I knew NOTHING about politics when I arrived in Rome. I knew little about the world. I knew even less of women. All of that was about to change.
Understand that in all those spheres, I had been cooped up in the seminary hothouse since I was 14. For years, we had no access to newspapers. And it wasn’t till after Vatican II that we were even allowed to watch TV news each night. As a result, I was very uninformed about a world that I was taught to consider not worth caring about. (After all, we were here on this planet to pass a test and prepare for heaven.)
With the Columbans, the saving grace was that we returned home each year for Christmas and summer vacations. So, the divorce from the world wasn’t complete. My family [my loving mother and faithful father (a commercial truck driver), my brother and two sisters] kept me more or less sane and in touch. The six of us lived in a tiny two-bedroom house that had my sisters sleeping in the same room and my brother and me sleeping on a pull-out couch in the living room. (I’m sure life was easier for them all when I wasn’t taking up so much space.)
During summer vacations, I worked for a couple of years in a gas station learning about cars and mechanics. Then, when I was 18, I took a summer job at a golf course not far from my family home now in Warrenville, Illinois. I worked there on the grounds crew every summer till I was ordained – and even a little bit afterwards.
Working at Arrowhead Golf and Country Club was a delight. Sometimes I could hardly believe that I was getting paid for that kind of labor (cutting grass, laying sod, felling trees, changing cup locations on the greens, working on small engines . . .) in such an idyllic setting. The job also allowed me to play golf for free. That was fun, but despite decent athletic ability, I was never able to master that highly frustrating game. (I continue to work on that.)
As for women. . . They represented completely forbidden territory. “Custody of the eyes” was the order of the day. However, I do remember being fascinated by one of the girls who worked at Arrowhead’s lunch counter. I made sure to order from her during our grounds crew’s lunch half-hours each noon. I recall that she was also to be present at a year-end party I was invited to. But I decided for that reason not to attend.
With that kind of background, I flew off to Rome in 1967 taking up residence in the Columban house on Corso Trieste 57. Suddenly I found myself in a house with about 15 other young student-priests. They came from Ireland, Great Britain, Scotland, Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand; two of us were from the U.S.
Our house was headed by an Irish Columban rector and his Irish assistant. In residence too was a retired Irish bishop from Vietnam. (Such recollections make me recall that most of my teachers over my 12 seminary years spoke with brogues – quite understandable, since the Society of St. Columban had been founded in Ireland.)
My first impressions of my new community were that its members were much more sophisticated and better-informed in every sphere than I was. These guys were good. Conversations revealed that they even knew more about U.S. history and politics than me. I found that embarrassing.
So, I started reading – no, I started studying – Time Magazine. I couldn’t wait for each week’s edition. Eventually, I won one of our periodic light-hearted quizzes we all took (and joked about) on current issues.
As for academic life in Rome, I was soon faced with an important decision – which of the Roman theological universities to attend? Ironically, even though seminary education had required four extra years of scriptural and theological study following “graduation” from college (with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy) we had nothing to show for those added four years – no master’s degree, nothing. Instead, I suppose, our degree was ordination itself – something (in the eyes of the church) much more valuable than a mere graduate degree.
In any case, before I could enroll in moral theology courses at the prestigious Academia Alfonsiana, I had to get the equivalent of a master’s degree (a licentiate) in systematic theology. The question was where?
I had two choices. One could get me the degree in one year at a school called the Angelicum. The other option was to study for two years at what I learned was (at that time) the best school in Rome – even better than the gold-standard Gregorian Institute – viz. the Atheneum Anselmianum. I chose the latter, even though in those early Roman days, I wanted to get back to the states as soon as I could. (Little did I know that I’d soon be wanting to extend, rather than shorten my time in Rome. Even my eventual five years there would seem far too short.)
If I thought I was out of my depth when I met my housemates in Rome, imagine my feelings at the Anselmo. Classes were in Latin. Students were fluent in Greek; they referenced New Testament texts in the original language. And if I was intimidated by the theological, classical, and general knowledge of those on Corso Trieste, that was nothing compared with the international students I was thrown in with there on Rome’s Aventine Hill. They came from all over the world – from every continent. I was especially impressed by the Italians, Spaniards, Africans, Indians, and Latin Americans. In seminars, some were so fluent (in Italian, English, Latin, Greek, and of course their native tongues) that it sounded like they had written down everything they said before speaking. I was really impressed (and frankly intimidated).
And my professors! Wow. They were so inspiring, even in Latin. Two in particular, both German, impressed me greatly. (I continue to remember them prominently in my prayers each day and I find myself tearing as I write these words.) One was Magnus Lohrer; the other Raphael Schulte. I’m so indebted to them for the knowledge, passion, interest, and joy in learning that they communicated and transmitted. I decided that I wanted to be like Magnus Lohrer!
Significantly in terms of this account of order and disorder, my licentiate thesis centralized the topic of “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda” – the always necessary reformation of the church.
(More about Rome and its welcome disorder next time.)