Seminarians with Pope Francis.

Catholic Studies, SJV and the Irish College in Rome

The unique relationship of Catholic Studies, Saint John Vianney College Seminary (SJV), and the Pontifical Irish College is yet one more fruit of our ongoing presence in Rome.

Although our SJV seminarians have participated in the Catholic Studies Rome program from the beginning, the challenge was how to continue their seminary formation in as full and rich a way as possible. The seminarians lived at the Bernardi Campus, but SJV leadership, bishops and vocations directors wanted a place where the SJV men could continue the required academic and spiritual formation with a formator in residence.

Catholic Studies, Saint John Vianney College Seminary, and Pontifical Irish College students and seminarians in Rome.

St. Thomas’ decision in 2015 to use Bernardi for a fall study abroad program made finding a suitable place in Rome for the SJV seminarians an immediate need. I was then serving as director of the Catholic Studies Rome program and began working closely with Father Michael Becker, then rector of SJV.

Several friends in Rome suggested we approach the Pontifical Irish College, established in 1628 for diocesan seminarians from Ireland studying in Rome.

There was a problem, however. No one had ever placed American college seminarians in a Pontifical College in Rome. Historically, the colleges were for major seminarians and priests. If we could find a way, it would be another first for Catholic Studies in Rome.

Becker and Monsignor Ciaran O’Carroll, the rector of the Irish College, entrusted the project to Our Lady and got to work. It would require the approval of: Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Saint Paul and Minneapolis; the Episcopal Conference of Ireland; and the Congregation for Clergy, one of the principal offices of the Vatican. To get all approvals would be nothing short of a miracle.

But miracles do happen. The first class of seminarians were welcomed to the Pontifical Irish College in the fall of 2016.

The program at the Irish College has been a splendid success. Father John Bauer, a priest of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, served as the first SJV formator-in-residence. The seminarians continue the spiritual and human formation begun in St. Paul while participating fully in the life of the Irish College. They experience the international reality of the Catholic Church in the daily life of community and worship at the Irish College.

This is not the end of the story. With the decline of Irish vocations to the diocesan priesthood, recently the Irish bishops considered selling the Irish College. St. Thomas partnered with Catholic Studies programs from other universities to save the Irish College for the Irish. Together, we crafted a study abroad program modeled on ours that could make a Catholic Studies experience in Rome available to students from other schools while residing at the Irish College. We invited the Irish bishops to send students to participate in our program to help invigorate the young adult laity in Ireland. In 2023, four lay students from Ireland joined 16 American undergraduates from U.S. Catholic colleges and universities for the inaugural semester of the program.

The result is that the Pontifical Irish College now has a vibrant mix of residents unique among the Pontifical colleges of Rome: priests, college seminarians and lay undergraduates.

Romeward bound

A talented group of seminarians studying in Rome in spring 2024 created a humorous and thoughtful video (2:43) that provides a glimpse into their experience in the Eternal City and at the Pontifical Irish College. It is sure to bring a smile.

This story is featured in the spring 2024 issue of Lumen.