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America on the Tiber

Americans shake up Roman academic scene

What the Vatican and the rest of the Catholic world know of America is often forged by contact with Americans in Rome. Americans in the curia, in religious life, in pontifical universities, in the diplomatic corps, and in institutions such as the North American College serve as a bridge between two worlds. They bring the fruits of American culture to the universal church, while their Roman experience gives them a new perspective back home.

In this series, a kind of introduction to America on the Tiber, NCR offers a look at Americans who matter in Rome, what they do and what difference they make.


One hallmark of Roman university life, familiar to generations of seminarians from all over the Catholic world, is the dispensa. The word refers to a set of course notes, usually handed out by professors so they can be spit back when exam time comes.

On the surface, the practice seems to make life easier for everyone. Professors merely have to blow the dust off yellowing lectures in order to prepare for class, and students become human tape recorders, repeating back what is dictated to them.

In a typical flash of no-nonsense American pragmatism, however, Graymoor Fr. Jim Puglisi doesn’t buy it.

“I’m an enemy of the dispensa,” he told NCR. “Instead I give my students a bibliography and tell them to think.”

Puglisi, originally from Amsterdam, N.Y., teaches at three of Rome’s premier pontifical institutions: the Dominican-run University of St. Thomas Aquinas (popularly known as the “Angelicum”), the Franciscan-administered Antonianum, and the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at the Benedictine-run Sant’Anselmo.

“I’m not training a class of parrots,” he said.

Such pedagogical sensitivity is, according to observers of the Roman university scene, a trademark American trait.

“In general, Americans are interested in an approach that is dialogical, that involves the students,” said Donna Orsuto, a lay American woman who teaches spirituality at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University.

Other American characteristics that come up often in conversation with professors and students:

  • Understanding of, and comfort with, technology.
  • A pioneering spirit.
  • Optimism, a strong work ethic, and a tendency to burn the candle at both ends.
  • Special interest in ecumenism and “the problems the world poses to the church.”

Although no one keeps track of Roman professors by nationality, there are perhaps 50 Americans whose primary work is education, scattered across the city’s pontifical universities and institutes. By most estimates, the number of Americans has been steadily on the rise. One measure, for instance, is at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University, the largest and most prestigious of Rome’s ecclesiastical universities. It has the highest number, with 16 American Jesuits plus Orsuto and Capuchin theologian Fr. William Henn. In 1994 there were only eight American Jesuits at the Gregorianum.

The Salesian University, by way of contrast, told NCR that it has no American faculty. The Urbaniana, where future missionaries are trained, has only one: Franciscan Conventual Fr. Donald Kos, who also works in the super-secret Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court for difficult cases. Kos teaches a course in canon law.

Many American students

Americans also represent a major chunk of Rome’s student population. In the 1999-2000 school year, for example, the Gregorian had a total of 3,454 students, of whom 187 were from the United States. That compared with 184 from Brazil, 145 from Mexico, 137 from Spain and 130 from Poland.

Similar patterns exist at other ecclesiastical universities. Opus Dei Fr. Robert Gahl told NCR that at Santa Croce, the Opus Dei university, English is the second-most prominent language after Spanish.

In terms of intellectual heft, by consensus the most important American theologian in Rome in recent years has been Jesuit Fr. Francis Sullivan of the Gregorian University. His book Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church is considered a classic in the debate over relations between theologians and church authorities. Sullivan, however, retired from the Gregorian in June 1992 and is now at Boston College.

Of the current crop, especially prominent scholars include Augustinian Fr. George Lawless, a expert on Augustine and the early church who teaches at the Augustinianum; Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft of the Pontifical Oriental Institute; and Henn of the Gregorian. Taft is known for his studies of Eastern liturgy (NCR, Jan. 11), Henn for work on ecumenism and ecclesiology.

In terms of impact on the Vatican, observers say there is no current American professor with the influence of someone like Fernando Ocáriz, a Spaniard and Opus Dei theologian at Santa Croce who is frequently consulted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ocáriz was a principal author, for example, of the September 2000 document Dominus Iesus.

Taft, however, has authored many decisions over the years for the Congregation for Eastern Churches. Puglisi and Jesuit Fr. Jared Wicks of the Gregorian, among others, are often tapped by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Orsuto is a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Americans are also increasingly making their mark in the upper echelons of academic administration, which some predict will lead to a long-overdue modernization of Roman academic life.

