A Founder's Roman Dream
by Fr John McCloskey
Love for Rome and the universal Church inspired the dream of the founder of Opus Dei, Blessed Josemaria Escriva, of establishing an academic institution to educate lay people, priests, and religious in the ecclesiastical sciences. He wrote in his spiritual masterpiece, Furrow, "I thought the comment of loyalty you had written to me was very appropriate for all those moments of history which the devil makes it his business to repeat: 'I carry with me every day in my heart, in my mind, and on my lips, an aspiration: Rome'" (pt. 344).
Blessed Josemaria traveled to Rome in 1946 for the first time in order to seek Pontifical approval of Opus Dei. On his first night there, gravely ill with diabetes after a harrowing journey by sea, he spent the whole night in prayer for the Pope, looking up toward the Papal apartment in the Vatican, just across the street from where he was living. From the Eternal City he supervised the steady growth of Opus Dei to dozens of countries as it spread the message of ordinary lay people pursuing holiness in the middle of the world. He often meditated about the lives of early Christians, of which there was so much evidence in Rome. A true Catholic, he made the city his own. As he said in The Way, "Catholic, apostolic, Roman! I want you to be very Roman, ever anxious to make your 'pilgrimage' to Rome 'videre petrum' -- to see Peter."
As a lover of Rome he ranks with St. Philip Neri, a man so much like him in his attractive personality. He had a keen artistic eye and incorporated many architectural details from both classical and Catholic Rome and from other parts of Italy in the headquarters of Opus Dei, where his remains lie in the prelatic church of Our Lady of Peace. He visited churches in pilgrimages with his spiritual children, walking up and down the city in prayer. Whenever his children in Opus Dei came to Rome, he insisted that upon arriving they go first to visit St. Peter's and pray the Creed before the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles.
To live in the heart of Christianity, near the Chair of Peter, for a lay person, seminarian, priest, or religious fills him with a sense of apostolic mission and gratitude for the rest of his life. Read the words of Pope John Paul II from his book Gift and Mystery as he reflects on his first Roman experience:
"I indicated before that in those two years in the Eternal City I 'learned' Rome intensely. I return often to those years with memories full of emotion. Upon parting I took with me not only a greater accumulation of theological culture, but also the strengthening of my priesthood and a deepening of my vision of the Church. That period of intensive study near the tombs of the Apostles gave me much from every point of view...through Rome my young priesthood was enriched with a European and universal dimension." Thanks in large part to the leadership of the Holy Father there has been a steady increase in priestly vocations worldwide during his pontificate.
Bl. Josemaria Escriva was a great dreamer, with dreams based on faith. Many of his dreams became a reality during his lifetime; others are becoming a reality today. The Pontifical University of the Holy Cross was one of those dreams. The official beginning of the academic activities of the Atheneum dates back to November 1984, but in reality it began on his arrival in Italy in l946. The founder of Opus Dei wanted to give birth in Rome to a university level center of ecclesiastical studies at the service of the universal Church. First, however, Opus Dei must attain its final juridical status within the Church, as it did in l982 after his death. He prepared for this step with prayer and constant work, promoting the highest academic level of formation for the future teachers. Many of these attended the ecclesiastical schools of the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain, of which he was the Grand Chancellor, while others attended a variety of Roman universities.
The Atheneum is located right in the heart of Rome with its two major buildings separated by the Piazza Navona, an architectural and archaeological site that was originally the racecourse of the Emperor Domitian and still retains its oval shape today. Nearby is the Church of St. Agnes, its facade designed by the great architect Borromini, and built on the site of the soldiers' barracks where the young aristocrat Agnes was martyred. Facing the church is the renowned fountain of the Four Rivers. The administrative offices of the Atheneum are located in the Palazzo dell'Apollinare. The original plan of the building is from the 14th century, and includes the Basilica of Saint Apollinare, one of Rome's stational churches. Rich in history, the Palazzo is renowned for the numerous celebrated personalities formed in its halls, not only many cardinals, bishops and noted university professors, but also figures such as Eugenio Pacelli (from 1895 to 1903) and Angelo Roncalli (from 1901 to 1905), the future Popes Pius XII and John XXIII. The present Palazzo dates back to the middle of the 18th century and is the work of Ferdinando Fuga.
