‘Heart of Catholicism’: What it’s like to study abroad in Rome

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Study abroad Rome
Students from the University of Mary pose at the Vatican. Courtesy photo

When 21-year-old Elisabeth McGovern studied abroad in Rome last year, the experience transformed her — as a student and as a Catholic.

“Rome made Christ’s presence in every aspect of life visible,” the college senior from Chicago told Our Sunday Visitor. “Jesus is physically present in the churches found every half block; he is manifest in the countless holy people you encounter in class, on the streets and in your friends; he is victorious in the pagan temples converted to Catholic churches; he is known in our prayer and study.”

Elisabeth McGovern, a student at the University of St. Thomas, poses in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Courtesy photo

McGovern, who is majoring in actuarial science, applied mathematics and Catholic studies, flew to the Eternal City as a part of the Catholic Studies in Rome program at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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As the university’s Catholic Studies Rome program director, David Foote oversees the program offered to Catholic Studies majors and minors each spring semester. The university also offers programs that take place in the fall and in January.

“One of the things that our students really look forward to is, they’re going to the very heart of Catholicism,” described Foote, who is also the associate professor in Catholic Studies.

The entire city serves as a Catholic classroom for students, U.S. educators agreed while highlighting the value of learning there.

“I think it’s impossible to be in Rome and not encounter something — if not a thousand things — that have been influenced by Catholicism,” Robert Dowden, director of international programs at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said. He pointed to everything from the architecture and fashion to the Vatican and the local people.

At Catholic University’s Rome Center, students can study abroad in the fall and spring semesters as well as in the summer. The same is true at the Rome campus run by University of Mary based in Bismarck, North Dakota

While studying abroad, students experience education in a new, hands-on way, said Leroy Huizenga, associate dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at University of Mary.

“It’s one thing to learn about Rome or St. Benedict or the Catholic Faith in the U.S. It’s quite another to do so at the historic sites like Monte Cassino or the Vatican itself,” he said. “The subject matter of each course comes alive.”

Resuming after the pandemic

All three programs in Rome halted in spring 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic surged through the country — and the entire world. The Catholic University of America, St. Thomas and University of Mary sent students home.

Now, three years later, the programs are back up and running. In fall 2021, University of Mary resumed full operations. Catholic University sent a limited number of students to Italy at that time and, this semester, it is welcoming a record number of students to its Rome Center.

St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies Rome program resumed in Spring 2022. The program is the same, Foote said. The only difference now is a lower number of participating students. He expects next year will be back to normal.

Academic value

For their students in Rome, each university anchors its curriculum to the city.

Catholic University offers a liberal-arts intensive curriculum with regular semester courses divided into three areas: ancient Rome, Christian Rome, and modern and contemporary Rome. The courses are in art, literature, philosophy and theology.

University of Mary students can enroll in similar classes at their university’s Rome campus, with courses in art, philosophy, history, theology, classics and Catholic studies. The course names reflect the focus on Rome, with titles such as “Art of Italy” and “Grandeur of Rome.”

At St. Thomas, students take two theology classes and a Catholic studies “topics in Rome” course at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican university also known as the “Angelicum.” They also participate in a separate art history course on the Sistine Chapel.

All three programs include Italian language courses.

Cultural value

The Rome programs invite students to engage with Italian culture as they learn.

Study Abroad Rome
Students study classic works of art while studying in Italy. Courtesy photo

University of Mary promises excursions to St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, and even an audience with Pope Francis. St. Thomas’ Bernardi Campus recommends students explore local beaches, open markets and Italian food.

With Catholic University, students can participate in pasta- or pizza-making classes and intern with Church and secular organizations.

These programs also encourage students to encounter the locals by serving those in need. Foote highlighted the struggle of refugees seeking safety in Rome; St. Thomas students can serve them by volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity. At Catholic University, students participate in service opportunities with local organizations of faith, Dowden said.

Outside of Rome, St. Thomas and Catholic University offer side trips to destinations such as Assisi. Catholic University and University of Mary allow students to travel to other European countries.

Spiritual value

All three Rome programs have their own chapels — in addition to the many churches in Rome that, Foote said, overwhelm students with their number and beauty.

University of Mary’s program involves regular Mass and sacraments on its Rome campus, Huizenga said. Students also interact and learn from seminarians and chaplains from the Pontifical North American College.

Mass at monastery
Students from the University of Mary attend a Mass in Assisi, Italy. Courtesy photo

St. Thomas provides a team of chaplains who offer spiritual direction, Mass and confession. Highlights include a spiritual retreat at the nearby Castel Gandolfo and the chance to participate in the station liturgies, which Foote described as a Lenten tradition dating back to the Middle Ages.

Catholic University offers Sunday Mass, occasional daily Mass and student-led opportunities, including the Liturgy of the Hours and the Rosary. Seminarians and deacons from the Pontifical North American College assist with the campus ministry.

Their students can also take part in religious celebrations and traditions that take place in Rome. Among other things, they have the opportunity to attend liturgies led by the pope and meet Church leaders and theologians.

Personal growth and friendship

U.S. educators and students said that one of their favorite parts about the Rome program is the opportunity for lifelong friendships and personal growth.

Study abroad Rome
A group from the University of St. Thomas. Courtesy photo

“Living in Rome with my classmates, falling in love with the city, the culture, and the Church with them has given me friends that I know will be with me for the rest of my life and beyond,” Wyatt Parks from Stafford, Virginia, a senior at the University of Mary studying philosophy, bioethics and Catholic studies, said of his time in Italy last spring.

His classmate, Gabe Fanning, from Martin, South Dakota, saw his life change after traveling to Rome in the fall of 2021.

“When I look back on my time in Rome, the more that I realize that Rome was not something that was designed for only the academic aspects, but it was also so designed to transform the students into better people,” the junior majoring in politics and philosophy and minoring in Catholic studies said. Through his university’s program, he experienced the Church’s traditions and history to become, he said, someone “radically in love with Christ.”

Katie Yoder is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Katie Yoder

Katie Yoder is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.