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Studying in the heart of Christendom
Every year, many dioceses in the United States send a select few seminarians to study in Rome at the Pontifical North American College (NAC). Founded in 1859 by Blessed Pius IX, the NAC has formed thousands of U.S. priests.
When a man is sent to Rome to study for the priesthood, it is an experience like no other. Living in a foreign country, learning a new language, figuring out where the best gelaterias are, there is much to do — not to mention priestly formation. What is it like to study theology in Rome, in the heart of Christendom where saints were martyred and popes have led the Church?
Deacon Larry Machado is a seminarian from the Diocese of Stockton, California. He is a transitional deacon, nearing his ordination to the priesthood, and so is nearly at the end of his time at the NAC. The son of Portuguese immigrants, Deacon Machado did not consider the priesthood until he was in college. Originally intending to be a family physician, he went to college and then medical school.
“Toward the end of medical school, the idea of becoming a priest became stronger as I considered the fact that, as good as helping people with their health is, including curing disease and saving lives, how much more important was the salvation of souls and administering the sacraments, allowing people to have an encounter with our Lord, the Divine Physician,” Deacon Machado said. He finished medical school and joined a religious order for six years before discerning that his vocation was as a diocesan priest in his home diocese.
Deacon Machado has been at the NAC for more than three years. “Each bishop decides where the seminarians of his diocese will study,” he said. “In my case, my bishop asked me to study in Rome.”
For Deacon Machado, studying in Rome offers the opportunity to experience the universal Church.
“While we live at the NAC, we study in one of three universities in Rome with other seminarians, religious brothers and sisters, and lay students from all over the world,” he said. “This gives us a perspective on what is happening in the Church outside of the U.S.”
Rome also offers the opportunity to learn about how the Church has stood the test of time, from the first martyrs and Sts. Peter and Paul who died in Rome, down to the Church of the present day.
“So much has happened in the life of the Church here in Rome over the past 2,000 years, and living here during our time of seminary formation will only enrich our priesthood,” he said.
It is difficult to be removed from what is going on in his home diocese, however. “It means having less contact with other seminarians and priests in our diocese with whom we will be working for the rest of our lives,” he said. But the challenges that arise from studying so far from home can be formative experiences that help in priesthood, helping them to grow and mature so that they can become priests who are ready for pastoral ministry in the United States upon their return home, he said.
Heart of Christendom
As a child, Ivan Torres always dreaded the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” He was born and raised in a large family in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with the Faith always present, but the priesthood never really entered into his mind. During the years of preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation, he began to grow in his faith, asking questions and developing a personal relationship with the Lord. During a retreat he helped lead as a senior in high school, he felt a clear calling to be a fisher of men.
“While I was unsure of what priests really did beyond Mass, where they came from or how someone became a priest, I was still powerfully sure that I was made to be his priest,” Torres said. He went to New Mexico State University and after graduation entered Holy Trinity Seminary in Dallas for the Diocese of Las Cruces. After two years, he was sent to Rome to study at the Pontifical North American College. “It has been such a privilege to be formed intellectually with the mind of the Church, to be formed into a better man, into a good shepherd and a man of prayer,” Torres said.
There are two major benefits to studying at the NAC, Torres said: “The city of Rome herself and the men whom I’m privileged to call brothers. It is here, throughout the streets that the saints have walked for two millennia, in this the heart of Christendom, where people from all nations still come together, that my understanding of the priesthood has taken on a sense of the universality of the priestly mission,” he said. And in a house of nearly 200 men laying down their lives for the Gospel, Torres has encountered more intelligent, joyful and talented men than anywhere else in his life.
Rome is leaving its mark on Torres “through the universality of the Faith, the centrality of our Eucharistic Lord, present to us in all places, and in the rich history of confessors and martyrs who have shed their blood for Christ,” he said. He also is surprised at the fact that Rome is affecting the way that he views the Church in America and his appreciation for it. “Even with all of the difficulties we face, there is great hope!”
Torres admits there are some challenging aspects of studying in Rome, although he would not characterize any of the effects of his studies as problematic.
“While I have had to die to some of my own comforts and attachments to relationships back home, and by this coming to rely more and more on relationship with Christ, the deep friendships I shared in back home have not grown at the same pace as I have these last few years, and I, too, have missed out on a great deal of my family’s and diocese’s own experiences,” Torres said. But even these stumbling blocks can bear much fruit.
Rooted in Christ
Paul Sappington was born and raised Catholic, and in his senior year of college he began to examine why he worshipped the way he did. Through the influence of his university’s Newman Center, he began to see and desire “the beauty of living an authentic Catholic life.” He graduated from Missouri University of Science & Technology in 2015 and began working as an assistant electrical engineer in Kansas City, Missouri. A relationship with a non-Catholic woman encouraged him to look into the foundations of the Catholic faith. He began spiritual direction, learned the value of personal prayer, started attending Mass daily and felt called to the priesthood.
Sappington is a seminarian for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri. He was asked by his bishop and vocations director if he would be open to studying in Rome, and he has been at the NAC since July 2018.
The experience of being so far from home has been an opportunity to grow for Sappington. “The initial transition from the U.S. to the NAC was more difficult than I expected, and thankfully it forced me to grow in areas that I did not realize I was deficient in,” he said. “This has all been tremendously beneficial to me, and my faith has become less abstract and more real and rooted in Christ as a result.” He has also become more familiar with the Church in the U.S., as he lives and studies with seminarians from all over the country, as well as a few from Australia.
Sappington agreed that the biggest disadvantage to studying in Rome is being so far from family and his brother seminarians. “It’s tough not to be there with your brothers for diocesan events, and it’s even tougher not to be home with your siblings and parents for times like Christmas and birthdays (or, better yet, baptismal anniversaries),” he said. “That being said, it’s a tremendous blessing to study theology in Rome, and I am grateful that I am able to attend the NAC. As much as I miss the good ol’ U.S., it’s certainly worth it.”
Paul Senz writes from Oregon.