The library and original building of the Atheneum is located at the south end of the Piazza near the Palazzo Farnese and across from the English College. It is found on the Via San Girolamo della Carita, near the church of the same name. This church, according to tradition, was built on the site of the home of St. Jerome. Later it became the church where St. Philip Neri exercised his apostolate and founded the Congregation of the Oratory. The library already has 72000 volumes and is in full expansion; it contains some 550 collections of journals, microfilms, and electronic editions in CD-Rom. As one of the newest of the Roman ecclesiastical universities, the Atheneum is poised to use the newer forms of communication technology, including the Internet, and to put them at the service of the education of the universal Church.
Why is a young seminarian, religious or priest sent to Rome to study at the Atheneum by his bishop or superior? Even in dioceses that are not very extensive or developed, priests perceive the need for a deep intellectual training. Such a need is related to the importance and delicacy of the task entrusted to them. Consider, for example, the task of teaching in a diocesan seminary, or programs transmitted by the mass-media. Most important, consider the fundamental and most inspiring task: the ministry of service to parish communities. Here the priest, called upon day after day to pursue holiness in his state of life, exhorts and educates the souls entrusted to him to do the same in their own lives, with all the originality, initiative and dedication that the Church calls for. The Church needs priests who unite to the sincere gift of self a careful and profound knowledge of the ecclesiastical sciences, enabling them to proclaim the Gospel and make it understood by all people, really walking side by side with them in their personal path to God. Many dozens of the graduates, the majority of them priests and even some bishops, are already back in their native countries putting the knowledge acquired in Rome to the service of their particular church. The love of the Founder of Opus Dei for the goodness of the world and the universal Church, where holiness can be found in everyday life, is communicated to the students of the Atheneum through their classes, through other conferences, through the work of spiritual direction and the celebration of the liturgy at the Church of St. Apollinare.
As soon as Prelature of Opus Dei was erected, Monsignor (later Bishop) Alvaro del Portillo, Josemaria Escriva's first successor, established the Roman Academic Center, which functioned as a branch of the University of Navarre. By l993 the school was composed of three core faculties of theology, philosophy, and canon law. On June 26, l995, the twentieth anniversary of the departure of Bl. Josemaria Escriva to heaven, John Paul II granted the university the title of "Pontifical". Most recently, on February 26, l996, the Holy See erected the School of Institutional Social Communications, a unique Pontifical Degree program within the Church. The Atheneum marches ahead with plans for new specializations in coming years, including one in Church history -- so fitting given its location at the heart of Christendom. The Atheneum is open to all who fulfill the requirements for registration: priests and seminarians, religious and lay people, men and women.
To the ecclesiastical schools the Church entrusts first of all the task of preparing with special care students for the priestly ministry, for teaching the sacred sciences, and for the more arduous tasks of the apostolate. In fact, Church law requires that the sacred ministers study in the ecclesiastical sciences, completing specific courses appropriate for the tasks they are called to carry out in the service of the people of God. In civil society, university teaching responds to the same need: to prepare its members to carry out the activities necessary for social life, such as health care, law, engineering, and the liberal arts.
The Church's system generally divides ecclesiastical university studies into three cycles, the first cycle embracing the philosophical and theological studies leading to the Bachelor's degree in Theology. This cycle lasts five years. In the next cycle, which lasts two years, the student undertakes a deeper study of a particular area. At the end he will receive a Licentiate degree, comparable to a civil Master's degree. Finally, the third cycle aims at perfecting the student's academic preparation by means of seminars, and principally through writing a doctoral thesis. These studies last at least two years and conclude with the granting of a doctor's degree.
Numerous bishops from all over the world want to send some of their priests and seminarians to carry out their ecclesiastical studies in the Atheneum. This can be seen in the steady growth from 40 students at its founding in l984 up to the 700 or so who study full-time in the four current faculties. They come from 65 different countries. They include priests or seminarians not only from the U.S., but also from such diverse places as Iraq, Estonia, the Congo, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Such diversity constitutes a great good for the whole Church, because her ministers can more easily acquire an authentic Catholic spirit, attentive to the needs and life of the whole Church. A certain number of those young vocations come to Rome each year to share in an experience similar to that of Karol Wojtyla, recounted above. Many students come from nations with scarce economic resources, and the majority of them have been enrolled thanks only to the help of innumerable benefactors from every part of the world, including non-Christians. In the early nineties the international seminary for diocesan candidates, "Sedes Sapientiae" was established. A building is now being remodeled in the old Trastevere section of Rome, near the site of the Atheneum, that will enable the seminary to double in size. There are an additional 600 Italian students who do graduate correspondence work to qualify them for work in religious education at every level and grade, providing a suitable preparation for ministry to local communities in the field of catechetics.
The graduates of the Atheneum will return to their dioceses and countries of origin in many cases to become professors or directors of formation capable of radiating human and spiritual energies. Africa and South America, the churches of Asia and Eastern Europe also have need of priests who, paraphrasing an expression of Bl. Josemaria Escriva, are "slowly, patiently, and heroically formed."
One faculty that is truly unique to the Atheneum as a university of the Church is the new faculty of Institutional Social Communications. This is a particularly important field today. It comprises the activities and professional capacities that enable the Church to give information about herself effectively, both internally and externally. The school aims to form specialists with a serious professional competence in the realm of the mass-media, together with a deep theological, philosophical, and canonical formation, enabling them to carry out tasks of particular pastoral importance for the diocese and ecclesial or religious institutions (the press office of the diocese, centers of religious formation, development of information products, teaching social communications in seminaries, etc.) They are trained in the techniques of television, film, computers, and radio as the information explosion continues in the next millennium, so do the opportunities for evangelization. The work of the graduates of this new school of communications will have far reaching effects in the service of the Church and spreading the message of Christ.
I close with excerpts from letters from several recent graduates to the Rector of Sedes Sapientiae to give the reader an idea of the impact of the education and formation received at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.
How many good memories of Sedes Sapientiae repeatedly come to mind, in my spiritual life and in the pastoral work that I have to carry out. These are excellent opportunities to give thanks to God for the invaluable benefits I received there. Since my return to Argentina my priestly life has developed in the most diverse ways. In the mornings I am in the diocesan offices, where scarcity of personnel forces me to do a bit of everything, as general secretary, moderator of the curia, and diocesan controller. In the afternoons I work in a parish of 21,000, which covers a huge territory, a very poor area, and I am giving theology classes in a department at the university (from a priest in Buenos Aires).
The residence and all of you there are always in my mind and heart. I remember you in my prayers and in Holy Mass. For 5 months I have been a parish priest in the countryside and I take care of 58 small villages. I also give classes on Italy and the history of culture, in the seminary of Guayaquil (from a priest in Ecuador).
Here I am again in my beloved Africa. I feel the duty of giving thanks to God for the gifts I received during my studies in Rome and also for life in the seminary. I take care of a group of seminarians who are preparing to enter the major seminary: it is not easy (from a priest in Zaire).
Pope John Paul II repeatedly spoke about the prospects for a "a new springtime of the Church" in the next millennium. To a large extent that will depend on a new generation of young priests who are well formed, prayerful and apostolic--willing builders of a "new civilization of love and truth" as the Pope put it in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor. The Church counts on the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome to do its part in making this dream of re-evangelization come true.
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