“There are now several Americans in positions of authority here, and though I don’t want to oversell the impact, it makes a difference,” said Legionary of Christ Fr. Tom Williams, from Pontiac, Mich. Williams is dean of the 40-member theology faculty at the Legionaries’ Regina Apostolorum University.

In addition to Williams, Americans in key administrative posts include Jesuit Fr. Michael Hilbert, vice-rector for academics at the Gregorian; Dominican Fr. Joseph Fox, vice-rector for development at the Angelicum; Augustinian Fr. Robert Dodardo, vice-president at the Augustinianum; Jesuit Fr. Kevin Flannery, head of the philosophy department at the Gregorian; and Benedictine Fr. Vincent Tobin, secretary general of Sant’Anselmo. In addition, the Pontifical Biblical Institute is led by a virtual American mafia, with Jesuit Frs. Robert O’Toole as rector, Stephen Pisano as dean, and Henry Berthel as librarian.

‘Still on Blackboards 1600’

One sign of things to come is Hilbert’s effort to introduce a system of student evaluation at the Gregorian, something that’s not been done in a formal way since the university was founded 450 years ago.

Hilbert is also pushing to upgrade the university’s technology.

“People ask me if we use Windows 2000, and I tell them we’re still on Blackboards 1600,” Hilbert jokes.

Gahl says Roman universities are becoming more technologically savvy, more responsive to student needs in areas such as registration, and more attentive to library services, in part under the impact of American professors and students.

Orsuto illustrates the American pioneering spirit. In 1986 she and a friend launched the Lay Center, a community for lay students at the pontifical universities (NCR, Dec. 22, 2000).

Puglisi is a similar combination of scholar and entrepreneur. He runs the Centro Pro Unione, one of the world’s most important centers for ecumenical study and activity.

Some suggest that the American influence goes beyond administration and technology. Jesuit Fr. Gerald O’Collins, an Australian who teaches theology at Gregorian University, said he sees three areas in which Americans have made special contributions in Rome. One is Biblical studies, especially in the person of Jesuit Fr. Mitchell Dahood, who taught at Gregorian University and who was one of the primary editors of the Anchor Bible translation of the Psalms. Another is ecumenism, where such figures as Wicks and Puglisi stand out, and finally, liturgy, an area in which Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers has international stature.

So much for the strengths. Are there characteristic weaknesses Americans bring to Rome?

Gahl expressed one: a tendency to form ghettoes. “Sometimes Americans may clump together out of a superiority complex, and sometimes it may be because they’ve not mastered the language,” Gahl said. “But in any case it means they’re not getting the full experience.”

The linguistic hump

On the other hand, Wicks said that once Americans get over the linguistic hump, they tend to be more “genuinely international,” less prone to focus just on Spanish-language theology, for example, or German or French.

American individuality, zest for life, is also very clear among the scholars in Rome:

  • Carmelite Fr. Redemptus Valabek, in addition to teaching dogmatic theology and introduction to liturgy at the Regina Mundi Institute and at the Beda College, also hears confessions at St. Peter’s Basilica, where he says he’s “heard it all.” A Muslim from Iran once asked to confess, did so after a brief explanation that it would not be a sacrament and then pronounced, “This is wonderful!” (Valabek is also spiritual director to a community of women that runs Rome’s famed L’Eau Vive restaurant.)
  • Hilbert, in addition to being a canon lawyer and speaking Mandarin Chinese, sings in a choir called Il Coro di Lunedi. The group is currently finishing its second compact disk. (Hilbert, for the record, is a baritone.)
  • Aside from being an expert in liturgy who teaches at the Gregorian and the Pontifical Liturgical Institute, Pecklers of Jersey City, N.J., also serves as a chaplain to the International Amateur Athletics Federation. In addition, Pecklers has created a dialogue between Arab ambassadors in Rome and the Jesuits, sponsors a English-speaking community in Rome built around a Sunday liturgy, and is part of the official Catholic dialogue with the little-known Japanese religion of Tenryko.

A final trait, one that often makes American professors attractive to students and colleagues, is that most seem happy to be here.

“I’ve turned down offers to teach in the United States, because I don’t think there’s anywhere else I could have such an international impact,” Pecklers said.

Williams was similarly enthusiastic.

“You see the confluence of all these different rivers of Catholics flowing into Rome,” he said. “There’s no place like it.”

Next week: Religious orders.

John L. Allen Jr. is the Rome correspondent for NCR. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002