Cardinal John Henry Newman studied here, so have Cardinals Francis George of Chicago, George Pell of Sydney, and thousands of priests, religious and laypeople.
But the Pontifical Urbaniana University is no ordinary Vatican educational institution. Run by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Urbaniana’s focus is on mission studies and other subjects that serve the evangelizing action of the Church, making it a melting pot of nationalities and cultures.
Students number around 1,400, and together with staff, come from 120 countries.
“Here really is all the humanity of the world,” explains Msgr. Ambrogio Spreafico, the Urbaniana’s rector. “For us it’s very important to get to know the reality of different peoples, their culture and religions and being a sign of love and peace is what we are in every sense.”
The university, which used to be called the Urban College, was founded by Pope Urban VIII in 1627, making it the very first educational institution within the Congregation De Propaganda Fide (which later became the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples). For 300 years it was located on Piazza di Spagna, but in 1926 moved to the Janiculum Hill, a large compound with beautiful, well-maintained gardens overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica.
Almost since the day it was founded, the university has sought to prepare students for the missions. And in recent years, it has extended its outreach by linking up with other universities. Now it is affiliated with 91 other institutions around the world, mostly in Africa and Asia. In the United States, it has teamed up with John Carroll University in Cleveland.
But you don’t have to be a seminarian, religious or priest to enroll here: 30% of students are laypeople, and there is also a choice of summer programs, some more intensive than others. The university has four faculties: philosophy, theology, canon law and missiology. Within each of these, it is possible to study a variety of related subjects, including formation in mission and evangelization; social communications (media); the philosophical, ethical and theological problems associated with war and peace; and the social philosophy of human migration. The university also boasts an impressive linguistics faculty: Seven languages are taught, including Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac and Chinese.
“I’ve taught here for 10 years and I’d say it’s more than just a challenge — it’s a terrific experience,” says Father Andresj Geniusz, head of the university’s linguistics faculty. “It’s terrific because you can experience how the one Gospel fits five continents and 120 nationalities, how it touches so many different hearts, and how it brings joy to so many different people.”
Father Geniusz, who is from Poland, also values the diverse backgrounds of the staff. Sixty percent come from Europe, 30% of whom are Italian, while the rest come from Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Kenyan student Anthony Situma is studying philosophy at the university as part of his studies to become a priest. What he finds most useful for his eventual ministry back home is the opportunity to study other religions.
“Here I can study Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam because I have professors who are well-trained for that,” he says. “And apart from that I can study also theology, the teachings of the Church, and languages.”
Students coming from countries where Christians face persecution find the comparative religions course particularly helpful.
‘How Not to Be Enemies’
But what Situma likes most about the Urbaniana is the opportunity not only to learn alongside people of other cultures, but also to make friendships with people of other nationalities.
“We have a lot of cultural interaction among students, which is a very beautiful thing,” he says. “You find yourself in the world, within a very small area.”
Certainly, on visiting the university, what strikes one most in comparison to many secular universities is the joy and laughter that echoes through the corridors. The students appear grateful for the chance to study there, and the lectures are lively and stimulating.
For Msgr. Spreafico, the university is responding to the global tensions of today, namely those of globalization.
“This is the great problem, the great challenge — how not to be enemies when we are different,” he says. “This is what we can experience here: the possibility to be friends, to be brothers and sisters, even if we are different.”
Father Geniusz also values the way other largely non-European cultures will prompt him to reflect on his own attitudes.
“They meet us Europeans, they question us, and they make us change our way of thinking, our way of feeling, our way of preaching,” he says. “It’s a laboratory of mutual exchange of ideas which is very interesting and it’s this that gives this university a future.”
And Msgr. Spreafico insists that, being part of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Church teaching is never compromised when rising to that challenge.
“We say in Italian: Romanità è Universalità,” he explains, “which means: To be Roman, to be connected here to the Catholic Church, means to be universal.”
Indeed, the university’s Christ-centered approach to cultural diversity is a philosophy that has borne much fruit over the past 381 years — and looks like it will continue to do so for many years to come.
writes from Rome.