Thomas PowersGod knows what he created each person for".

Monsignor Powers, rector of the Pontifical North American College, affirms that "the world has changed radically since its foundation, but the mission of the College remains the same: to form men for the priesthood, with hearts configured to Christ".

Gonzalo Meza-February 6, 2024-Reading time: 7 minutes
Thomas Powers PNAC

Monsignor Thomas Powers, Rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome (PNAC Photo Service)

The new building of the Pontifical North American College in Rome (PNAC, by its acronym), inaugurated in 2015, has on the top of one of its walls the inscription, "Resonare Christum corde romano," a hallmark that comes true for the college's seminarians and future priests of the North American church.

The rector of PNAC, Monsignor Thomas Powers, states on the college's welcome page: "The world has changed radically since its founding, but the mission of the College remains the same: to form men for the priesthood, with hearts configured to Christ, High and Eternal Priest, so that they may return to their dioceses eager to serve God's people with fidelity, generosity and joy.

Bishop Powers knows the seminary very well since he studied there and later served as spiritual director, a role he held while working in the Dicastery for Bishops. Just prior to assuming his position as the new rector, he was pastor of St. John's Church in Darien, Connecticut. To learn more about the life, history and mission of PNAC, Omnes spoke with Bishop Powers.

Could you share with us a brief biography and your priestly ministry so far?

- I grew up in Newtown, Connecticut. We are five siblings. Three girls and two boys. My dad is going to be 90 years old and my mom is 88 years old. My family always attended Mass because faith was and is very important to us. I attended Catholic schools in elementary and high school and then studied economics at the University of Notre Dame.

Later, I worked for three years as a financial consultant and even went on to work in New York. At that time I felt that God was calling me to something different, probably the priesthood. So before I made the decision to go to the seminary I went to Puerto Rico to work with the poor, get away from the business world and dedicate myself to thinking and praying about what God wanted me to do. When I returned I entered our diocesan seminary in 1992. A year later I was sent to the North American College.

I was there for five years. I earned my bachelor's degree from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. I then returned to my diocese for seven years to work as a parochial vicar and as a high school chaplain and spiritual director of our seminary.

In 2005 I was asked to go to Rome to work for the Holy See in what is now the Dicastery for Bishops. I worked there for ten years. During that time I was assisting as associate spiritual director at PNAC. At the end of that period I returned to my diocese in 2015. I was vicar general for all those years and then the last year and a half I was pastor. In 2022 I again received a surprise call asking me to return to Rome for a third time to serve as rector. My priesthood has been a fascinating journey. I have received things and appointments that I never expected. I am grateful for all that God has done for me and grateful to be here as well.

Could you tell us about the three sections of the PNAC: the seminary and the ICTE both in the "Gianicolo" and the Casa Santa Maria in the historic center?

- The easiest way to think of these three sections is to visualize that we have three buildings with three missions. The oldest building is now called Casa Santa Maria. It was founded in 1859 under Blessed Pius IX. We were there from 1859 until 1953. That building is now the House where the priests who are doing graduate studies live.

The current building, the PNAC headquarters, was established in October 1953, 70 years ago. It is a majestic and beautiful building. It is located on the Gianicolo hill. The third building, also on the Gianicolo campus, is the Institute of Continuing Theological Education (ICTE), dedicated to house priests who are on sabbatical after 10 or 15 years of ordination.

They come here during this period to dedicate themselves to prayer, study and travel. They receive excellent classes and their stay here renews their energies to continue their priesthood and leave here happy to return to their ministry. Both seminarians and priests come from the USA, but we also have some from Australia. There is currently one Australian in the seminary and two priests at St. Mary's House. In the past we have had Canadians. We are proud of those three programs. We have very good seminarians and priests who want to be holy, joyful and good.

Where do seminarians go to study the first or second cycle of theology?

- The period of formation of seminarians in Rome at this stage is four years. Some stay another year to complete five. Unlike most seminaries in the USA, which have classes in the seminary itself, our students have theology classes off-site.

The first cycle is studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University (of the Jesuits), the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas ("Angelicum", of the Dominican friars) and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (of the Prelature of the Holy Cross). Opus Dei). Then, if they stay for the second cycle to get their license or start it, they can go to other Catholic universities in Rome. They study hard and work very hard. Monday through Friday, after morning prayer, we have Mass and breakfast. Then the seminarians go to their universities either walking, by bicycle or by bus. They come back for lunch and then continue with their study, apostolate and formation activities. They are always busy.

What is the formation program for seminarians at PNAC like and what is it based on?

- John Paul II identified in "Pastores Dabo Vobis" four dimensions of seminary formation: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. I call Rome "the fifth dimension" for several reasons: students walk the streets where the saints passed through; they can go to pray at the tombs of the apostles and other saints; they can travel and learn from other parts of Italy or Europe.

