On December 7, 1859, twelve American seminarians, who had previously been studying at Rome's Urban College, moved to Humility Street near the Trevi Fountain and launched the North American College under the protection of Blessed Pius IX. One of those students, Michael Corrigan, became archbishop of New York decades later. As the vagaries of Church history and personal orneriness would have it, Archbishop Corrigan excommunicated the man who had been sent to the house on Humility Street to serve as the seminarians' temporary prefect, Father Edward McGlynn.
Happily, that is neither the only nor the most emblematic story to be told about America's Roman seminary — although it does, as Archbishop John Myers of Newark put it in a fine sesquicentennial homily at the Pontifical North American College on December 8, suggest a lesson in prudence for the 225 seminarians living atop Rome's Janiculum Hill today: “Look around you carefully; you never know who your boss is going to be.”
All joking aside, NAC in its sesquicentennial year is one of the finest houses of priestly formation in the world. Like other seminaries, the North American College suffered through a fallow period in the decades after Vatican II. But under the leadership of reforming rectors like Edwin F. O'Brien and Timothy M. Dolan, and with the inspiration of Pope John Paul II, the ship was righted and today's College is strong, virile, robustly orthodox, liturgically splendid, and a happy place. Its men speak with the accents of every region of the country; the dominance of Irish-Americans among the student body is a thing of the past; conversations in the refectory and the hallways even include a smattering of “No worries,” as the eleven Australians in the house enliven things with their distinctive form of the mother tongue.
I've been privileged to be the College's guest many times over the past sixteen years and I count some of the young men I've met on those occasions, as well as many members of the faculty, as close friends. Some will undoubtedly be among the episcopal leaders of the Church in the United States in the 21st century; it's entirely possible that a papal elector or two (or more) is in residence on the Janiculum today. Yet in this anniversary year, I could not help but think it appropriate that Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, preaching at the College last month on the Second Sunday of Advent, reminded the seminarians that the priests of tomorrow must never forget the possibility that martyrdom may be in their future.
Throughout the North American College's first century, NAC students faced the prospect of encountering various forms of anti-Catholicism in the course of their priestly lives. But no matter how nasty the nativism got — and a mere half-century ago, in 1960, prominent American Protestants were determined to prevent the election of a Catholic as president of the United States and went to considerable rhetorical lengths to do so — imprisonment for the faith, or martyrdom, were not among the likely options for graduates of the College's first house on Humility Street and its contemporary home on the Janiculum. They are today, and Bishop Aquila was entirely right to remind the College of that. Christian clergy in Canada have already faced imprisonment and harsh financial penalties for preaching biblical morality, which some in the gay insurgency are determined to smear as “hate speech.” If death threats are issued — and they are — against prominent American lay defenders of marriage rightly understood, can anyone doubt that similar threats will eventually be aimed at Catholic priests who defend the primordial sacrament?
No one wishes for this; indeed, we should pray daily that we are spared such sacrifices as a Church. That the dictatorship of relativism (as Pope Benedict XVI describes it) is determined to use coercive state power to enforce lifestyle libertinism is not, however, in doubt. The evangelical challenge that fact poses gives a special spiritual texture to preparation for ordained ministry, at NAC or anywhere else, in the Church's Year for Priests and the sesquicentennial year of America's Roman college.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.