‘Your Servants are Listening’

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High atop Rome’s Janiculum Hill, overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica, sits an august academy, the Pontifical North American College, affectionately called the NAC. This enclave is where the bishops of North America and of other English-speaking countries send many of their brightest seminarians and priests for college studies and graduate work. Not surprisingly, numerous bishops count themselves as proud alumni of this hilltop institution.

As the NAC celebrates its 150th anniversary, Columbia spoke with several priests and bishops associated with the College, to reflect on the significance of the institution.

Following a request by Pope Pius IX to the U.S. bishops in 1854, the Pontifical North American College was founded Dec. 8, 1859, to foster a closer connection between the Catholic Church in the United States and the Holy See. The school was originally housed at an old convent on the Via dell’Umilta, a property that Pope Pius IX personally gave for the formation of the seminary. Twelve students formed the first class.

Today, the North American College is near capacity and is home to more than 180 seminarians from the United States, representing 82 dioceses, and six seminarians from Australia. The seminarians attend classes at either the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University or the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican institution commonly known as the Angelicum. Both schools were founded in the 16th century, and their students represent more than 100 countries.

The NAC is also comprised of The Institute for Continuing Theological Education, which has served more than 2,300 priests since 1970, and the Casa Santa Maria, a graduate studies house located at the College’s original location. The Casa Santa Maria housed more than 70 priests during the 2008-09 academic year.

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of Baltimore, former chairman of the NAC Board of Governors, alumnus of the graduate house and former rector: The NAC is by far the largest of the national colleges in Rome and draws from a reservoir of philosophical and theological expertise unique in the Catholic world. In addition to the academic formation offered by the three branches of the college, spiritual formation receives special attention. The Church’s many basilicas and other holy places — not to mention our Holy Father — serve as ever-present centers for spiritual inspiration.

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, alumnus and former rector: In some ways, it is true that the North American College plays a unique role in the life of the U.S. Catholic Church. After all, she helps strengthen the bonds of unity between our local churches and the Bishop of Rome. But in many ways, the College is not unlike other seminaries. Like other programs, her success is measured by the extent to which she produces healthy, wholesome, happy parish priests. Members of the College’s community strive for the same goal — drawing closer to Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Msgr. Daniel Mueggenborg, vice rector of the NAC: The Pontifical North American College provides a unique experience of priestly formation in the heart of Rome. Seminarians who study here are introduced to the universal Church through their interaction in the university classroom, their participation in papal liturgies and their pilgrimages to sites of ancient Christian witness and significant history. Since its formation, the college has enrolled more than 5,000 students from virtually every diocese in the United States.

Father Vincent De Rosa, alumnus, priest for the Archdiocese of Washington: Living in the city dedicated to the pastoral care of the global Church, seminarians gain a privileged vision of the Church’s universality. Leaving St. Peter’s, a seminarian can, over the course of his studies, trace the history of the Church’s mission to all nations through Rome’s streets and piazzas. And arriving at this university, a seminarian is then surrounded by classmates from every continent.

Father Stephen V. Hamilton, alumnus, priest of the Diocese of Oklahoma City: It is difficult to believe that I have already been home now for nine years…. Almost daily I think about the College in some fashion and the formative experiences I had there. I can’t possibly describe in words the closeness and the bond I formed with my fellow classmates who, because of the nature of being so far away from home, became like family.

Count Enrico P. Galeazzi began working with the Knights of Columbus in 1922, when he designed the Order’s first playgrounds for Catholic youth in Rome. He assumed administrative duties for the playgrounds in 1931.

A native of the city, Galeazzi became close friends with Father (later Cardinal) Francis J. Spellman, an alumnus of the North American College who was later appointed the archbishop of New York. Through Spellman, he also became friends with Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican Secretary of State. Galeazzi accompanied Cardinal Pacelli to the United States in 1936, and the trip included a visit to the Knights of Columbus headquarters in New Haven, Conn.

Three years later, Cardinal Pacelli became Pope Pius XII. Following World War II, the pope urged the U.S. bishops to reopen the North American College, which had closed in 1940 due to the war. Students returned in 1947, and the U.S. bishops commissioned Galeazzi as the architect of a new seminary building to be located on Janiculum Hill. In 1953, the NAC moved to its current campus and was dedicated by Pope Pius XII.

In 1982, the Order established the Count Enrico P. Galeazzi Fund to benefit the College and provide scholarships. It has yielded more than $3 million to date, and the Order’s relationship with the NAC has continued to develop.

Archbishop O’Brien: The Knights of Columbus has been generous in helping the College and its seminarians. Indeed, the College’s expansion to its new home following the Second World War might never have become a reality but for the collaboration of Count Enrico Galeazzi, Cardinal Francis J. Spellman and Supreme Knight John E. Swift. To this day, a sizeable endowment from the Knights effectively promotes the College’s mission — this in addition to the Knights’ support on national and local levels offered to many of the college’s seminarians.

Msgr. Mueggenborg: The mission of the NAC is very similar to the mission of the Knights of Columbus, and it is no surprise that these two have formed a friendship and working relationship that has spanned nearly a century.

This friendship between the Knights and the College is expressed in very historic and visible ways. Count Galeazzi’s grandson, Enrico Demajo, now administers the Knights’ office in Rome and continues to visit the College regularly. In addition, the College has historically helped the Knights by assisting with important administrative needs of the Rome office. During the past few decades, this close relationship has been further solidified through the financial support the Knights have provided.

However, the strong connection is perhaps demonstrated best by a recent survey of current seminarians at the College, which found that more than 75 percent of them have become members of the Knights.

Father De Rosa: As the charter grand knight of The George Washington University Council 13242, I am also working in a particular way with the councils that supported me through seminary, as well as with my own home council. The immensity of the Order’s generosity is truly heroic, not only in terms of its financial generosity, but even more so in terms of its commitment to family life and spreading the mission of the Church. In many ways, Knights represent the best of Rome.

The Pontifical North American College offers seminarians a unique experience of studying for the priesthood adjacent at the very center of the Catholic Church. In a 1970 address to the NAC, Pope Paul VI said, “Rome is not only a passive lesson, a silent book or a picture to be admired. Rome is a voice for him who knows how to listen.”

Archbishop Dolan: As Pope John Paul II observed, ‘one does not just study in Rome; one studies Rome.’ Rome becomes a classroom for future American priests, giving them a sense of the tradition, history and universality of the Church they will love and serve.

Msgr. Mueggenborg: As they walk the streets every day, the seminarians pass by the places where early Christians gave their lives during times of persecution. From their personal encounter with the saints and martyrs of Rome, they are encouraged to become ever more fervent witnesses of the Gospel.

Father De Rosa: It seems to me that the value of a seminary education in Rome, ultimately, comes down to one word: Peter. Proximity to the Holy Father brings men in priestly formation to a closer understanding of the Church they will one day serve.

Father Hamilton: The word “heart” comes to mind for several reasons. The motto of the NAC [Firmum est cor meum] refers to having a steadfast or firm heart, and the College exists at the heart of the universal Church. There, studies, spiritual direction, formation and service put the student into contact with the heart of God — one’s heart grows in love for Christ and his people. At the heart of the Church, my heart was enriched, and the College had much to do with that precious gift.

John Mallon has been writing on Catholic issues and teaching for 25 years.