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Why Magdalen sends its juniors to Italy
BY JOSEPH PRONECHEN
Warner, N.H., is a beautiful place to study history’s greatest thinkers
and holiest souls in Socratic-seminar classes. (Socrates, of course, stressed
the value of open inquiry.)
But the minds behind Magdalen
College see the value in
expanding students’ reach geographically as well as intellectually.
So in May 2005, the school started
a study-abroad program, sending the junior class to Italy for a month in late spring
and early summer. They divide their time between Rome
and the ancient Renaissance city of Norcia — which, not so incidental
to the program, is the birthplace of St. Benedict.
Among the program’s goals, the
students get to live their faith in the heart of the Catholic Church in St.
Peter’s, experience community life in a foreign land, study and pray in an
ancient city anchored by a Benedictine monastery, and enjoy and strengthen their
common life together.
Karas and Ryan Dostie were
eager to share their experiences from the 2006 trip with the Register. One of
the most memorable highlights for both was the Mass on Pentecost Sunday in St.
“It was one of the most amazing
days in Rome,”
says Karas. “From all over the world, priests, nuns,
cardinals and laity were there with the Holy Father for the birthday of the
Dostie recalls how
pilgrim groups from Germany,
Spain and Africa
surrounded the Magdalen juniors. “It really brought
home a sense of the universality of the Church,” he says, “in ways reading and
hearing about it doesn’t.”
For history buff Dostie, places like the Basilica of St. Clement came alive
as the group was able to walk through layers of history that included two
earlier basilicas under this church and the Roman ruins beneath all of them.
“You could almost taste the
hundreds of years of civilization there,” he says.
Magdalen College President Jeffrey Karls notes how these firsthand international experiences
benefit the juniors, who study faith and reason from the ancients to the
writings of Pope Benedict XVI.
“What really resonates is they’re
actually treading the ground where Sts. Benedict and Scholastica
lived,” says Karls. “They’re walking the footsteps of
these saints we study and treasure.”
The 25 Magdalen
students who traveled in 2006 lived most of their month in the walled medieval
city of Norcia.
There the group, led by Karls and Tom Pendergast, the college’s choir director, got a chance to
live the daily life of the people and immerse themselves
in the local culture.
To begin the day, everyone walked
from their lodgings at a retreat house, a former convent outside the city
walls, to Mass at the Monastery of San Benedetto on Norcia’s piazza. In 2000, American Benedictine monks led by
Benedictine Father Cassian Folsom took over this
is a good friend of the college,” says president Karls, explaining the choice for the program. “When he was
given the monastery in Norcia to establish a
Benedictine community, it seemed a golden opportunity to go to Italy to visit him and expose students to the
Italian culture both in the ancient walled city and in Rome itself.”
study Benedict’s Rule and follow his motto ora et labora (prayer and work). The monks
invite everyone to join them for their daily Divine Office in a small chapel at
the spot where St. Benedict and St. Scholastica were
born in the fifth century. Students didn’t pass up the invite.
describes how they’d walk the mile again in the evening for vespers. “It was
absolutely beautiful,” she says, “one of my favorite parts of the trip.”
So was experiencing a culture and
life different from that in the United
States for her and Ryan Dostie.
“It was a picturesque countryside,
where shepherds walk their sheep, and children play in the piazza by the statue
of St. Benedict, and where everyone knows everyone, the old and the young,” Karas marvels. “You don’t need a car. Everyone has a part
in the whole city. I come from Chicago, and this
had a community feeling you don’t get in America.”
Dostie was struck by life around the
town’s piazza as people gathered at the end of each day to talk and spend time
“There’s a real sense of unity and
community,” he explains. “Magdalen is a small school
and we try to foster that sense of community. It was great going there and
seeing this culture similar to what we have and do here.”
The college’s renowned music
program — everyone at Magdalen is part of the
college’s choir — became a universal language in the piazza as well as in Rome. When the group
spontaneously sang hymns and polyphony in the piazza, all the strolling
townspeople gathered around to listen.
“The people didn’t know the
language,” says choir director Pendergast, “but they
were asking for encores.”
When in Rome, waiting before a general audience with
Pope Benedict XVI, the 25 juniors broke naturally into English and Latin hymns.
Foreign folks who surrounded them were clearly moved.
“Some of the ladies in front of us
started crying to hear the beautiful music,” remembers Karas.
“When we started singing ‘O Sanctissima,’ they joined
Besides putting flesh on the ideas
and theories the participants study in their “great books” curriculum, the
Italy program also bonds the students to the people they meet — and to one
“When we came back to classes I
felt like everyone was a brother or sister to me,” she explains. “Magdalen is not just about the academics but about the
This benefit carries over to their
studies. Pendergast finds it makes the college’s
Socratic tutorial method even richer and livelier.
Both advantages were evident in Norcia the day the group, toting lunches, hiked to an
abandoned villa on a nearby mountainside. The villa, with scrap wood and a
fireplace, proved more than simple shelter and warmth from the day’s rains.
“We probably had one of the best
dialogues and conversations ever in this abandoned villa while it was raining,”
program has already had another most promising and positive result, though
unplanned. Jeffrey Zemenick, one of last year’s
seniors, recently joined the Norcia monastery and is
studying to be a monk.
The program’s goals are proving
more far-reaching than at first expected.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull,