After 150 years in Rome, some things at the Pontifical North American College are being changed but traditions and the root of its mission in the formation of future priests continue on.
Pope Pius IX is considered the college's "first founder," having approved its creation in 1859. In 1953, Pope Pius XII then dedicated the "new" college at is beautiful location on one of the storied hills of Rome.
The institution, locally known as "the NAC," now houses 240 seminarians and new priests from all over the United States as well as several from Australia and Canada. It is currently at maximum capacity, enjoying its highest seminarian enrollment in 40 years.
Those staying at the college go to different Roman pontifical universities for study, but much of their formation takes place at the magnificent campus.
From its perch on the city's Janiculum Hill, it has some of the best views possible of the "Eternal City." A rare view down upon St. Peter's Basilica is visible on one side, the sprawl of the rest of ancient Rome dominates on another.
A newly-surfaced sports field, basketball courts and carefully tended gardens encircle the spacious block that serves the spiritual, physical and material needs of the diverse group of students and staff.
Priests on sabbatical join the seminarians at the NAC. They reside in a former Carmelite convent on the campus.
The NAC library, which already housed the largest collection of English-language books in Rome, has been expanded by increasing the amount of study space. Other improvements in recent years include renovations to the lounge and classroom areas, and the replacement of more than 1,000 windows.
Amidst all the improvements, the core of the NAC's mission is unchanging, current rector Msgr. James Checchio told CNA. "Even with all these renovations and changes, the heart of our program continues to be forming our hearts to be more like the good shepherd’s through our fine liturgical prayer and steady private prayer, intellectual study, apostolic and pastoral formation, as well as through community life, which is a great formation tool in itself."
Days begin at 6:15 a.m. with morning prayer and Mass in the packed Immaculate Conception Chapel and continue on with classes around the city, pastoral, apostolic and house duties, study and formation through the day.
Ryan Connors, 27, a third-year seminarian from the Providence, R.I. diocese, said that in three years at the NAC students make a symbolic journey. They begin with a Mass celebrated in the crypt beneath St. Peter's during their orientation. And they return three years later to the same basilica to "lay down our lives in the service to the Church."
"It is here that we are ordained deacons, and pledge lifelong consecrated celibacy, obedience to our local bishops, and commit to a life of prayer for the sake of God's people," he said.
"Ultimately, the North American College is what the Church asks of any seminary — a continuation of the apostolic community, of men gathered around the Lord to learn from him how to love and then to share that love with his people."
The college has been doing so for a little more than 150 years now. A year ago this week, alumni, family and friends arrived on campus to celebrate the milestone over several days.
Connors recalled it as an opportunity for students for the priesthood to remember those who came before them and thank God for their service.
Pope Benedict XVI even took part in the celebration. In a private audience with students and alumni, he thanked God for "the many ways in which the college has remained faithful to its founding vision by training generations of worthy preachers of the Gospel and ministers of the sacraments, devoted to the successor of Peter and committed to the building up of the Church in the United States of America."
He applauded the NAC's history of offering seminarians an "exceptional experience of the universality of the Church, the breadth of her intellectual and spiritual tradition, and the urgency of her mandate to bring Christ’s saving truth to the men and women of every time and place."
These are traditions that the college holds to as dearly as it does to its other time-honored customs: the hard-earned success of its soccer team, the annual Thanksgiving weekend festivities, and group trips over breaks that include those to assist foreign missions.
A strong sense of fraternity is evident in every aspect of campus life, but it is perhaps Thanksgiving weekend celebrations like last year's that show the NAC's best colors.
In a country that does not traditionally celebrate the holiday, the college gathered 400 people together for Mass and a meal this year. Traditional events include the yearly "Spaghetti Bowl," pitting "old men" against "new men" in a friendly game of American football preceded by a rendition of the national anthem. Divided into the same squads, the new and old men create and put on shows for the gathering.
Students also group together in their respective corridors to share breakfast over the weekend, for which Msgr. Checcio has a special interest. "I like to make the rounds and sample them all!" said the rector.
Fraternity is revered by the NAC's residents. Connors paraphrased the Pope's words from the Year for Priests — "no one becomes a priest on one's own."
"We are not called one man and then another man as much as we are gathered together as an apostolic bond, like Christ's first apostles," Connors said.
The Dec. 8 anniversary of the college's founding gives them the opportunity to remember its role and blessing throughout its great history. It is a chance to give thanks for the clergy, family, friends and benefactors who have made the the institution and its programs possible
As Connors put it: "To study in Rome is a unique blessing, so close to the saints and martyrs of the Church, to the bones of Peter the fisherman and to the successor of Peter, the Holy Father.
He has learned what it is to lay down his life for the Gospel, he said. “Through consecrated study of the saving truths of the Gospel, through fraternity and lifelong bonds of priestly friendship and most of all through deep, serious, daily prayer I have come more and more to be ready to lay down my life in service to the Gospel.”
The proximity to St. Peter and his successor, added Msgr. Checchio, makes for "a very unique formation experience" for seminarians and priests preparing to serve the people of God.
"It is a wonderful place to learn about Christ and His Church, and to prepare to lay down our lives in service of Him."