Each morning, students at Christendom College’s campus in Vatican City pass through St. Peter’s Square on their way to class, and at lunch many go out to witness the pope holding an audience.
“We take pride in being right next to the Vatican and holding classes right next to St. Peter’s Square,” public relations specialist Zachary Smith said. “Students learn the history and culture of Italy both in the classroom and by exploring the historical sites every week for an entire semester. They truly become immersed in the Vatican and Rome itself. As someone who took part in this experience during my time at the college, I can attest that this changed my life, spiritually and to the whole.”
Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, is one of several American Catholic colleges and universities that has its own campus in Italy. The University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, has a Rome campus, and Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, has its Italy Center in Bologna.
The programs offer students not just academic credits while studying abroad, but also opportunities to experience their faith more deeply, expand their participation in the global Church, and in some cases, to put their faith in action through social justice and service.
“We use Rome, the heart of the Church, as a classroom, which uniquely fosters the spiritual life as students encounter firsthand the lives of the saints and the universal Church,” said Katherine Ott, director of Rome administration for Christendom College’s Junior Semester in Rome. “We begin the semester with a pilgrimage to Assisi and Siena to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis and St. Catherine. Later, there’s a Scavi Tour to pray in front of the tomb of St. Peter, a day trip to the hill town of Orvieto to venerate the Eucharistic miracle that began the Feast of Corpus Christi and a tour of the monastery at Subiaco and [the] cave where St. Benedict lived for three years as a hermit. There’s also the Seven Church Pilgrimage started by St. Philip Neri.”
Students additionally see the inner-workings of the Church, with visits to Curia offices, such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. There are opportunities for Wednesday audiences with the pope as well.
“When in Rome, the students tangibly encounter their faith in extraordinary ways, every day, and around every corner,” Ott said.
Mark Wunsch is the director of Christendom’s academics in Rome.
“Our program has the unique academic goal of helping our students integrate what they are learning in the classroom with what they are learning from their surroundings,” he said. “Our courses are taught by expert professors who are profoundly familiar with Rome, and they often deliver lectures on site or give assignments that force our students to venture out into various parts of the city. This education acts as a launching pad for students to become informed discoverers instead of ignorant tourists as they encounter the wonders of the Eternal City.”
The experiences, he added, encourage students to “read from the book of the world that lies outside the classroom” on their journey to their own human, intellectual, moral and spiritual maturation.
Thomas Schulzetenberg is the director of the University of Mary Rome Campus. He and his family live there during the academic year, then return to his native Minnesota for the summer. He was a seminarian studying in Rome when he met Pope St. John Paul II, and he found it powerful to be where saints have been. He has seen the same transformation in UMary students who study there.
“The program is meant to change you as a person, and that’s one of our stated goals,” he said. “That goes along with spiritual transformation in the Catholic Faith or other Christian faith on your journey with God. I have seen strong Catholic students learn a different part of their faith and become stronger in their faith. I have seen Protestants gain a greater understanding of the Church that they’re not familiar with, and I have seen nonbelievers go through a transformation.”
Father Geno Sylva of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization commended Schulzetenberg for his work and UMary’s presence, and was impressed with the faithfulness of the students who attended Sunday Mass. For that reason, he asked Schulzetenberg to lector in English during Pope Francis’ Easter Mass in April, to represent the university, the United States and all English-speaking peoples.
“To represent so many people is truly humbling,” Schulzetenberg said.
Spring Hill College Italy Center has a partnership with Camplus in Bologna, a residence hall for Italian and international students attending the University of Bologna. The arrangement fosters a cultural immersion and exchange.
The center typically invites 40 American students each semester. Half are from Spring Hill, and the others are from different Jesuit or other Catholic colleges and universities.
“We also have an agreement with the Jesuit community in downtown Bologna, which allows us to use classroom and office space at their center,” assistant program director Kyle Trusgnich said. “That keeps students moving around the city.”
The students take four or five courses with a mandatory Italian language requirement.
“We have hosted almost every type of student in every major available,” he said. “The majority of them have a strong social justice background, including those with service requirements. Some wish to develop their Italian language skills. We also typically see students from most of the humanities fields.”
The core component of the SHC Italy Center program uses the broader Mediterranean as the classroom in efforts to understand human rights abuses.
“The stereotype of Italy with red checkered tablecloths is inaccurate,” director Todd Waller said. “In fact, Italy is facing unprecedented numbers of immigrants who are fleeing wars, famine and revolution. Italy is also struggling with how to welcome new immigrants and, in particular, how to accommodate those of Islamic faith. There are new challenges for Italy and Europe. By unpacking these very complex issues of poverty, injustice and religious difference, our students are better able to understand and deepen their own faith lives as young Catholics. Our Jesuit mission is to engage students in the liberal arts. A second component is that we want our students to become contemplatives in action, to go forth in the world and commit to social justice.”
‘Calling to service’
Graziella Ioele, 22, of Franklin Square, New York, graduated in May from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia with a major in international relations and Italian studies, and a minor in faith-justice studies. She spent the fall 2013 semester at SHC Italy Center and called her experience in Bologna “a place where the space between heaven and earth seems to shrink.”
“I felt so close to God during my four months there,” she said. “I went to Mass at Sant Vitale and Agricola every Sunday, a Jesuit Mass that included a 10-minute silent meditation where one had the option to walk down to the crypt. That was always moving and enlightening.”
She put her faith into action through a service-learning course where she served political asylum seekers.
“I was able to see Italy through the lens not only of a traveler but also as a student and as one seeking to create relationships with the Italian people,” Ioele said. “Many people go abroad to Italy, and they come back missing the food and the wine, but when I got back, I missed the incredible closeness I felt to my faith and to a calling to service. I felt that God was with me every day in Bologna, in the people I met, the successes and even the failures I had. This program brought me closer to myself and to the person I want to be by giving me the opportunity to have a reflective, informed and faith-filled experience. I was looking for a program centered on social justice, and what I found was a life-changing, eye- and heart-opening experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Ioele relocated to Portland, Oregon, to work with refugees as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.