80th Birthday Reflections Part 3: Roman Disorder

The Anselmo, where I studied my 1st 2 years in Rome

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.)

Returning to Rome after 43 Years!

St Anselmo

(My Alma Mater: the Atheneum Anselmianum, Rome)

So there I was, last July 24th returning to my old haunts in the Holy City. As mentioned in previous postings, Peggy and I had returned to Italy with our family – with my daughter Maggie, her husband Kerry, and their four children, with our youngest son, Patrick, one of our nieces, and with my brother-in-law and his family of five. Late in the trip, a friend of Maggie also joined us. In all we were 17 people!

It was hard to believe that so much time had passed since those halcyon days when I was studying in Rome. I had actually spent five wonderful years there from 1967-’72. It was a time of unprecedented personal growth for me as I passed from my late 20s to my early 30s.

The Second Vatican Council had just concluded (1965), and the city was still electric in the aftermath. Everything I cared about was under question – the nature of God, Jesus, morality, the church, papal infallibility, the priesthood, and mandatory celibacy.

After 12 years of being cooped up in highly regimented seminaries in Silver Creek, New York; Bristol, Rhode Island, and Milton Massachusetts, I had at last been ordained. In Rome I found myself living in a community of 20 priests also involved in their graduate studies. Our home was a sprawling house belonging to the Society of St. Columban, of which I was a member. It was located on Corso Trieste 57, right next to the Russian Embassy. I can still smell the fumes of the city busses that passed our front door.

Only two of us in our community were from the U.S. The others came from Ireland, Great Britain, Australia, Scotland and New Zealand. I was studying systematic and moral theology. Others were similarly occupied or focused on Canon Law, liturgy, or Sacred Scripture. Daily meals around our huge refectory table were usually raucous affairs as we bantered over the new theology or political questions – often surrounding “the troubles” then afflicting Ireland or the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements in the United States, or the youth revolution sweeping Europe especially in France. The times couldn’t have been more exciting.

Every couple of weeks we’d have special guests at table (bishops, theologians, politicians, intriguing women). All of them were passing through Rome on business or vacation. Those, I remember, were special feasts. The guests enriched our table-talk. And the elaborate dinners were always followed up by “retiring” to our community parlor for cognac and cigars. Then the guitars would come out, and everyone would do their party-pieces. It was all great fun. Unforgettable.

So on July 24th I was trying to recapture some of that. On that day, our daughter, Maggie, had arranged for a tour of Rome in long “golf carts” to accommodate that family party I mentioned.

I begged off saying I’d rather revisit my old schools – the Athenaeum Anselmianum (where I had gotten my licentiate in systematic theology), and the Academia Alfonsiana (where I received my doctorate in moral theology). Generously, Maggie and everyone else let me go. I had a great day.

Two years ago, when Peggy and I were in Rome, I had tried to do the same thing. But at both my schools, the portieres were so uptight that they wouldn’t let me in. This time was different.

At the “Anselmo” (pictured above)  I met the same dour doorkeeper of two years ago. But this time, I somehow persuaded him to let me enter – though he stipulated “for one minute only!”

So I walked quickly around the monastery’s ample cloister where the main classrooms were located. I poked my head into the Aula Magna, where I recalled the life-changing lecturers of the great Magnus Lohrer. I had so admired him – that chubby red-cheeked German theologian (who I was told died about six or seven years ago). He was such a great teacher. I wanted to be like him – smart, committed, energetic, enthusiastic, interested and interesting. It was such a pleasure sitting at his feet – even when the lectures were in Latin!

Despite the portiere’s injunction, my personal tour took at least five minutes. Afterwards I went to the monastery chapel to do my day’s second meditation. I was slightly distracted by a couple whispering in a pew across from me. It turned out that they were celebrating their 57th wedding anniversary. They had been married in the Convento Church where the three of us were sitting. When we spoke outside, they told me of their wedding, their life together, their children and grandchildren. They seemed so happy to be in Rome. I was too.

Next, I took a cab to the Alfonsiana, just down the Via Merulana from Santa Maria Maggiore. The portiere there let me in with no stipulations. I explored the rambling set of attached buildings at my leisure. I recalled lectures by Bernard Haring and Francis X. Murphy (who mysteriously had reported on Vatican II for The New Yorker under the pseudonym, Xavier Rynne).  In theological terms, Haring was a giant. I didn’t really hit it off with Murphy though. That was probably because he gave me a lower grade expected on a paper where I argued that Vatican II represented the Catholic Church finally catching up with the 16th century Protestant Reformation. I remember appealing that grade to no avail. I still think I was right.

As I left the Alfonsiana, I spoke with a very pleasant 45-year-old Polish woman who directs maintenance there. (She had been a librarian in Poland.) She asked me about my impressions of the school after so many years. I told her it all seemed renovated, shiny and up-to-date.

Finally, I took another cab to Corso Trieste 57. There I had a most interesting conversation with Fr. Robert McCullough, the Procurator General of the Society of St. Columban and the rector of the house that now has a much-reduced population.  Fr.McCullough had a lot to say about Pope Francis.

I’ll tell about that in a future posting.