Angelicum; the other two-thirds study at Rome’s Jesuit institute of higher learning, the Pontifical Gregorian University.

After Mass, which ended about 45 minutes ago, I had a quiet breakfast and cup of coffee as I caught up on news back home by reading yesterday’s USA Today and watching the American Forces Network’s broadcast of Sportscenter in our student lounge. Then, still enjoying my solitude, I took to the streets of Rome, making my way down the Janiculum Hill and then across the Tiber by means of the Ponte Principe Amedeo. In front of the church of San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini, where St. Philip Neri once lived, I caught the 40-bus.

As the 40 moves along the rough Roman cobblestone streets, I am reading Fr. James Schall’s Another Sort of Learning. A conversation with a brother seminarian interrupts my reading for a time, and then I return to Fr. Schall’s wit and wisdom. I am quite happy with my morning commute on this wonderfully mild Roman day.

8:28 AM

Having secured my usual spot in the third-year classroom of the Angelicum, I have arranged my laptop neatly at my desk, and I have taken my seat, prepared for our first lecture. We have four hours of class this morning (our class periods are 45 minutes long, with a 15- minute coffee break, revealing something of the Italian philosophy of life). Today we have our class on the Johannine writings, followed by “Justice and Allied Virtues,” and then two hours on the sacraments. I have my lectures in English. The Angelicum is the only Roman pontifical university that offers both an Italian track and an English track. While Italian would not be a prohibitive factor for me, it is certainly nice to receive my theological education in my native tongue. My real reason for studying at the Angelicum, however, is the institution’s commitment to the theology of Thomas Aquinas.

It takes three years to complete the first cycle of studies—the Baccalaureate of Sacred Theology—at a Roman pontifical university. The course of studies presumes an undergraduate degree, or the equivalent, in philosophy. In the fourth (and, often, fifth) years of study, North American College students work toward a Licentiate of Sacred Theology. These S.T.L. studies can take place at any of the Roman universities, and they are specified according to area of concentration.

The pedagogical style at the Roman universities is heavily on the side of lectures. Oral exams occur at the end of the semester, drawing upon all the material covered in class lectures as well as any assigned outside reading. Generally speaking, there are few papers assigned during the semester. Instead, the European pedagogical tradition emphasizes the initiative of the student in doing his own reading on the topic of the course. The student can demonstrate his knowledge gleaned from outside reading in his responses during the oral exam.

10:19 AM

I am standing outside the Angelicum coffee bar, cappuccino in one hand, panino in the other, enjoying a stimulating theological conversation with some of my English-speaking brethren. We have just examined the question of homicide in our Justice class, and we are discussing the relative merits of Juan de Lugo’s departure from the teaching of Thomas Aquinas on the morality of intentional killing in self-defense. The pragmatists among us are more sympathetic to the modern, de Lugo, who holds that one can intend to kill if his life is threatened. Those wishing to remain more faithful to the classical tradition are seeking to justify common cases of self-defense according to Thomas’s principle of double-effect. And, for less than three American dollars, I am enjoying my delicious morning coffee and snack. At 10:30, the bell will sound, calling the students to their respective classrooms.

12:28 PM

Just having completed two fantastic lectures in sacramental theology by Fr. Robert Christian, OP (an American Dominican who is vice-dean and professor of theology at the Angelicum), I am now walking home to the NAC with two of my classmates. As we make our way through the ancient city center on our 35 minute journey from the Largo Magnanapoli to the Via del Gianicolo, we discuss various matters, ranging from pedestrian details of our lives to the highest theological truths. The walk home affords both a bit of exercise, as well as a close-up engagementwith the Eternal City in all its life. Rome, at midday, is vividly alive.

1:16 PM

“Vergine Immacolata, aiutateci!” Thus does the college community pray each day at the beginning of pranzo, the main meal of the day in traditional Italian culture. Legend has it that this prayer—which means, “Immaculate Virgin, help us!”—was on the lips of Pope Pius IX as he encountered a particularly trying moment during the wars on the papal states in the middle of the 19th century. As a tribute to our founder, we continue to make it our own at the conclusion of grace before meals each day.

Today there is great excitement in the refectory: we are having spaghetti carbonara for the first course! The college’s kitchen specializes in pasta in general and carbonara in particular. Some think that our pastas are just as good as any one would find in a Roman restaurant. It is really quite a feat, considering that our chef has to cook for 200.

2:10 PM

Every seminarian at the NAC has a particular apostolic work to which he devotes at least two hours per week, and I am no exception. Today, being Tuesday, is the day that my apostolate, the Legion of Mary, meets for prayer and sharing of the faith. I have been involved with the Our Lady of Humility praesidium at the NAC since my first year, and I have since served as treasurer and now as president. Our main work in Rome is an apostolate to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. Our praesidium has about 10 members, and we go out, two-by-two, for two hours per week, engaging the various pilgrims and tourists at St. Peter’s. We pass out miraculous medals or Catholic literature, while also taking the time to answer any questions that people may have about the Church or about our lives as seminarians.

Each meeting of the Legion begins with the Rosary, continues with spiritual reading and a talk by our spiritual director, and finishes with each member sharing his experience with the apostolate from the previous week, sharing stories and comparing notes from our adventures in St. Peter’ Square.

3:13 PM

Our meeting has ended, and I am now faced with a dilemma: basketball or study? My love for sports and fraternity (and my need for exercise) spurs me to take to the basketball court, where I play in several hotly contested pickup games. While I am not exactly player of the game, my team wins two out of three, which, at least for the past five years, means only one thing: (NAC basketball legend) Marc Lenneman of the Diocese of Helena was on my team.

