Five hundred fifty-one steps—that is what it takes to ascend to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Once you reach the top, you are greeted by a breathtaking sight: the arms of St. Peter’s Square, stretching out toward the rest of Rome—and the world—to embrace it. From the top, you truly feel the majesty and power of the Catholic Church. Christendom College President Dr. Timothy O’Donnell certainly felt this way the first time he ever ascended those 551 steps, back in 1978.
When he was became president of Christendom, it became essential to him that as many students as possible shared in that experience—encouraging a growth in their love for the Church in the face of a culture that continuously attacks our Catholic heritage. Through the college’s Junior Semester in Rome, hundreds of students have experienced that growth by embracing the opportunity to study and grow within the very heart of the Church.
After two decades of studies in Rome, the question must be asked: Why is this experience still one of the most popular reasons that students choose to attend Christendom? Why does Rome continue to move, shape, and impact students for the better year after year?
To answer that question, it is necessary to go back to the very beginning. First started in 2002, the Junior Semester in Rome has worked to enhance the students’ academic experience by providing them with the cultural and intellectual enrichment that studying in Rome offers. According to O’Donnell, the Semester in Rome has accomplished that goal over and over again for a simple reason: Students are united in a profound way at the very center of Christ’s Church here on Earth.
This story comes from the latest issue of Instaurare Magazine, the official magazine of Christendom College. Read more from Instaurare here!
“To be able to study at the center of Christendom and the heart of the Church is a truly life-changing experience,” said O’Donnell. “Our Catholic patrimony, so much history, and the lives of so many saints are made concrete for our students during their semester abroad. The Eternal City is truly an ideal place to grow intellectually and spiritually and to drink in the riches of our vibrant Catholic culture.”
Over the past 20 years, the Semester in Rome has undergone many changes. Philosophy professor Dr. Douglas Flippen and his wife, Maureen, served as the first Rome directors, along with then-college chaplain Reverend Anthony Mastroeni. In 2005, alumni Ben and Heather Akers took over as the directors and were instrumental in solidifying the experience over the course of four years.
In 2009, Tomas and Caroline Fuertes were selected to be the new Rome directors, and in 2010, John Noronha took over as Director, with Katy Ott serving as associate director. In 2012, Ott became director, a position she still holds today, with philosophy professor Dr. Mark Wunsch serving as academic director.
Wunsch originally joined the Semester in Rome in 2005, teaching philosophy to students while he was doing his graduate studies in Rome. Today, his primary task is the recruitment and mentoring of the professors who teach students in Rome.
For Wunsch, the Semester in Rome has been ever popular for 20 years for a reason—it is a profound experience for students that ties right into the mission of the college.
“One of the central goals of a Christendom education is to furnish our students with intellectual habits of mind that allow them to thoughtfully engage every situation in which they will find themselves and which allow them to live an integrated life in pursuit of wisdom,” said Wunsch. “This objective is uniquely formed in Rome, where their education in the theology, philosophy, art, architecture, language, culture, history, and communications of the place in which they reside for the semester gives them the intellectual tools to thoughtfully engage their Italian experience and lead a life where their curricular education informs their extracurricular education and vice versa.”
According to Ott, the experience has proven to be a life-changing one for hundreds of students because it changes the lens through which they see the Catholic faith.
“After seeing the Eucharistic Miracle which began the Feast of Corpus Christi in Orvieto, they view the Solemnity in a different way,” said Ott. “When students are back home and it’s the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, they will remember touching a rosary to his baptismal fount or celebrating Mass at his tomb. The Rome staff are blessed to be a small part of the whole that enables students to encounter their faith so tangibly through the Semester in Rome.”
For classes, students study philosophy and theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (The Angelicum), learning in that hallowed institution with roots that can be traced back 800 years. The rest of their classes are taught at Istituto Maria Santissima Bambina—right next to St. Peter’s Square —and also on-site at various locations around Rome and the Vatican.
During their time abroad, students live in Residence Balduina, which is a short bus/metro ride or 30-minute walk from St. Peter’s Basilica. In addition to numerous opportunities to study, live, and tour within Rome itself, students are given the chance to travel to Siena, Assisi, Florence, and elsewhere in Italy with the college, while also being given free weekends to travel to other places in Europe. All of these opportunities, in addition to studies in and outside the classroom, combine to give students a rich cultural experience that stays with them for the rest of their lives.
Over the past 13 years, Ott has guided hundreds of Christendom students through their time in Rome, watching them grow during their studies abroad. That experience has not only impacted the students but her as well.
“Staff and students are impacted in positive ways, big and small, by the Rome semester every day,” said Ott. “Seeing the students see St. Peter’s for the first time is moving beyond words. There are so many unique lessons that students can only learn in Christendom’s Rome semester. By taking classes at the Angelicum with students and professors from all over the world or attending a papal audience with the address in many languages, the students experience firsthand the Universal Church. I also think the challenges of living in a major city and communicating in a foreign language often bring about personal growth and contribute to formation.”
Why is the Junior Semester in Rome still so popular and impactful? Because, for 20 years now, Christendom students have lived, studied, and grown in holiness within the Eternal City. They have witnessed enormous moments in the history of the Catholic Church, including the elections of two popes and the canonizations of many saints. They have ascended those same 551 steps as so many pilgrims to St. Peter’s before them, witnessing the sun rise and set over the heart of the Church.
All these experiences have changed their lives for the better, giving them a richer outlook on the Universal Church and the world at large. As more and more Christendom students continue to embark on semesters in Rome, they are joining a group of people uniquely prepared to impact the culture for the better, ready to carry the lessons learned in Rome into their lives and truly live out the college’s mission of “restoring all things in Christ.”
Written by Zach Smith, Associate Director of Marketing & Communications.