By Fr. Thom Hennen
Director of Vocations
Last month I had the opportunity to visit our two seminarians studying at the North American College in Rome. As this is my alma mater, it was a nice “homecoming” for me. It was truly a blessing to return to this place where I had received so many graces and was formed for the priesthood. I have always tried to be impartial about the seminaries that we use as a diocese and have said that the NAC is not necessarily a better seminary than those we use here in the States.
Still, its location does offer some unique opportunities. The city of Rome is a course in itself and to live and study there truly offers an experience of the universal church. For example, while the seminarians live and receive their formation on this little “island” of the United States that is the NAC, they take their theology classes at one of the universities in the heart of the city. At the universities on any given day you can be sitting next to a sister from Uganda on your left, a diocesan seminarian from France on your right, a lay student from the Philippines behind you, and a brother from Argentina in front of you. Where else can you experience that? It’s true: all roads lead to Rome.
I will admit, it was a lot easier going back to seminary as a vocation director than as a student. I had my own bathroom, I could eat in the faculty dining room if I wanted, I didn’t have to go to classes (though, I did sit in on one with our guys just for the fun of it), I didn’t have a house job I had to do and I didn’t have any papers to write. I didn’t miss the stress of seminary life but I did miss the fraternal spirit, the palpable love of the Lord and the church, and, frankly, the routine.
One of the first things I noticed was how easy it was to pray there. To go from praying the Liturgy of the Hours mostly by myself these past 11 years to praying again with a full chapel of around 250 men was enough to move me to tears. Also, it was wonderful to go back to the little, out-of-the-way chapel on the lower level of the college where I had so many conversations with the Lord in prayer.
There were a number of improvements to the seminary’s physical plant, including a new wing, but I noticed a few other changes as well. For one, the seminarians seemed more serious. I don’t mean furrowed brows and crisply pressed shirts. Rather, the men seemed to possess a beautiful esprit de corps, a common commitment to each other, to the college and to the mission for which they are being formed. We certainly had something of this when I was there too, but perhaps it was more difficult to notice from the inside.
At the same time, the seminarians also seemed more joyful. This is closely related to that sense of esprit de corps, but subtly different. The men not only seemed more dedicated, but had a lightness about them. Perhaps living next door to Pope Francis has had some effect in this regard. Whatever the cause, it was noticeable.
As I think of it, this combination is not a bad one at all for priestly formation: to be serious about things that are worth being serious about and yet, possessing a joyful spirit and the humility to laugh at oneself. If my “read” on the place is correct, then the NAC and its seminarians are doing very well and the church in the United States can expect some stellar ministers of the Gospel upon their return home from the “Eternal City.”
No seminary is or ever has been perfect, but I am very impressed at what I see, not just at the NAC, but at all of our seminaries across the board. It gives me great hope. Please pray for our seminarians, but also pray for those who have the responsibility of forming them. This is vital work for the life of the church.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)