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.

Seniors Allannah 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. Peter’s Square.

“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 Church.”

 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.”

Benedictine Bestowal

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 centuries-old monastery.

“Father Cassian 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.”

Here, students 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.

Allannah Karas 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 together.

“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 in.”

Vocational Venture

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 another.

“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 community life.”

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,” says Karls.

The Norcia 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, Connecticut.