Ongoing Formation Abroad

In the fall of 2014, I came to Rome to work with priests who had traveled to the North American College to take a sabbatical. They were a varied group of priests from around the world.

There were 33 of them, and while most were from dioceses across the United States, there was also an Irishman, a Scotsman, two Australians, a New Zealander, a Peruvian, two Solomon Islanders, a Kenyan, a Filipino and three Canadians.

And they were not only diocesan priests either. There were two Jesuits, a Carmelite, a Conventual Franciscan, a Friar Minor, a Trappist and a Passionist. Their ministry had been military chaplaincy, parish work, seminary teaching, missionary work, campus ministry and retreat-house ministry. Their years of ordination began at seven years and went all the way up to 54 years. They ranged in age from 39 to 78, and it was a sight to see when the 39-year-old couldn’t keep up with the 78-year-old!

What, I tried to imagine, could hold this varied group of priests together?

Treasures of Rome

Rome certainly has great treasures, and during every sabbatical the priests get to enjoy them all. We have any number of guided private tours around Rome, including St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, the Scavi under both St. Peter’s and San Clemente, Piazza Navona, the Jewish Quarter and the home of St. Paul. We even have a five-day retreat in Assisi, Italy.

We celebrate Mass together before the tomb of St. Peter, at Tre Fontane where St. Paul was martyred, at the tomb of St. Francis, and at St. Mary Major before the image of Our Lady, Salus Populi Romani.

The structure of the three-month sabbatical program is simple: most classes are in the morning (e.g., Letters of St. Paul, Culture and Unbelief, Islam, or Preaching with the Lectionary), most walks in the afternoon are for espresso and most walks in the evening are for gelato! The day is framed by prayer, as during the week we have morning prayer and Mass to start the day and evening prayer before the evening meal. The weekends are free for travel.

Exploring the Holy Land

The optional pilgrimage to the Holy Land has become a regular part of the three-month sabbatical program. Combined with all that the sabbatical priests have learned during their time in Rome, at the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul, the pilgrimage rounds off their experience by bringing them to the one tomb that made it all possible.

In retracing the footsteps of Jesus, from Nazareth to Jerusalem, from the shores of the Sea of Galilee down along the banks of the River Jordan, we did all of the customary tourist traditions: ate St. Peter’s fish (at least, that’s what the menu said it was), took the cable car up the Mount of Temptation (although it was not much of a temptation to walk up) and swam in the Dead Sea (actually, floated).

But the heart of each day was the celebration of Mass. As one of our priests wrote in reflecting upon his time in Israel:

“For me, the Holy Land pilgrimage was the summit of my sabbatical with the [Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the Pontifical North American College]. Every site we visited was of spiritual importance to our call to serve God’s people as priests.

“However, having the opportunity to say Mass at the basilicas and the churches at the holy sites that we visited such as Peter’s House in Capernaum in Galilee, the mountain of the Transfiguration and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem brought alive the significance and the importance of our call to the celebration of the Eucharist — at any time and at any place — for the salvation of souls. Visiting the holy sites was by itself special, but saying Mass at those sites brought alive the ministry and the love of Christ in the Eucharist.”

That really is the reason we go on pilgrimage, the reason we go on sabbatical; we desire the grace of the Resurrection to bring us back to life, and in truth to bring us to a new and greater life.

Back Home Again

Since the fall of 2014, I have worked with 170 priests from all over the world. We’ve added more countries of origin to our original list: Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Norway, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, England, Ghana, Lebanon, Thailand, India and Poland.

We’ve had a few other religious join us as well, from the Congregation of the Holy Cross, the Congregation of the Precious Blood, the Capuchins, the Maryknoll Missionaries, the Montfort Missionaries and even the Dominicans. We’ve had Maronites and Byzantine priests as well. It has been an incredible experience of the universal Church.

Goals of the sabbatical
According to the website for the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the Pontifical North American College, the goals for the sabbatical include:

What I know now that I didn’t fully comprehend in the fall of 2014 was what could hold a varied group of priests together. The answer is simple: the priesthood itself. As the Second Vatican Council reminds us: “Priests by virtue of their ordination to the priesthood are united among themselves in an intimate sacramental brotherhood” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, No. 8). This “intimate sacramental brotherhood” is evidenced during the entire time these priests are together: at Mass, in class, in conversation and even in the unending quest for the perfect carbonara in Rome!

The sabbatical here at the North American College allows these priests simply to be priests. It doesn’t matter what ministry they had, the country they come from, what language they spoke originally, or what rite of the liturgy they celebrate. It is the priesthood that binds them together, and it is the joy of the priesthood that the sabbatical allows them to discover again.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”): “Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is” (No. 19).

The vocation to the priesthood draws us deeper into the love of God. My time with the priests on sabbatical in Rome at the North American College has drawn me deeper into the fraternal charity of the priesthood and the joy that always accompanies it.

His Holiness Pope Francis offered this prayer during his homily at the Chrism Mass on April 17, 2014:

“I ask the Lord Jesus to confirm the priestly joy of those who have already ministered for some years. The joy which, without leaving their eyes, is also found on the shoulders of those who bear the burden of the ministry, those priests who, having experienced the labors of the apostolate, gather their strength and rearm themselves: ‘get a second wind,’ as the athletes say. Lord, preserve the depth, wisdom and maturity of the joy felt by these older priests. May they be able to pray with Nehemiah: ‘the joy of the Lord is my strength’ (cf. Neh 8:10).”

We can offer this prayer as well, whether we are on sabbatical or not.

Father James Sullivan, OP, is director for the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.