In addition, we live right next door to the Holy Father, the successor of St. Peter and next to the tomb of St. Peter. Living here, students are steeped in the rich history and tradition of the Church. They are formed in these five dimensions and then take all of that back home to their dioceses to share with their people, their parishioners. 

Part of seminary formation is service. What apostolates do PNAC seminarians carry out in Rome? 

- I am very proud of our apostolic formation, because our seminarians - from the second semester of their first year to their fifth year - carry out apostolic works in the city and outside the city.

We have 22 apostolates in which we are involved. Some of them are: service to the sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta; the apostolate focused on the poor in the streets; the apostolate with American students living in Rome; guided tours in the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul. We also have a ministry in a parish and we also go to U.S. naval and air force bases in Italy.

These apostolates constitute a diversity of experiences. We have to consider that some of the students have to do their service in Italian or Spanish, which is very good because they have to adapt to going to an unfamiliar place or environment, situations that any priest has to do at some point in his ministry. These are very good and sometimes challenging experiences.

There are many traditions in the life of PNAC, for example, the rector's gala dinner or the so-called "Station Churches" (Lenten Stations in Rome), which bring the seminary community and the English-speaking people of Rome together daily during this period in one of the historic churches to celebrate Mass and venerate the relics of the martyrs or saints. 

- The "Lenten Seasons" is truly a phenomenal experience. Its history dates back to the fourth century when, during the LentThe bishop of Rome gathered with the people in different churches of the city to celebrate Mass and venerate the relics of the martyrs. Hence the name "station", "statio" in Latin. This tradition ended in 1309 when the Pope moved to Avignon. Centuries later Pope Leo XIII took it up again; however, when it really acquired its full force was with Pope St. John XXIII.

The Americans at the North American College took up and revived the tradition in 1975 and invited everyone, especially the English-speaking community in Rome. What we do on those dates is that from Ash Wednesday until Holy Week, Monday through Saturday, our boys attend daily Lenten stations. They get up very early in the morning - since Mass starts at 7:00 a.m. - and walk from the "Gianicolo" to the church of the station of the day. We priests take turns to celebrate the Masses.

Many English speakers participate, including university students or American pilgrims. Some of them come to Rome and stay for the entire period of Lent exclusively to live this wonderful tradition. I think this reminds us that we are on pilgrimage, making sacrifices together and celebrating the Eucharist as one people of God.

Another event, of great relevance to our College, is the "Rector's Dinner", which this year will be 30 years old and will be held on April 11. It gives us the opportunity to thank our benefactors, friends of the college and the university, for their generosity and constant support, material and spiritual, to the seminarians.

The feast of the Immaculate Conception, patroness of the Seminary, is another very special time for the entire PNAC community, since Our Lady is the one who protects us and intercedes for us. We also have internal traditions among the students themselves, for example, the annual soccer game called "Spaghetti Bowl" or the Thanksgiving Day race. 

What are the main achievements of PNAC over the last ten years?

- Looking back, I have lived here for 15 years of my life: as a seminarian, then as associate spiritual director and now as rector. I have seen that the college has always had an excellent formation program, which gets better as the Church teaches us on that topic. For example, in the 1990s when I was a seminarian, the reference was "Pastores Dabo Vobis" and its implementation, but then in 2016 it also included the "Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis," the new priestly formation program that we are taking as our guide.

From an infrastructural point of view, the building of the "Gianicolo" has had many renovations and expansions. In 2015, a new tower was built which now has an adoration chapel, liturgy practice chapels so students can practice how to celebrate Mass, how to hear confession, etc. It also has classrooms, since we didn't have much space before.

In spite of this, the boys live very simply: their individual rooms are not air-conditioned, they do not have their own bathrooms. We have air conditioning only in some common areas, so that the boys can do in those places what they do best: pray and study. In that sense, our chapel and library are air conditioned for the hot months. Now, as rector, we also have plans for the future that we hope to realize in the next two years. 

What would you say to a young man or woman who is in the process of discerning whether God is calling him or her to the priesthood, religious or consecrated life? 

- I would advise them to open themselves and keep their hearts open, because God knows what he created each person for and what their purpose is. Some are called to the priesthood and consecrated life. If we keep our hearts open and are willing, we will listen to the Lord. Trust in Him. He will always guide you to where He wants you to be and will not lead you astray.

 It is also necessary to mention to the young people that there are other options to follow the Lord for example as a consecrated person, teacher, policeman, doctor, lawyer, etc. In my case, I tried to leave my heart open to God and let him surprise me. And He certainly did. The important thing is to keep our hearts open to God.

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