ROME: The city of Rome is vacated in August. Even the Vatican comes to a near standstill.

But come September and October, things will return to normal, and the city will see a new crop of students.

For Catholics, studying or teaching at one of the nine pontifical universities in Rome, close to the Holy Father and the tombs of the Apostles, is a priceless experience ? but not without its challenges.

That?s the verdict from the majority of American Catholic students and professors who have felt the call to study or teach in Rome. Most of the students are, of course, seminarians, sent to Rome to complete their studies. But there is also an increasing number of laity choosing the ?Roman option.?

One such layman is Hans Gonzalez, a 35-year-old philosophy student from San Francisco. For him, the benefit of studying in the Eternal City is primarily the chance to experience the catholicity of the Church. ?You?re with students from all seven continents and get a taste of the Church?s universality ? the struggles and joys of living in other parts of the world,? he says.

Many students point out that the possibility to learn a new language (or perhaps even more than one) is a major advantage of studying here. So, too, is the opportunity to encounter a variety of different cultures and build international friendships, helping to broaden the mind and look beyond national stereotypes. At a deeper level, studying in Rome can powerfully enrich your faith. ?Being this close to Holy Mother Church allows you to sense the grittiness of Catholicism,? says Gonzalez. ?You can smell it, touch it ? the bones of the Apostles are here and so, of course, is the Vicar of Christ.?

Gonzalez is studying at the Dominican-run Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (also known as the Angelicum, and colloquially as ?The Anj?), the alma mater of many illustrious students, including Pope John Paul II. Gonzalez comes from a Dominican parish in San Francisco, so the university was a natural choice. But his story is a special one: A forensic accountant and ballroom dance instructor, he returned to the faith after his former girlfriend, whose friendship he was about to rekindle, lost her life in the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001.

?Initially, it wasn?t a career pursuit,? he says. ?It was about rediscovering the faith and enriching myself after living a secular life.? But his plans changed once he was here. After his first year at the Angelicum, the Dominican influence rubbed off on him, and he began taking an interest in philosophy, seeing it as a vital instrument in helping to bring others to the faith, especially those back home.

His plan, like those of many similar lay students, is to share what he has learned as a teacher. Other lay students choose professions in varied fields such as canon law, bioethics or Church communications. ?There is a healthy competition among the universities, and any student can take really fine courses in all of them,? says Milwaukee native Father Robert Gahl, associate professor of ethics at the Opus Dei-run Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. In addition, the universities offer short courses and public conferences.

Becoming Roman

American professors have similar motivations to study in Rome. Jesuit Father Joseph Carola, a professor of patristic theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, says his primary attraction was to experience the universality of the Church. For much of his life he had a ?call within a call? to teach in Rome and, specifically, to help instruct clergy on how to evangelize in other parts of the world. He also came well-equipped for the task: A former high school language teacher, he could already speak six languages.

As well as the universality, many simply enjoy the novelty of living and studying in a city with a different culture. ?Daily events are far from predictable, and the newness of my surroundings makes even shopping for toothpaste or deodorant an experience of exploration,? says Father Alejandro Crosthwaite, professor of philosophy and social sciences at the Angelicum. But part of what he values most as an American professor in Rome is that it ?makes one more conscious of the teaching office of the Holy Father and the universal magisterium of the Church and how that teaching becomes alive in the different cultural and religious backgrounds of our students.?

And one welcome fact is that there?s better motivation and behavior in the classroom. ?Gone are the discipline problems associated with teaching in America,? says Father Crosthwaite. ?You?ll be happy to know that most cultures highly honor, respect and support teachers.?

For Father Carola, there?s another, lesser known, advantage of encountering such variety in Rome: Through his interactions with clergy from all over the United States, he says he has a far better knowledge of the U.S. Church than if he were back in his home diocese.

But the experience wouldn?t be real without challenges and drawbacks; it isn?t for everyone. For many students and staff coming from the United States, a major challenge is learning a new language. Lectures are often taught only in Italian, and even just buying groceries is a mini-trial, at least at the beginning. ?It?s a beautiful city, we all love it, but part of it is very difficult and demanding,? says Father Carola.

He says the flip side of the university?s universal, cosmopolitan nature is that it?s not actually anyone?s home, even for the Italians. ?If I was in France, the French would welcome me into their culture,? says Father Carola. ?The challenge of the universality of Rome is that no one is really at home.? Even so, he says he wouldn?t want to sacrifice the benefits for anything, and looks at the whole experience as something good. ?Living here means having to die to one?s own self and one?s own culture,? he says, ?but it?s that dying that gives life, because if you can transcend it, you enter the richness of the universality that it brings.?

Learning to be sensitive to other cultures can also be challenging. ?We too, the professors, in all humility, must also be open to learning, sometimes completely altering the way we see the world through the eyes of faith,? says Father Crosthwaite. ?It is truly a humbling place and a place of wisdom.?

Edward Pentin

is based in Rome.