By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, SEPT. 25, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The return of the seminarians invariably signals the arrival of Roman fall. Nowhere else in the world does the Church seem as vibrant, youthful and energetic than Rome at the end of September, when fresh faces in Roman collars fill the streets, striding purposefully across town toward their classes.
A large number of these future priests are Americans hailing from dioceses across the 50 states. This stronghold of the hope for the Church in America sits above the right shoulder of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pontifical North American college.
This fall, the North American College seems to stand even taller as it welcomes a record number of first-year seminarians, 61 “new men.” The total number of 208 students will bring the seminary close to its capacity.
The students live on the premises although they walk into town every day to attend classes at the Jesuit Gregorian University or the Dominican University of the Angelicum.
The College is situated on the Janiculum Hill just a step away from the Bambin Gesu, Italy’s foremost children’s hospital. Also next door is the Vatican bus park, a bustling tourist hub constructed during the Great Jubilee 2000. In the midst of all this hubbub, the NAC offers a pleasant oasis of tranquility, prayer and study.
Blessed Pius IX, despite his many domestic hardships during the unification of Italy, demonstrated his pastoral concern for the Church in the United States when he proposed the idea of a seminary in Rome for the formation of American priests.
Rome, the Holy Father felt, could teach these young men about the universality of the Church, the long history and tradition of Christianity and the magisterium of the successor of St. Peter. To expedite this plan, the Pope donated the first piece of land for the college.
On Dec. 8, 1859, the first home of the North American College was inaugurated in Casa Santa Maria on Via Dell’Umiltà, near the Trevi fountain, and dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.
After the unification of Italy, the Italian state attempted to confiscate the Casa Santa Maria as it had done with all the other Church holdings. Only the intervention of the U.S. president Chester Arthur at the instigation of the American bishops saved the property.
By the end of World War II, vocations in the United States had increased to the point where the Casa Santa Maria could not accommodate the seminarians, so the North American College moved into the Villa Gabrielli park. The new premises, which enjoy the status of being extra-territorial property of Vatican City State, were inaugurated on Dec. 8, 1952, by Pope Pius XII in person.
Oasis in the city
The NAC’s building structure was designed by Count Enrico Pietro Galeazzi in a refreshingly modern style intended to exploit the qualities of clean air and nature on the site. While simple and austere, wide corridors and large windows allow for light and fresh breezes and courtyards offer the serenity of nature for prayer.
The core of the structure was a series of chapels placed one on top of the other. The lowest level contained the crypt chapel, while the second was arranged with a score of little side altars where the priests would learn to celebrate their first Masses. Count Galeazzi chose to be buried in this chapel where he would be surrounded by the prayers of the young seminarians.
The uppermost chapel is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. The lofty space boasts a mélange of modern styles, a sort of universality in artistic expression.
From stone reliefs illustrating the sacraments framing the altar in an updated Romanesque to the stained glass windows and expressionistic renderings of Old and New Testament stories along the nave, the chapel encompasses traditional church decoration in contemporary style.
The chapel is dominated by a mosaic of the Immaculate Conception designed by Count Galeazzi. He featured the Blessed Mother standing upon a crescent moon with her right hand raised in blessing and her left holding a globe surmounting the cross. Angels fly above her raising lilies and a crown, while below her stand Sts. Gregory the Great, Francis de Paul, Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney and Pius X.
Like the art of the chapel, the saints represent faith and devotion over the centuries of the Church.
Leaving a mark
I visited the College with a priest who had lived there as a seminarian in his youth and was now participating the in the Continuing Theological Education program, which is also based in the same building.
His love for the place of his priestly formation and his vivid memory of the art and architecture of the building show what an impact a seminary can have in a priest’s life.
The first thing he brought me to see was a stunning mosaic, which had once graced the entryway to the complex. Designed for the inauguration of the new premises in 1953, the work represents the former residence of the seminarians, the Casa Santa Maria.
The work was deigned by Nello Ena, a successful Italian architect, and executed by Vatican Mosiac laboratory. Composed of bright and colorful tiles and enlivened by splashes of gold, the mosaic superimposes the myriad of buildings that made up the Casa Santa Maria in a sort of collage.
A pretty medieval brick bell tower flecked with shimmering bells hovers above a classical shrine with an image of the Virgin. Arcaded porticos, honorific columns and ancient ruins all patterned together give an idea of the dense layers of history that make up Rome and the Church.
This lovely work of art was a gift of Claire Boothe Luce, herself a remarkable mosaic of gifts and accomplishments. She started as a model/actress before turning to writing. A brilliant author, several of her plays won critical acclaim.
Upon her marriage to Henry Luce, publisher of Time and Life magazine, Claire Boothe Luce turned to journalism. From there it was a short step to politics.
Claire Boothe Luce famously converted to Catholicism in 1946 and wrote of her conversion in a series of articles for McCall magazine. In 1953, she became the U.S. Ambassador to Italy. One her first acts upon her arrival was to commission the mosaic as a gift to seminarians for their new residence.
Through the bright faces of our future priests, the modern engagement with ancient tradition and the myriad of backgrounds and histories of the people, the North American College presents all the good that the United States has to offer.
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at [email protected].