3 Reasons to Study Theology in Rome
I know that I said that I would begin an exploration of the fonts of Divine Revelation, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, this week. I know that some of you have been very kind to ask me to create a good book list, some essential items in each field that you can use for your study of theology. I promise that I will do it! There are also some things that have come up from you in your comments to me over the past few weeks that have been really helpful, and I want to acknowledge them and, perhaps, to comment on some of them.
But this week, I really wanted to speak about something near and dear to my heart — studying theology in the heart of the Church, studying theology in Rome. Of course, you don’t have to study theology in Rome in order to come to a good understanding of this “science of salvation.” However, this is where I studied theology and I am very, very grateful to have studied theology in Rome, and to have done so when I did — getting my bachelor’s and license degrees in sacred theology in the days of Saint John Paul II, and returning for my doctoral degree in the age of Pope Francis. And, now sitting on the other side of the desk as a professor and an academic dean of a pontifical seminary, I truly believe that it is still a life-changing experience.
To describe, albeit briefly, my own experience, when I was a senior in college, I was asked if I would be open to studying for the priesthood in Rome. I was very honest with my formator at our college seminary in New York and said that I wasn’t really interested. By all indications, it looked like I was going to study for the priesthood at the seminary in my neighboring diocese of Rockville Centre. And yet, when April rolled in, I was asked by my bishop to study in Rome, getting my priestly formation at the Pontifical North American College and my theological studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University. After prayer and consultation, I said yes, and I can tell you that I am very grateful.
Around the main courtyard of the North American College, there are several plaques, all of which speak about the experience of what it is like to be a student studying in Rome. One of them reads, in Latin, “Veritate Catholica Romae Instituti Inter Maxima Est Dei Beneficia Recenendum,” which translates as “The opportunity to study theology in Rome should be counted as one of God’s greatest gifts.” With all due respect to the many other places that one could study theology around our country, in seminaries and in universities, and around the world, there is something to be studying theology, which, at its essence is the study of God and the things of God, in the physical place that is the center of our Catholic faith, Rome.
You see, as important as the lectures are, as vital as the professors are, the real teacher is the city of Rome herself. Being in the presence of the Holy Father, walking the streets where saints and martyrs walked, assisting in papal events — all of this is as much a part of the formation of the Rome-trained theology student as taking classes and preparing thesis. The principal way that Rome teaches someone, particularly an American, is by bringing them out of themselves, by forcing them to recognize that there is something greater than just our personal experience of the world, that there is a whole, vast world out there, that the Church really is Catholic, in the best sense of that word, meaning universal.
Three ways that Rome can be the best of teachers that come to mind to me are the following:
(1) Studying in Rome can make you a better American. Before coming here to Rome, my experience was solely in Brooklyn. Not New York, mind you, just Brooklyn and Queens, the confines of my diocese. Why would anyone ever want to go to Manhattan? I do believe that Brooklyn is the center of the universe and that it’s all the rest of you people who have funny accents! Studying in Rome gave me friends from places that I might possibly be able to recognize on a map, like Alabama and Iowa, Michigan and California. For the first time, living in a foreign country helped me to appreciate the gift that is America, the gift that my own hometown is and the gift that the particular church which gave birth to my faith. They say one of the best things about studying in Rome is that you never have to get a hotel when you have to travel in the United States — you have friends and acquaintances all through America.
(2) Studying in Rome can make you a better religious if you are in vows and, if you’re a secular priest, then a better diocesan priest. As a lay student, it will introduce you to a whole new world of dedicated lay students, helping you to recognize that you are not alone in your quest for Veritas, the truth. You see, one of the dangers when you’re surrounded by your own is that you can forget that not everyone has the same charism, the same approach, the same ideas as you and your brothers and sisters have. Before coming to Rome, the only male religious order I knew were the Vincentians and the only female religious order I knew were the Sisters of Saint Joseph. I knew priests of the Diocese of Brooklyn and priests of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, and that was it! Coming to Rome, I grew to know Religious Sisters of Mercy, Jesuits, Dominicans, Benedictines, Franciscans, Carmelites, Legionaries of Christ, priests of the Prelature of the Holy Cross, and so many priests from dioceses around the world. I grew strengthened in my own vocation as a Brooklyn diocesan priest due to my knowledge of the charisms of the religious orders, personal prelatures and dioceses I grew to know in my time in Rome.
(3) Studying in Rome can make you a better son or daughter of the Church. What do I mean by this? You see, our local bishop is the Pope himself. We are in the Diocese of Rome. He is mentioned as “Francis, our Pope and Bishop” every single day at Mass. The Holy Father is not just a concept, not just a far-away figure who has no involvement in our lives. He is our local shepherd. We see him, albeit from a distance mostly, often. We have this personal connection to the Holy Father and a special, personal love for him thanks to our time here, no matter who the man is who is in the Chair of Peter.
Like I mentioned, “Veritate Catholica Romae Instituti Inter Maxima Est Dei Beneficia Recenendum,” and it has been a great gift indeed to me. I hope that in these little articles, in a very minor way, as a priest and as a professor, I can share that gift with you!