Living abroad in the Eternal City always has been a coveted highlight of the Catholic studies program. For the past 16 years, seminarians and Catholic studies students have been able to spend a semester together in Rome, living on the banks of the Tiber at the Bernardi palazzo, studying theology and philosophy at the Angelicum, practicing Italian at a Roman language school, visiting some of the world’s finest art and architecture throughout Italy, attending liturgies in some of the most famous churches in the world – all while celebrating a vibrant, Catholic communal life in the shadow of the Vatican.
Understandably so, students often report their Rome semester as one of the most important and formative experiences of their time in college.
When the university decided in summer 2015 to expand Rome study abroad opportunities to include the whole university and not only Catholic studies students, it posed two challenges to the well-established Rome program. One, it meant that Catholic studies would give up the fall semester in Bernardi, making it more difficult for lay students who are Catholic studies majors and minors to participate in the Rome program; and two, it would give up at least 12 housing spots that previously were guaranteed to seminarians from St. John Vianney (SJV), St. Thomas’ minor seminary.
That is when Dr. John Boyle, current coordinator for the Rome program and director of the graduate program in Catholic studies, had an idea.
“I thought we could pursue an alternate location for the seminarians,” he said. “A location that would accommodate fall and spring semesters.” The idea – if it worked – would resolve both difficulties in one fell swoop.
When Boyle presented the plan to Father Michael Becker, rector of SJV, he immediately agreed to pursue it. After some initial investigation, Becker and Boyle settled on approaching the Irish College rector, Monsignor Ciarán O’Carroll, to see if such an arrangement could be made. His response was positive – “actually quite miraculous,” Becker said.
The Irish College, as grace would have it, had a small wing open with 15 beds, even more space than Boyle and Becker originally hoped. Instead of 24 seminarians studying abroad in Rome each year, 30 could now do so.
“I credit Monsignor O’Carroll for having an open heart,” Becker said, “and I credit him highly for taking all the necessary steps and doing all the work necessary to bring this arrangement about.”
Indeed, the approval process involved three countries and an impressive multitude of clerical and educational heads – and, yet, the whole process still took just under a year.
“It’s an exquisite grace that it all happened so fast,” Boyle noted, “because the protocols are extraordinary.”
“We just learned July 4 that it all got validated,” Becker said. “I’ve joked around saying, ‘The only person we have left to validate this is the pope.’”
A More Seamless Life
In the past, the Bernardi semester could be a departure from normal seminary disciplines. The change provides the opportunity for SJV to integrate the semester abroad more seamlessly with the rest of seminary life.
For example, a formator now will spend the whole year at the Irish College, which is something SJV had wanted to do, but hadn’t been able to at Bernardi, Boyle said. Father John Bauer, who has been with SJV for the past eight years, will be the first formator to serve in this new assignment.
“The side of their formation is now continued directly with their own formator, but in a remarkable Roman context at a pontifical college,” Boyle said, “They keep getting to be seminarians in a seminarian context.”
In addition to formation for the SJV men, Bauer also will help to arrange spiritual direction for the seminarians while in Rome. Priests from the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis who live at the Casa Santa Maria, the mother-house of the North American College, and are studying at various pontifical universities, will act as spiritual directors to some of the SJV men. One such priest is Father Evan Koop, who is pursuing a degree in systematic theology at the Gregorian Pontifical University. Koop has been at SJV already for four years and will be familiar to many of the seminarians.
“They are close to the Holy Father, they study with priests and sisters from all over the world, they get a better sense of the universal church,” Becker said. “The teachers are a great source of inspiration. ... These are all profound gifts. They come back with a treasury that they will disperse in homilies as priests.”
Meanwhile, back at the Bernardi Campus, the spring semester promises fresh energy for Catholic studies students. Whereas the mix of students before was often one-third seminarian and two-thirds lay student, with the seminarians safely ensconced at the Irish
College, the demographic of Bernardi now becomes entirely lay students. And that, too, becomes a grace.
Boyle is confident that, for the Catholic studies students who will live at Bernardi, “The forms of lay life and lay community life will move more seamlessly. There will be a kind of freedom that is utterly appropriate to lay people that I think will be very fruitful, and I think a slightly larger number [of lay students] will make the community life better, the excursions more flexible and natural.
“The main thing is we will not have to turn anyone away who wants to go to Rome,” he added. Grazie a Dio.