‘Transparency and trust and Christ’: New rector takes helm of North American College seminary

PowersProfile Monsignor Thomas Powers, 24th rector of the Pontifical North American College. | Daniel Ibáñez / CNA

The new rector of the North American College in Rome (NAC) said he wants the seminary to have an atmosphere of transparency and trust, with Christ being at the center of everything students do.

Monsignor Thomas Powers arrived at the seminary shortly before his term’s July 1 start date; it is his third time living at the college after time as a student and later an adjunct spiritual director, a role he held while working for 10 years in the Vatican office for bishops.

This time, Powers came to Rome after 19 months as pastor of Saint John’s Catholic Church in Darien, Connecticut, in the Diocese of Bridgeport. He was also the diocese’s vicar general and moderator of the curia since 2015.

“I’ve never asked for a single assignment, I’ve never sought a single assignment, but I’ve been blessed to have just very diverse experiences that have helped shape me, and inform me as a priest,” he said.

Powers spoke to CNA two days before the July 20 arrival of 20 “new men,” as the seminary’s first-year students are called.

The seminarians, who come from dioceses around the US, will spend a few days in Rome before leaving for one month of intensive Italian studies in locations around Italy.

Another eight or nine men in the same class are expected to arrive at the seminary in August, before upperclassmen trickle back from summer ministries in time for the start of the school year in early October.

The seminarians “come in great men; we want them to leave really holy, zealous, and joyful men, and humble, to go back to the United States and serve people in a parish setting,” the 57-year-old rector said. “That’s why we really want to focus on these men being Christ-centered and friends with Jesus Christ. That’s the most important thing.” 

While he waits for the quiet campus to fill up, Powers said he has been spending time “reading, reading, reading.”

“So that when the guys do come I’m prepared to really hit the ground running with all the homilies and talks and rector’s conferences.”

He wants to have a plan in place for what the year is going to look like, he said.

Monsignor Thomas Powers works in the rector’s office at the NAC. Daniel Ibáñez / CNA
Monsignor Thomas Powers works in the rector’s office at the NAC. Daniel Ibáñez / CNA

In between learning the names and faces of around 200 seminarians, the priest is studying the Vatican’s 2016 document on seminary formation, the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis.

He said he is also diving into the latest edition of the US Catholic bishops’ Program of Priestly Formation (PPF), which was published June 24.

How does the college intend to form future priests? “It’s going to be as the PPF talks about and the Ratio talks about,” Powers said, “an atmosphere of transparency and trust and Christ at the center of all that we do.”

“The vision is really Christ centered,” he said. “The idea is that men become configured to Christ, which means all the virtues of Christ, a heart of Christ, the servant nature of Christ.”

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“That’s what we want to form here at the North American College.”

The new rector said that has always been the NAC’s vision, though it has been “articulated in different ways over the years.”

“We’re going to really make sure that is the central focus.”

Powers took over leadership of the college from Father Peter Harman, who finished a six-year period as rector at the end of June, after his term was extended five months.

In early January, a New York judge dismissed a civil lawsuit filed by a former NAC seminarian against Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York and three now-former faculty of the college. The lawsuit included the allegation that the former vice rector of the seminary had given an inappropriate back rub to a subordinate seminarian.

Powers declined to comment on the lawsuit except to say that it had been dismissed.

“But this will be a house of transparency and honesty and trust. And I can guarantee that,” he said, adding that he will ensure a process is in place to deal with accusations of immoral behavior.

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“I will make this clear,” he said, “everyone in any seminary, certainly priests, laypeople, personnel, seminarians, need to live moral lives, according to Catholic teaching.”

“If anyone is aware of something that’s contrary to that, for the sake of the man, for the sake of the Church, for the sake of the college, that has to be discussed, brought to light.” 

Monsignor Thomas Powers walks in front of an image of Our Lady of Humility, patroness of the North American College. Daniel Ibáñez / CNA
Monsignor Thomas Powers walks in front of an image of Our Lady of Humility, patroness of the North American College. Daniel Ibáñez / CNA

The Connecticut priest began his formation for the priesthood in 1992. Before he entered the seminary, he graduated with a degree in economics from the University of Notre Dame and went on to work at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), for four years.

“I was based out of New York City and traveled to, had clients in Chicago, New York, on Wall Street, even went to Japan for a short trip, so it was an amazing experience,” Powers said, adding that working in financial consulting gave him professional skills he still uses today.

He said he had felt some pull to the priesthood in high school and college, and while at Andersen, he made an effort to frequently attend daily Mass.

“Then eventually people started coming with me and I thought, if I can help bring people back to the Church or back to God wearing a suit and tie, in a very, you know, high-powered business environment, maybe God’s calling me to do this in a different way.”

Before entering the seminary, he took a year off to serve the poor in Puerto Rico. He remembered informing his clients about his leave of absence, and that one person could not believe a young man would leave such an important job to serve others.

“That was the first time, really, where I saw God’s call to serve kind of butt heads with the world,” he said.

While a student at the NAC, he received a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University and a licentiate degree, similar to a master’s, in sacred theology from the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Marriage and Family.

He was ordained a priest in May 1997, and in 2005, he was asked to move to Rome to work in the Roman Curia, the administrative body of the Holy See, in the Congregation for Bishops (now called Dicastery for Bishops).

“A very important 10 years for me,” Powers commented.

Monsignor Thomas Powers in a hallway of the North American College. Daniel Ibanez/CNA. Daniel Ibáñez / CNA
Monsignor Thomas Powers in a hallway of the North American College. Daniel Ibanez/CNA. Daniel Ibáñez / CNA

“Before I came to Rome in 2005, some people would tease me and say, ‘you know, don’t lose your faith over there.’ But my faith increased working in the Curia, the Vatican,” he said. “I saw the Holy Spirit really alive and the Holy Spirit doing amazing things in the Church, not only in the office where I worked, but throughout the Church.”

The Dicastery for Bishops is responsible for selecting and vetting candidates for the episcopacy. Candidates are then presented to the pope, who makes the final choice on who he will appoint. This month, Pope Francis named three women members of the dicastery, the first time in history women have held this position.

“They’re gonna bring a great voice to the table,” Powers said, noting that lay people were already providing feedback on bishop candidates through confidential questionnaires, but the pope’s decision, he said, brings “a whole new focus on that.”

In 2015, after 10 years working at the Vatican — for eight of which he lived at the NAC — Powers returned stateside.

Before getting called back to Rome in March 2022, he served at the St. John Fisher Seminary in Connecticut and most recently as vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Bridgeport diocese.

The hardest part about taking the new assignment as NAC rector, he said, was leaving behind his parishioners and the people he worked with in the diocesan curia.

In 25 years as a priest, Powers has only been in a parish assignment for four and a half.

“I really enjoyed the parish. I love the people very much. We were growing, great things were happening,” he said. “It was a good, good experience for me, and so it was very heartbreaking to leave.”

While there may have been human reasons to turn down the job, “there were no great spiritual reasons for me to say no,” he said. “I’ve never said no to the Church before and I didn’t want to start this time.”

As rector, Powers said he is most looking forward to being a spiritual leader to the seminarians.

“With all the other parts of the job, that involve fundraising and administration — that are very important — my zeal and my heart really is to be that spiritual father for the men,” he said.