What is it like studying in Rome? Are the courses challenging? Are the students on par with peers in the U.S.? Is the university academically rigorous? Are the faculty orthodox? How does it compare to [Notre Dame/Seattle University/Catholic University]?
These are the kinds of questions I have had from a number of friends and colleagues, and I thought I would address them together once I had had some time to get a sense of the pedagogy here.
It is a different system, no question. The first thing to note is the nature of the university. The Universities are really just buildings with classrooms, and very minimal administrative staff. The entirety of the Angelicum – classrooms, offices, chapel, faculty residences, library and bookstore – is about the same size as Hunthausen Hall at SU, Caldwell at CUA, or O’Shaughnessy at ND. This is because the university really only offers the classes, mostly lectures and a small number of seminars. It is assumed that the bulk of your formation actually happens elsewhere, specifically, independent research, formation in community, and the experience of being in Rome.
My specialization does not even use the university library, for example. Instead, we have access to the Centro Pro Unione, run by the Society of the Atonement; that is our library. Sure, it is about a 25 minute walk from the Angelicum, but it’s a walk that passes by the Trevi fountain, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and some of the most famous gellateria in the city, so one cannot complain. Moreover, there is a lot of time for research, so once I settle on an idea, I will not be bogged down by unwanted topics in order to pursue it.
The presumption of the university is that its students live in a house of formation, one of the “colleges” around Rome – and these are operated entirely separately from the universities. The problem is, of course, that only about 70% of students have access to one of these colleges as they are usually established either by national bishops’ conferences exclusively for priests and seminarians, or by religious communities for their own members. That leaves a significant number of students – deacons, lay ecclesial ministers, non-ecclesial lay students and non-Catholics – without an essential part of their education in Rome. The Lay Centre is the only such college trying to meet this need, and it is a private venture. It is also limited in space, with only room for about 20 residents out of the hundreds needing such a place. (Though get the impression the quality of life and of formation here exceeds what can be found in many of the national colleges for seminarians and priests!)
Further, I think the course load is intentionally light, though it does not appear this way at first. It is normal to be registered for about 8 or 9 courses a semester, one of which is a seminar. Whereas the typical 3-credit course in the States meets for 3 hours in two or three classes a week, here we get 90 minutes, once a week – about half as much time. The reading load is considerably less, too, if you just look at the syllabi. Two of my courses have only one required text of about 200 pages each, for the entire semester. The rest rely entirely on lecture notes. I have a total of 30 pages of writing due this semester, and most final exams are oral rather than written. (I am remembering my first semester sophomore year at ND, over 100 pages on 60 different topics, not counting finals!)
The difference between being located in South Bend, IN and in Roma cannot be overstated, though. It is easy to take on a thousand pages of reading a week at ND when there is nothing to do otherwise anyway. Here, if you want to learn about early Christianity or the history of the papacy, go for a walk. San Giovanni in Laterano is ten minutes from here. San Clemente is even closer. The Vatican is a few metro stops away. Just in the last week, we have had dinner with two of the three Catholic representatives on the reconciliation talks with the Lefebvrite schismatics (Archbishop Ladaria and Charles Morerod, OP). The week after the press release about the Anglican personal Ordinariates, we got to talk with two different members of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. Then, of course, the discussions had over dinner and caffé more than make up for the pedantic lecture style in some of the classrooms.
It is important to note the international character here too. Granted, ND and CUA were both pretty international, but I think this is the most mixed place I have ever been. I am frequently the only native English speaker in a class, or one of two. It seems to be a good representation of the Church in general: lots of representation from Africa, southeast Asia, India, and Eastern Europe. (Some from Latin and South America, but most of them seem to go to the Gregorianum rather than the Angelicum). This probably makes lecture rather than group discussion in class more feasible, and accounts for what seems like a slow pace.