What is it like to study or teach in an ecclesiastical university in Rome?

Ask Pope John Paul II. He knows from experience. “I will never forget my feelings during those first ‘Roman’ days of mine, when in 1946 I began to get to know the Eternal City,” he wrote in his autobiographical book, Gift and Mystery. “I enrolled in the two-year doctoral program at the Angelicum.”

John Paul II loves Rome and the university world. For many years, he was a college student and a university professor. From the beginning of his pontificate, he established the tradition of celebrating the Eucharist at St. Peter's Basilica for the staff and students of Rome's ecclesiastical universities at the beginning of the academic year.

In the last few years, however, the Holy Father attended the Mass and delivered the homily but did not preside over the celebration. Polish Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, president of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, does it instead. On Oct. 22, hundreds of university professors concelebrated the Mass with the cardinal. The Holy Father followed the Mass while seated at one side of the altar.

The basilica was colorfully packed with thousands of students, including young diocesan and religious priests and seminarians, along with friars, nuns and lay men and women. You could spot Americans here and there.

As the Pope said in his homily, Rome's ecclesiastical academic community is “unique in the world on account of its number and variety of origins. In their own way, Roman ecclesiastical universities show the unity and universality of the Church. It's a multi-form unity founded on the same ‘vocation,’ that of the common call to follow Christ.”

For many years in Rome, I experienced how true this is. I got my bachelor's degree in philosophy at Gregorian Pontifical University and my Ph.D. at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University. Now I teach philosophy at the latter, where about 1,000 seminarians, 500 lay people and 200 nuns come daily to class. My students come from more than 30 different nations, yet it seems as if we have known each other for many years. Everybody feels part of one big family, including those who, like the Americans, speak a different language.

If someone wants to study in the Eternal City, he may enroll in one of several pontifical universities. The oldest is the Jesuits' Gregorian University, established by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1551, which now counts six departments and 10 institutes and centers. Associated with this institution are the famous Pontifical Biblical and Oriental Institutes.

A few hundred yards from the Gregorian, you find the Angelicum. The formal name of the school is the University of St. Thomas Aquinas — run, of course, by the Dominicans — but most call it by the nickname that springs from Aquinas' designation as the “angelic doctor.”

The Lateran University, located next to the grandiose Basilica of St. John Lateran, is run by the Archdiocese of Rome. It has four departments and several institutes, including the John Paul II Institute for Family Studies.

On the Gianicolo, the hill next to Vatican City, stands the Urbanian University, founded by Pope Urban VIII in 1627 to form priests for mission territories. It is run by the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, also called Propaganda Fide. Many students come here from nations where the Catholic population is a minority or still in need of missionaries.

Other pontifical universities include Salesian University, with a notable education program; the University of Santa Croce (Italian for “Holy Cross”), run by Opus Dei and famous for its social-communications department; and Regina Apostolorum University, which is run by the Legionaries of Christ and has a groundbreaking bioethics department.

A number of other pontifical colleges, faculties and institutes have their own specialties. The Redemptorists' “Alphonsianum” specializes in moral theology; the Augustan-run Patristic “Augustinianum” Institute is renowned for its studies on the Fathers of the Church; the Claretian-run “Claretianum” offers theological studies on religious life; the Benedictine College of St. Anselm is known for its liturgical studies; the Minor Franciscan “Antonianum” and the Conventual Franciscan theology department of St. Bonaventure include studies on medieval thought; the Carmelites' “Teresianum” focuses on spirituality; the Servants of Mary's “Marianum” offers Mariological studies; the “Auxilium,” run by the Daughters of Mary of Perpetual Help, focuses on educational sciences; the Regina Mundi Institute is for religious sciences. Three other pontifical institutes are exclusively dedicated to sacred music, Christian archeology, and Arabic and Islamic studies.

On the day of this year's academic Mass, the staff and students from all these educational institutions were convoked before St. Peter's tomb by the Eucharistic Christ. The Eucharist is, as the Pope said in his homily, “the principle of unity in charity, of the communion in the multiplicity of gifts.”

This encounter took place, in fact, at the beginning of the Year of the Eucharist. “The Eucharistic mystery is the school in which the Christian is formed in the intellectus fidei (understanding of the faith), training himself to learn by adoring and to believe by contemplating,” the Holy Father said. “At the same time, in the Eucharistic mystery, he matures his own Christian personality to be able to witness the faith in charity.”

This year, the traditional Mass took place on the 26th anniversary of the inauguration of John Paul's pontificate. I'm sure the Pope followed the Mass thanking God for his years as bishop of Rome — and for the experiences he enjoyed as a newly ordained priest and student in one of Rome's ecclesiastical universities 56 years ago.

“Father Karol Kozlowski, rector of the Cracow Seminary, had told me a number of times that for those fortunate enough to study in the capital of Christendom,” John Paul II said in Gift and Mystery, “it was more important to ‘learn Rome itself’ than simply to study (after all, a doctorate in theology can be gotten elsewhere!)”

How far was Father Karol Wojtyla from knowing that his Roman experience was going to be decisive in his future mission as the Vicar of Christ? “The two years of study, completed in 1948 with the doctorate, were a time when I made every effort to ‘learn Rome,’” he wrote in the same book.

The science of “learning Rome” is not easy to describe. Among other things, it includes delving into the faith from its historical center, feeling the Church's ideals and needs, enjoying the universal Catholic faith and getting in touch with the one who represents Christ on earth.

So what is it like to study or teach in an ecclesiastical university in Rome?

It is studying and teaching the faith in order to “learn Rome” near one who, by God's design, “learned Rome” very well.

Legionary of Christ Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome.