Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York CNS photo

A very special day for NAC

  • February 14, 2012

ROME - In her more than 150 years, the Pontifical North American College will never have a day like Feb. 18, 2012. Pope Benedict XVI will elevate to the College of Cardinals not one, but two, former rectors of the seminary in Rome. Both Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who served as rector from 1994-2001, and his immediate predecessor, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, will receive the red hat.

The NAC, as it is known, was my seminary for five years. Msgr. Dolan, as he was then, was the rector. We are all products of our formation, but me more than most. I cannot think of one worthwhile thing I do as a priest that is not the direct result of being sent by the late Archbishop Francis Spence of Kingston to study at the NAC. I learned there a key element of the new evangelization, namely that one does not figure out what one is able to do, and then do what is possible, but rather one first sees what needs be done, and then figures out how to do it. We hear all the time now about being missionaries, not managers. It was at the NAC that I learned that in practise.

More important for my own happiness as a priest, I also learned that the priesthood could be fun. I knew before I arrived at the NAC that the priesthood was a noble vocation, a life of duty and service, but had not really thought that being a priest could be fun. Msgr. Dolan changed that, as no one ever had more fun being a priest than he does. His earth-shaking laugh and his bone-crushing embraces are sometimes fodder for friendly mocking or even caricature, but the sheer joy he takes in being a Catholic priest is both sincere and contagious.

“We love Jesus Christ, His Church, His Mother, His Vicar, His priesthood,” he would thunder regularly. He taught us to do just that.

But we are formed more by witnesses than teachers. More profound men than I likely were moved by other things, but the first time I saw Msgr. Dolan with his rosary in one hand and a cigar in the other, I realized that the priestly life was going to be just fine. His immediate successor banned smoking and intensely disdained cigars, so in my final years the NAC was safer and healthier. But safety and health do not stir the heart.

The twin elevation of Dolan and O’Brien highlights an important development in the recent life of the Church. In the 1980s and 1990s, seminary reform was an urgent priority. Many seminaries had lost their way, trapped in the confusions and crises of the 1970s. They were destroying vocations and deforming those men who endured. The NAC was not immune from all that, and Msgr. O’Brien was sent to put the seminary back on track. He did the heavy lifting of making the necessary course correction, and his work flourished under Msgr. Dolan. Now, under Msgr. James Checchio, the seminary is full to capacity and is a happy and holy house of formation.

The successful reform of the NAC has been repeated in many places. While there are still those seminaries that do more harm than good in the life of the Church, they are declining both in number and influence. The joy of the NAC on Feb. 18 ought to be shared by all those who know that the reform of seminary life bodes well for the future of the Church.

Soon after the consistory on Saturday morning, I will be back at my alma mater to celebrate with my brethren and friends. Cardinals Dolan and O’Brien will be there too.

“After the ceremony on Feb. 18, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien and I will greet visitors at the North American College,” wrote Archbishop Dolan in a letter to parishioners in New York. “The roof of the college offers a magnificent view of both St. Peter’s and the glories of Rome. There, at the highest point of the college, is inscribed in large letters the explanation in Latin of why Rome is holy, why Rome is essential, why we Roman Catholics so treasure our bond to Rome and her bishop, the Holy Father: O Roma felix, quae duorum Principum es consecrata glorioso sanguine! (O happy Rome, which was consecrated by the glorious blood of the two Princes!) Rome is not holy because of the magnificent monuments, or splendid squares, or celebrated churches. Rome is holy because of the martyrs’ blood that was shed there, beginning with the princes of the apostles, Peter and Paul. That’s the significance of the consistory.”

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