Sports are an essential part of seminary life, and the North American College in that regard is no exception. In addition to basketball, we often play soccer, softball, tennis (there are three courts on campus), and football.

4:41 PM

Study time has arrived at last. One of the great frustrations of students of the North American College is that the fullness of our daily schedule allows little opportunity for long periods of study. Studying on Saturday, which is our day off, is one solution to that problem. Another solution is for students to take full advantage of the exam period, where there are no classes and the schedule is considerably lighter. The exam period affords a wonderful change of pace for the seminarians of the college.

Today, I have about an hour and a half to study, before I am due in the chapel for my personal prayer time. I head to the library and assume my usual position in the Reference Books room, also known as “Camp Bravo,” for its fraternal spirit. Today I am reading the section on the sacraments in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas.

6:31 PM

I glance at my watch, which reveals that 16 minutes have passed in my “holy half-hour,” the period of time I set aside each day for conversation with our Eucharistic Lord. Only 14 minutes remain, and I have not really made much progress in my meditation. Distractions abound, and I am a bit tired from my 5:40 AM wake-up.

I am tempted to frustration, but I push on in my effort to be present to the Lord and to allow him to speak to me in whatever way he wishes. I make an act of faith in his real presence in the Blessed Sacrament, and I change my posture from sitting to kneeling. I recall this morning’s gospel. I speak with him about my day, about my hopes and struggles, my disappointments and my successes. At the end of my meditation, I thank him for his presence and for his love. I make a mental note of what has occurred in prayer, so that I can share it with my spiritual director, with whom I meet every other week to discuss the various aspects of my spiritual life. Prayer is a joyful struggle, I think to myself, as Evening Prayer begins.

7:03 PM

The NAC community has just concluded the final movement in its day of prayer together: the hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Tonight we sang the Salve Regina. This is a fitting way for us to conclude our day, as we entrust ourselves to the immaculate and merciful hands of our Blessed Mother. At Evening Prayer, we offer an evening sacrifice of praise to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Having thus been taken up into this Trinitarian communion, we honor her who is at the center of that great story of love that we call salvation history: the daughter of God the Father, the mother of God the Son, and the spouse of God the Holy Spirit.

The dominant image in the Immaculate Conception Chapel is a large mosaic of the Blessed Virgin Mary, adorned as a queen and surrounded by angels. In her left hand, she holds the world close to her womb, indicating that she is our mother, the New Eve. With her right hand, she blesses the world, indicating that she is our mediatrix, through whom all grace and mercy flows from the Sacred Heart of her Son. As I sing the Salve with my brothers, I gaze at this image and renew my filial devotion to my Mother, who nourishes and protects my vocation to the priesthood of her Son.

8:11 PM

Rather than eat leftovers from pranzo, I have decided to purchase a pizza in the Student Lounge. For only 1.80 euro, the pizza is a bargain, and it is surprisingly delicious, given its status as “frozen pizza.” I am surrounded in the Lounge by many of the brethren, who come here in the evening for fraternity and recreation. Some are playing cards, others are reading the newspaper, and others discuss the latest adventures of their day.

As I eat my pizza, I consider what film I will view this evening. The NAC has a first-rate collection of movies, and I often take advantage of our collection, as a means of winding down after the long and hectic Roman day. Acouple of the brothers are watching a 1980s comedy, and I decide to join them for the evening. Even though I am 3,000 miles from the United States, and 6,000 miles from San Francisco, I feel almost at home.

10:15 PM

As day draws to a close, the Church gives us, in our Night Prayer, the words of the holy Simeon: “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace…” These words become mine as I retire to my room for this final movement in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours. The Hours are a great gift to us because they provide us with the right words at the right times. Before lunch, I prayed the Office of Readings and Daytime Prayer, and I remember thinking the same thing then: “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” St. Paul’s words are fulfilled in the Spirit’s gift of the Liturgy of the Hours to his Church. The Spirit also gives the gift of rest, and, after my long Tuesday, somnolence is a sweet reward.

Life isn’t perfect at the Pontifical North American College. It has its own challenges, not the least of which is being away from the familiar comforts of home: family, friends, and culture. But life is never perfect. It is ours only to do what God is asking of us at any given time, and to do it with joy and courage. Such is the sweet yoke of life at the American seminary in Rome.

St. John Vianney said of the priesthood that if we truly knew its significance, we would die, not of fear but of love. The gift of being able to study for the priesthood at the heart of the Church evokes a similar experience of awe before the great love of God.

It is difficult to express the richness of receiving one’s priestly formation in the city consecrated by the blood of the Princes of the Apostles, Saints Peter and Paul. Indeed, much of the benefit gained therein takes place almost as a type of holy osmosis in which the seminarian, in his daily encounter with the holiness of Rome, absorbs little by little its heroic spirit. One can list the times he has been with the Holy Father for Mass, or has picked the brain of a brilliant professor, or has prayed at the burial place of a saint; but the value of studying for the priesthood in Rome is even more than the sum total of all these marvelous experiences.

The seminarians of the North American College are reminded to always have in mind—whether when praying or studying or going about their day—the people whom they will serve in the future. It is this love for the people of God that motivates us in our daily struggle to allow ourselves to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. We know that our experience in Rome is not an end in itself, but is meant to be shared with our people after we return home for priestly service. This, of course, is just one more reason why each seminarian at the NAC is very grateful for the opportunity to study for the priesthood in the Eternal City.


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