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Rookie Priest: Study in Eternal City affirms priesthood's eternity

Ninth in a series

Sunday, March 11, 2001

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ROME -- As the sun began to set over the Eternal City, the Rev. Jim Farnan left his desk in the library of the North American College.

The Rev. Jim Farnan stands atop the North American College campus in Rome. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Next: Rookie priest at home in Rome

Farnan had worked all afternoon on his tesina, a master's thesis that American seminarians in Rome complete in their first year of priesthood. He made his way through the wide, quiet halls to chapel for Holy Hour, where 40 seminarians knelt in contemplation of Christ's presence in the Holy Eucharist.

A silent hour later, they began to sing a 13th century Latin hymn, "Tantum Ergo." As their deep voices reverberated off the chapel walls, the hymn affirmed their ties to all who had come before them and their faith in the future of the church.

Farnan, 36, a former businessman from McMurray, was ordained in Pittsburgh June 24. The Post-Gazette is following his early ministry, which has taken him back to Rome for his fifth year at the North American College, where he had studied before his ordination. His tesina, which represents his ticket home to the parish ministry he longs for, has become his obsession.

His tesina is on "the essential character of the priesthood." The Catholic Church teaches that the sacrament of ordination changes a man forever. He can resign from ministry. He can even be excommunicated. Yet, in the core of his being, he remains a priest.

Farnan is trying to put words to that indelible change.

"People ask me how I know I was called to the priesthood. I want to be able to explain it to them and to myself," he said.

When Farnan first considered ordination, he asked pastors what priesthood was. Most told him what a priest does. But Farnan didn't want to know about the number of Masses and funerals and crisis calls. He wanted to know whether priesthood would calm the inexplicable restlessness he felt in his soul.

"The priests who spoke to me about that restlessness spoke to something sublime. I'm trying to explain that in the language of theology," he said.

"People talk about a crisis in vocation, but I think maybe it's a crisis in discernment. You might feel that restlessness, that call from God, and not be able to define what it means."

Not that he thinks he will write the definitive word on the topic.

"It's like describing a painting to someone. Finally they have to see the painting for themselves."

Lectures in Italian

Although it sounds as if it serves an entire continent, the North American College is mainly for men from the United States. Founded on the eve of the U.S. Civil War, it was named to accommodate both Union and Confederate Catholics. It has such a commanding view of St. Peter's that television networks have tried -- unsuccessfully -- to get broadcast rights to the roof in the event of the pope's death. It is so close to Italy's premier pediatric hospital, Bambino Jesu, that crying babies keep some seminarians awake at night.

This year it will house 178 seminarians and newly ordained priests and 80 older priests on sabbatical. Another 80 priests pursue advanced graduate studies at Casa Santa Maria, the college's original home near the Trevi Fountain.

The North American is primarily a house of spiritual formation. Academic classes are taken at pontifical universities across the Tiber River. Farnan takes his at the 450-year-old Gregorian University.

His class in Fundamental Theology was held in a large lecture hall with wooden seats rising stadium style to the ceiling.

Bishop Rino Fisichella, an auxiliary of the Diocese of Rome, lectured in animated, high velocity Italian about the encyclical of Pope John Paul II on faith and reason. Farnan jotted notes in English:

"St. Anselm -- Religion and faith don't compete. Faith competes with nothing, even sin. ... The intellect and the mind desire God's love. ... Faith is not the end, God is the end. Religion and faith serve God. So does reason."

Although the American students must attend class, they have a system for compiling the notes of those who understand Italian best so they all have a good set to study from.

Once, Farnan recalled, a professor protested during class, "Look at those American students. They don't understand a word I'm saying. They're all writing letters home."

"No one looked up. They didn't realize she was talking about them," Farnan said.

But Farnan declined the opportunity to take his last two years at the Angelicum University, where classes are in English. He preferred the faculty at Gregorian. And he believed that forsaking Italian would cut him off from the culture he was living in.

"In order to understand it, you first have to sit here and not understand," he said.

Although at least one student slept, most seemed to follow Fisichella's lecture. They laughed at a joke comparing some modern philosophy to incomprehensible modern art.

At the coffee break, he delivered his stock dismissal, which everyone understood: "Buoni cappucini!" -- or "Enjoy your coffee!"

Hundreds of students -- Africans, Asians, Latin Americans and Europeans -- bolted down three flights of stairs to all but crush each other in the coffee bar.

Although it is considered an honor to study in Rome, the experience can be humbling.

"A lot of people who come here have a real identity of academic excellence. Over here, they are stripped of their ability to showcase that," Farnan said.

"Sure, you may be good at Aristotelian logic, but you can't say, 'May I have a cup of coffee, please?' You have third-graders correcting you on your language."

One seminarian, forced to use Italian in an oral exam, acted out a Bible story in pantomime and Dick-and-Jane Italian. But he passed.

