A vital link with the universal Church and a broader ecclesial horizon will be lost writes Michael Kelly
It’s been said that when the Irish nation couldn’t exist at home, it existed in Rome. The eternal city has long been a home for Irish people abroad and since its establishment in 1628, the Irish College has provided formation for generations of priests.
As well as that, it has been a focal point for Catholics at home and a vital link between Dublin and the Apostolic See. That link, of course, goes back to St Patrick himself. The Apostle to the Irish told the new flock he had won for Christ “Ut Christianiita et Romani sitis” – be ye Christians as those of the Roman Church.
When St John Paul visited the monastic site of Clonmacnois in 1979, he urged Irish people to “never forget the wonderful boast and commitment made by St Columban to [Pope] Boniface IV in Rome: ‘We Irish…are disciples of Saints Peter and Paul…we hold unbroken that Catholic Faith which we first received from you’”.
And while the Catholic Faith in Ireland may not have the vibrancy it once had, the faith remains unbroken. The link with Rome, not so much. A vital chain in that relationship with the Holy See dies with the announcement from the hierarchy that decided that the Pontifical Irish College “does not intend to receive Irish seminarians” for the coming year.
Of course, the communique from the bishops’ adds that the decision will be kept “under review”, but no one who spoke to The Irish Catholic this week about the issue expects the Irish College to function as a seminary in the short- to medium-term.
Several former students told this newspaper that there have already been discussions amongst themselves about mounting a campaign to ensure that the Church in Ireland does not divest from the site on the Caelian Hill.
The current college was opened in 1926 and was the vision of the enterprising Msgr John Hagan. A priest of the Dublin Diocese, he died in 1930 at the age of 57 having literally exhausted himself in the fundraising and realisation of the new college.
None of the former students who spoke to The Irish Catholic this week wanted to be identified, but all raised concerns about the fact that there will no longer be an Irish seminary in Rome.
One expressed the concern that “it will effectively be reduced to the status of a guesthouse” and pointed to the Centre CulturelIrlandais – the former Irish College in Paris.
Gone too are the Irish colleges at Salamanca in Spain and Leuven in Belgium. In fact, of the 34 Irish colleges established for the education of clergy on continental Europe opened in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, only Rome remains in any meaningful sense. When Leuven ceased to function as a seminary in 1983, it was renamed The Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe.
The statement from the summer meeting of the hierarchy, insisted that “bishops recognised that the college [in Rome] continues to provide an important service to the Church in Ireland and confirmed that they are open to the possibility of sending seminarians to the college in the future.
“Bishops noted the report of the acting rector, Fr Paul Finnerty, that the college will continue to be a place of ongoing formation for priests. This includes facilitating those pursuing postgraduate studies and those wishing to undertake a longer or shorter period of sabbatical renewal in Rome,” the statement added.
Paradoxically, while the college will no longer host Irish seminarians for formation, it will continue to welcome the American seminarians who have made in their home in recent years while they participate in their semester abroad programme in Rome’s pontifical universities.
The decision of the trustees of the Irish College comes as the Pope’s right-hand man Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin wrote to bishops’ conferences around the world pleading with them to send students to Rome in the autumn. The cardinal is worried that concerns around coronavirus will mean that many clerical students will not be sent to Rome and this will endanger the viability of the city’s network of Catholic third level institutions.
But with the numbers entering formation stubbornly low, the Irish bishops have decided to throw all of the energy behind Maynooth and house all the seminarians there. It is a decision that at least one former resident of the Irish College is critical of. “Maynooth certainly has its place, but so does the Irish College in Rome. But one would certainly have to wonder if there isn’t a certain bias in favour of Maynooth given that the agencies [of the bishops’ conference] are all based there,” he said.
Another priest who is a former student of the Irish College in Rome told this newspaper that he thinks the decision to effectively close the seminary in Rome “is short sighted”. He said that he “appreciates that the current vocations outlook in Ireland is bleak, but setting aside Rome as an option for seminarians will really break a link with the universal Church.
“Being in Rome was also good for future priests because it helped them to understand that Ireland is not the centre of the Catholic world.
“It also meant that people were returning to Ireland with a broader perspective,” he said.
It is understood that Rome will remain as an option for Irish seminarians, and they may be lodged elsewhere. This has sometimes been the pattern in the Dublin Diocese where people were housed in the CollegioTeutonico inside the walls of Vatican City.
A concern expressed by a number of former residents of the college was that the current site might be put on the open market and a slimmed-down Irish College opened on the outskirts of Rome. The sizeable property in the bustling San Giovanni zone of Rome would fetch a hefty sum on the Roman property market.
The college has also traditionally served as a guesthouse during the summer months and the site is also home to the Villa Irlanda Hotel in the former lay centre which welcomes visitors. That could provide the impetus for the college building itself being further utilised for pilgrim accommodation throughout the year while retaining accommodation for postgraduate priests from Ireland and abroad.
Another alumnus of the CollegioIrlandese told this newspaper that “former students feel very strongly that the college should be retained at the current site and that an ambitious and realistic vision for its future should be drawn up.
“This might mean that – for now at least – it would serve as an international seminary or house of formation, but it should still be available for the Church in Ireland in the future.
“It is a jewel in the crown of the Church in Ireland and a wonderful testament of how the faith survived persecution because of the network of continental colleges sending priests home to minister in our parishes. Future generations will not forgive us if we let it go,” he said.