ROME — The Rome Center of The Catholic University of America and the Australian Catholic University, a joint initiative between two universities dedicated to Catholic education, is set to open in September.

Situated on historic Janiculum Hill, about a mile from the Vatican, the center is a partnership between The Catholic University of America (CUA) and Australian Catholic University (ACU). According to the collaboration’s leadership, it will provide the universities not only plenty of interior-exterior space, but also an identity in Rome.

The Rome center is expected to double CUA’s current capacity, annually hosting 150-200 students. Australians are expected to come starting in the spring 2016, and their participation will grow through the years, eventually reaching 50-50 cooperation. There is also the option to live with a host family in Italy.

“Rome has so much to offer our students,” CUA President John Garvey told the Register, when asked about the Rome center. “It’s an incredible place to get an education in Western culture generally and Catholicism in particular. It connects you to the Roman Catholic Church in a way it doesn’t anywhere else.”

For CUA, the Rome Center signifies a place to finally call home in the city — previously residing in St. John’s University in the Prati neighborhood — since it started its Rome program 10 years ago.

“We had space, but no identity. It’s still ‘St. John’s’ outside,” said CUA’s Rome director, David Dawson Vasquez, while speaking with the Register.

With the new center, “we not only have our space, but, also, we can put a big sign outside. We can say, ‘This is the Rome Center of the CUA and ACU,’ and the whole idea of two continents on a third continent is attractive.”

For ACU, on the other hand, it marks the first study-abroad program.

Vice Chancellor Greg Craven, quoted in the university’s press release concerning the Rome Center, remarked, “It is fitting that, in the year of our 25th anniversary, ACU is being taken to new heights with the establishment of a study center overseas.”

 

Counterparts in Constitution

ACU has grown rapidly over the last quarter century, with more than 26,000 students and seven campuses in Australia. Due to a similar academic constitution, it is considered CUA’s Australian counterpart.

Garvey noted, “Though not nearly as old as we are ... [ACU] consciously patterned much of its organization and activity after us. Even the name ACU, Vice Chancellor Craven told me, is a jumble of CUA, the national university of the Catholic Church in Australia, as we are here.”

Like CUA, founded and sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, ACU is affiliated with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC).  The conference appoints an advisory commission for the university, and it appoints a bishop as a member of the university’s governing body.

Cardinal George Pell, ex-chairman of ACU’s board of trustees and now prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat of Economy, is delighted about the initiative and has already visited the site — the former convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion — currently under renovation.

In a statement released to the Register, Cardinal Pell said, “The announcement of the opening of a Rome Center for The Catholic University of America and the Australian Catholic University is a good development in every sense.”

“For every Catholic, Rome is an important focus of devotion,” he added. “With its ancient pagan history and nearly 2,000 years of Catholic history, Rome has much to offer, humanly and religiously. I wish the organizers every success for the years ahead. It is another fine example of American-Australian cooperation.”

The Rome Center marks a second collaborative effort between the two universities. Since 2009, CUA’s School of Nursing and ACU’s School of Nursing, Midwifery and Paramedicine have hosted a student-exchange program.

CUA’s Vasquez noted a difference in approach between the two universities, though he considers it a promising aspect as well: “They emphasize on putting students on a vocational track, such as nursing and engineering,” he said. “So they are not as liberal arts-based as we are, but they think we will be bringing a nice benefit to them.”

 

Catholic Identity

CUA and ACU’s similar gaze toward Rome, and interest in developing a presence there, coincides with the Catholic identity that marks both universities and their corresponding missions.

“Grounded in the 2,000-year-old Catholic intellectual tradition, CUA and ACU share a common ethos and a commitment to knowledge, to human dignity and to the common good,” ACU’s Craven said while speaking at the formal signing for the “Memorandum of Understanding” in Washington on Jan. 29.

CUA’s Garvey shared Craven’s sentiment. As he told the Register, “They think about their role of education and mission in the same we do ours and were interested in reaching Rome, where we already had a presence.”

The primary hope for students studying in the Eternal City is to comprehend the true sense of Catholic identity and significance of Catholic education.

“As far as Rome goes, the idea of an experience abroad for the student is more than just a cultural experience — it is a growing experience, really meant to find a way to sharpen one’s idea of what Catholic identity means,” Vasquez explained. “Catholic education is not just about teaching you prayers — it’s about teaching an outlook on history, philosophy, all the liberal arts and life in general.”

 

Crossroad of Culture, Faith and Academia

The new Rome Center will offer students the ability to immerse themselves more into the culture, in addition to partaking in the academic and educational community. Giving students access to their own gardens, chapel, architecture studio and cafeteria — previously CUA students would eat out with meal tickets — the Rome Center has the potential to become a community for students, professors and clergy in Rome.

“Designed for students to enjoy a ‘Rome experience’ while continuing their various studies, the center will also cater as a place for professors and staff from both universities to take a sabbatical. The hope is that it will become a center for conferences and international dialogue,” said Cardinal Pell in his statement to the Register.

Vasquez is also excited to host visiting bishops, as a way of fostering their relationships with students.

“Since we are run by the U.S. bishops, what we would like to do is make it a kind of open house for both Australian and U.S. bishops when they’re in town, to come and see the students, say Mass for the students, to have a meal with the students and so on,” he said.

With a whole wing of the 70-bed complex to be set aside as larger apartments for graduate students, organizers hope the center will cultivate a rich academic environment as well as a close-knit community amid a dynamic cultural experience of Italian life and the life of the universal Church.

As Garvey said, “It’s not just about Americans having an opportunity to go to Rome, because being there with the Australians increases the educational value of what they’re doing there, making it a tri-continental experience.”

Register correspondent Cecilia O’Reilly writes from Rome.