Farnan's most surreal academic experience occurred during an oral exam on theological anthropology in which he was asked to "tell us about man's need for myth."

It was early February, Farnan was homesick and irritated at the vagueness of the question. He launched into a seven-minute dissertation on Ground Hog Day.

Punxsutawney Phil became an exemplar of humanity's need to understand the universe. The revelers at Gobbler's Knob were offering America ritual reassurance that spring was on its way.

His professor was puzzled but gave him a passing grade.

American students preserve their own cultural traditions, particularly during Thanksgiving week. The annual football game, the Spaghetti Bowl, is a centerpiece of the celebration. The students oversee the preparation of dishes that perplex Italians: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

Farnan organized a big American breakfast for the men on his corridor that week. He had raided the U.S. Embassy to Italy for Fruit Loops and Pop Tarts. And he opened negotiations with the only Dunkin' Donuts in Rome, where business practices are more Italian than American.

"You want four dozen doughnuts at 9 o'clock in the morning? Impossible!" he was told.

But he got them. In two hours, the 24 students also consumed four dozen scrambled eggs, 10 pounds of sausage, 5 pounds of bacon, 20 pounds of potatoes, a box of pancake mix and about 90 cups of coffee.

Among his fellow students, Farnan is known as a can-do guy, said Jason Rocks, a third-year student from the Diocese of Camden, N.J.

"If you tell him that something needs to be done, he'll just do it," Rocks said. "He always seems to come through. He never goes off half-cocked."

The Rev. Jim Farnan gets pressure from North American College student Matt Buening of Baltimore during a Thanksgiving football game in Rome. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Spiritual challenges

The seminarians mirror the currents in the church of the United States, said Msgr. Timothy Dolan, who has been rector of the North American for seven years.

"Whatever you see in the church, the seminary becomes a microcosm of it. Because so many dioceses are represented here, you see and hear everything," he said.

Dolan is a large, exuberant man who helped to salvage the college after it nearly closed in the 1980s. The students look forward to his talks with the group on the spiritual lives of priests and seminarians.

He can be down-to-earth. After the seminary was fully wired, Internet pornography became a possible new temptation. Dolan acted quickly to address it, telling the entire student body that it could destroy them spiritually, damage the priesthood and would not be tolerated.

But his point is always uplifting, calling men to renewal and holiness.

Nearly 85 percent of North American College seminarians are eventually ordained. Dolan expects his seminarians to examine and re-examine their call.

"You can never drift into the priesthood," he said. "Until you are free to admit that you might not be called to be a priest, you can't be called to be one."

Most who leave do so in their first two years. Sometimes it's a woman, sometimes the academic pressure that can overwhelm any graduate student. Farnan knew a seminarian who couldn't abandon his business interests and left in his final year.

This is something that the remaining students seem to accept. The Rev. Bryce Sibley, a friend of Farnan's from Louisiana, has tentatively agreed to do the wedding for one of his own former girlfriends and a former seminarian who met at his ordination last summer.

On the bulletin board was a letter from a student who had left "for further discernment" about his call:

"To the best of my ability I have tried to be a good seminarian, but recently I have realized that I cannot be a good seminarian if I possess a divided heart," he wrote.

"We need seminarians and priests who are willing to not only give everything they have for the faith, but are ready to die for the faith. Although there is nothing more in the world I want than to be a priest of Jesus Christ, I cannot continue until I am ready to give my whole self to the church."

Priestly generation gap

The varied views and liturgical tastes of his fellow students have been an education for Farnan. To be sure, they are all Catholic. But some would gladly preach in blue jeans. Some wear a cassock and biretta -- a medieval cleric's hat.

Farnan doesn't own a biretta and has a cassock only because he must sometimes wear one to participate in Mass at St. Peter's.

"People get caught up in the minors and can lose sight of the majors," he said. "In a world in need of the Gospel, you can't get caught up in battles over birettas."

Tension tends to run strongest between young priests and those who were ordained in the heyday of Vatican II renewal. Older priests look warily at youngsters who talk enthusiastically of restoring traditions their parents rejected. The suspicion can be palpable when priests ordained a generation ago arrive at the college for a sabbatical.

The seminarians that the older priests see hurrying toward St. Peter's in cassocks look like youthful ghosts of crusty pre-Vatican II monsignors whose approach to the faith they found rigid and ingrown. The older men wonder if the seminarians blame them for declining Mass attendance and for waves of defections from the priesthood that led to the current priest shortage.

That's not how Farnan sees them.

"The guys from the '60s and '70s wanted to effect change. Back then they said, 'If it's not important, don't do it.' Guys today want to build a new understanding of old traditions. They say, 'It might not be important, but there's still something good about it.'

"But they're the same people, 35 years apart."

When the older men arrive for their sabbatical studies, "We look at them and say, 'Here is perseverance. Here are men who stayed with what they said they would do. Here are good shepherds who didn't run from the wolves.' "

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