Diocesan seminarians from the United States and Canada who study in Rome reside at the Pontifical North American College. This seminary is not a free-standing institution. It is a house of formation, where pastoral skills are developed and students are mentored for the priesthood. Academic education proper takes place at 23 ecclesial universities or institutes of higher education, scattered about the city of Rome.
In my day, which would be viewed as the dark ages by today’s seminarians, during the first three-year cycle of graduate courses, everyone studied with either the Jesuits at the Pontifical Gregorian University or with the Dominicans at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, commonly called the Angelicum. In those dark times, we did not bother to put the word “pontifical” in front of anything. We lived at the N.A.C. and studied at either the Greg or the Ange.
The Greg was a 30-minute walk from the N.A.C.; the Ange, a bit farther. Although the Greg route had various options, all of them took you through the heart of Rome, crossing Piazza Navona and Piazza della Rotonda on your way to the universities, which lay in the city center, just off Piazza Venezia. Whether we walked in the most glorious of Roman suns or the biting rain of a Roman winter, the hour-long round trip, made five days a week, kept us from putting on pasta weight.
January and June provoked anxiety, but the rest of the year we lived what we thought of as la dolce vita romana.
Typically, you fell in with whoever headed out the gate at the same time that you did, though, as the months passed, people tended to look for favored groups or partners. I often walked with a seminarian from Rhode Island named Marcel Pincince. We had discovered that we both liked and could remember many of the pop ballads that were popular in our high school years. Note that I said we liked them and could remember the lines, not that either of us could actually sing. We were, however, “complimentarily flat” as we walked down narrow Roman streets, belting out “The Night Chicago Died,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or “Billie, Don’t Be a Hero,” which we altered to “Billy, don’t be a deacon, come back and make me your wife.” (One promised celibacy at diaconate.) We loved the ballads, though we could do anything from Neil Diamond to Cher.
In the Roman system, there are no exams until the end of the semester, when either a two-hour written exam or a 15-minute oral exam determines your entire grade. January and June provoked anxiety, but the rest of the year we lived what we thought of as la dolce vita romana.
Once, during an exam period, Marcel and I were again serenading the Roman people, but he noticed how half-hearted my effort was. I explained that I was going through my mnemonics, which were the mainstay of my Roman exam preparation.
“But why are you worried about exams?”
“Because 10 to 15 minutes determines everything! Your grade, perhaps your future in the church.” When not belting out ballads, I was a rather tightly laced seminarian.
Marcel chided me, but he did so by cleverly employing one of the numerous German terms that we had learned in our classes, which were taught in Italian. “You know what your problem is, Terry? You’re in the kleine Heilsgeschichte.” The term, which Marcel had just coined, meant “small salvation history.” He explained: “Anything can happen to you. No wonder you worry! Now me, I’m in the die grosse Heilsgeschichte, right there along with Moses, Mary and John the Baptist. And Terry, when you’re in the big Heilsgeschichte, you don’t worry, because you know that God will take care of you.”
We the church ought to be a people marked by joy, like guests at a wedding feast.
Marcel then broke into the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore show, and I joined him, having learned that “love is all around/ no need to waste it/ you can have the town/ why don’t you take it/ you’re going to make it after all.”
We typically hear the parable of the wedding feast, appropriately enough, as referring to heaven itself, though the Gospels tend to blur together what we distinguish as heaven and the Kingdom of God, suggesting that what is yet to come has already begun. That being said, and knowing that our life in the church is ordered towards the Kingdom of God, one can suggest that we the church ought to be a people marked by joy, like guests at a wedding feast.
Indeed, that is the title and the theme of the Holy Father’s first apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”). It opens:
The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.
So here is one more challenge of the Christian life: joy! Are we joyful? Perhaps it would be better to speak of a criterion rather than a challenge, because if joy is intrinsic to the Christian faith then joy itself acts of something of a barometer of our faith’s depth.
Gospel joy is not giddiness. We Christians face the same woes and worries as any other people.
To be sure, Gospel joy is not giddiness. We Christians face the same woes and worries as any other people. And considering how many truly evil people can grin broadly, a smile is no sure indication of joy or goodness. No, the Gospel question was posed rather well by my classmate Marcel. Do we really believe in the promises of God? If we do, a sureness of step, a lightness of heart will mark our lives, even in the face of great challenges.
The Holy Father thinks that joy is not only a characteristic of Gospel living, it is also a most effective way to share the Gospel, to evangelize. Pope Francis is not asking that Catholics learn to sport a slick smile or that we surrender our deep convictions about good and evil, which often do not align with those of the world. He is simply asking us to be our truest selves, reminding us that joy is both fruit and seed of the Gospel.
If you know that “love is all around/ no need to waste it/ you can have the town/ why don’t you take it/ you’re going to make it after all”—if you know whose team you are on—a glow of contentment, a genuine smile, should not be all that hard to summon up.