For most of the school’s history, each sophomore at Thomas More College has taken part in the school’s Rome Semester to gain a first-hand experience of the capital of Christendom. Whether they’re touring ancient pagan temples, navigating the catacombs that hold the bones of saints, or learning the Christian import of masterworks by Bernini and Michaelangelo, students are gently guided by Thomas More College faculty to place each experience in the context of their broad, liberal arts education and the Catholic tradition.
This isn’t just a semester abroad. You could spend those three months anywhere—even in Rome—and treat it all as just a tour. For Thomas More College students, this intense time in Rome, with visits to other cities such as Florence and Assisi, is something quite different. “It wasn’t about wearing big sunglasses, wearing a baseball cap, and wearing a camera around your neck,” said Ian Richards, now a second-semester sophomore at Thomas More College. “We were pilgrims, which is an entirely different experience.”
The Rome semester makes intimate and immediate the school’s tight focus on the history and classic texts of the Western tradition. It pushes students to go beyond their textbooks and lectures to grow in their faith—as well as their understanding of the foundations of Western civilization and American democracy. As they learn during their American semester, our Founding Fathers sought to build a state on the ancient, republican virtues of Rome.
“It gives them an opportunity to study Western civilization at the place where a lot of the elements of the West came together,” said Thomas More College Admissions Director Jessica Rock (class of ‘97). “In Rome, the Greek, Roman, and Hebrew traditions united to lay the foundations of Christianity.”
For this year’s group of students, exploring and examining the roots of the American democratic tradition carried special significance—as they studied political science during the recent Presidential election. “We were studying American writers, which was a little bit of happy irony over there,” Ian said. “It was very interesting to see how Europe and Italy view America.” Ian saw plenty of news reports analyzing the election from the perspective of the Italian media, and despite being away from the United States, he still had plenty of information at his disposal.
“The Rome semester takes students out of their comfort zone, and helps them see America from a different perspective,” Jessica added.
“You live there. You really get to know the place,” said sophomore Katie Lloyd. She recalled how she became very familiar with the bus stops along the city’s transportation system and enjoyed eating and drinking in Trastevere, a quirky historic neighborhood known for its lively street life. “You had the leisure to go off and get to know the city and make Rome a part of you,” Katie added. “When we left, it felt like we were leaving home.”
However, studying in Rome brings immediacy to more disciplines than just theology and politics. For Katie, living and studying in Rome brought a special connection to 20th century American poet Richard Wilbur, many of whose poems are set in the Eternal City. As part of their Writing Workshop class, Thomas More College sophomores study Wilbur’s work in the city he loved. “Through his poetry and being in Rome, you start to see the world differently,” Katie said.
Meryl Trapp, another returning sophomore pilgrim, recalled visiting the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, and seeing the Piazza di Spagna. (The Keats-Shelley House houses a library dedicated to Romantic English poets. The collection there includes manuscripts from John Keats, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, as well as a lock of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s hair and a letter from William Wordsworth.) “It’s English language poetry, which wouldn’t have an appeal to Italians,” Meryl said. “It’s very, very Anglo.” However, she observed: “If I were a dying poet, it would be a cool view to have the Spanish steps outside my window.”
Students live in a monastery, and interact daily with a community of monks—seeing firsthand the mode of life that gave birth to medieval academic culture. (Monks founded most of Europe’s great universities—from the Sorbonne to Salamanca.) A typical day includes classes in theology, art and architecture, rhetoric and poetry, and lectures in the same subjects studied at the Merrimack campus, as part of Thomas More College’s distinctive Humanities cycle—which leads students from the Epic of Gilgamesh through the Great Books of the West, ending with the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
One high point for most Thomas More College students is their access to the Vatican, and the Masses they attend with the pope. “You feel really close to him,” Jessica said. “You feel like he’s your spiritual father. You come to understand how big the Church is and how you’re a part of it. You’re not just some disconnected Catholic.”
As part of the art and architecture course, held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, students visit different churches, palaces, and public squares. “You see it in the way it was meant to be seen and interact with it, not just in a museum in a sterile environment,” Jessica said.
One of Meryl’s assignments while in Rome was analyzing how an example of space can be defined by architecture in the city. She chose to examine the courtyard outside St. Cecilia’s church in the town where she became a saint. She vividly recalls the statue, fountains, manicured lawns, and wild landscapes that encompass the area.
Students also take optional Saturday day trips to various Italian cities, and explore the Italian countryside. This year, students visited Assisi, and the tomb of St. Francis, on the medieval Italian saint’s feast day. “There were a lot of people there but it still had that sense of a really tiny town,” Katie said.
Another popular destination is Orvieto, a city in central Italy situated on a large summit of volcanic tuff. The city rises above vertical cliffs and is surrounded by defensive walls. It was a major center of Etruscan civilization and is now the site of an archaeological museum with Etruscan ruins. During the Middle Ages, the city was a key cultural site; it still holds the Studium where Thomas Aquinas taught. “You can see down into the valleys,” said Meryl. “It was really, really scenic.”
Meryl hails from a small town in rural Mississippi. As she explored life outside the cities, she was immediately reminded of the countryside in her native South. Meryl likens the hilly and mountainous terrain of the Italian countryside to Tennessee, western North Carolina, and northern Georgia. When she visited the Italian beaches, she noticed the black sand from igneous, volcanic ash. She also toured a volcanic lake at Castel Gandalfo, the location of the Pope’s summer residence. When Jessica went to Rome as a student, she visited Subiaco (the monastery where St. Benedict founded the monastic order that saved and recopied most Classical works that still survive from the ancient world) and Monte Cassino (Benedict’s monastery, which was bombed during World War II).
During their semester abroad, student pilgrims are immersed in Italian culture, and some learn the language. They navigate the city, order food at local restaurants, and communicate with natives. They visit local trattorias, or pick up porchette (pork sandwiches) at tiny shops to eat on the fly between tours of exquisite Baroque churches such as the Gesu (mother church of the Society of Jesus).
“The food speaks for itself,” said Ian. “So many of the recipes are in the hands of old women and they’re meant to be passed on.”
The Rome semester concentrates students’ learning and helps make it what Allen Tate called “knowledge carried to the heart.” Students connect with the West’s great texts and Tradition in an intimate, incarnate way—and store up memories that will linger throughout their lives. The spiritual transformations that come from encountering the Vicar of Christ in his own city can lay the groundwork for future vocations as priests, religious, or faithful Catholic parents.
“It’s the keystone of their education,” said Jessica.