New Yorkers in Rome Eager to Serve Their Home Parishes


New York Seminarians gathering for a meal after the election of Francis I at the North American Pontifical College. Matthew Vann / Religio.

ROME – Shortly after the election of Pope Francis in mid-March, three seminarians stood behind their chairs waiting for lunch to begin  at the North American College in Rome. They were joined by other seminarians rushing into the dining hall with stuffed black briefcases returning from morning classes at universities across the city. These men, however, were just a bit louder than the rest of their seminary colleagues—they’re New Yorkers.

Before taking their seats, the seminarians heard the day’s news from Msgr. James Checchio, the seminary’s rector, who told them that they’d receive front row tickets to the inauguration mass of the new pope. He then led the packed hall of seminarians in prayer. They bowed their heads, made the sign of the cross and said together: “Bless us oh lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ, our lord. Amen.”

Over lunch, the New York seminarians—Nicholas Colalella, Andrew Garnett and Matthew Prochilo—all of whom are in their 20’s, reflected on the circumstances that brought them to the seminary. Colalella is from the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, while Garnett and Prochilo are from the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island

Colalella, 22, of Middle Village, Queens said that he was inspired to become a priest by the example of former Pope Benedict.

He was sad, he said, to see the former pontiff step down.

“Pope Benedict’s style is something that I connected with,” Colalella said.

“He was like a personal hero. And I was almost formed by him indirectly.”

The three New Yorkers, like their colleagues from around the U.S. who come here to study, said that they are enjoying their time in Rome, but are eager to complete their studies and begin to serve their home dioceses as priests. Moved by what they consider to be a moral decline in the United States, American seminarians in Rome hope to energize Catholics in their dioceses to live out their faith.

A generation ago, the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which comprises Nassau and Suffolk counties in Long Island, the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of New York, each had its own seminary to train men for the priesthood. With the sharp decline in the number of men seeking ordination, the three seminaries were merged into the one, which is known as St. Joseph’s Seminary, located in the Westchester County area of Dundwoodie.

There were more than 8,000 men ordained to the priesthood each year in the late 1960s, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.  Now, there are 3,723 seminarians studying to become priests in dioceses across the United States. Only a handful of them study in Rome.

Colalella, along with all the other 252 seminarians at the North American College, are handpicked by the bishop of their dioceses to study in Rome.

“Typically the men chosen to study at the North American College have a strong academic record,” said Lisa Amore, an administrative assistant at the vocations office of the Diocese of Brooklyn. “They are willing to learn Italian, and are able to be away from home for their first two years of study.”

Though many make it into the North American College by virtue of their academic ability and the strength of their vocational discernment—the desire to become a priest—some American bishops also opt to send seminarians to Rome because they simply have no other choice. As many American bishops struggle to maintain their seminaries because of low enrollment, they are faced with the tough decision of sending their aspiring priests to U.S. seminaries outside of their dioceses and, in some cases, overseas.

But many seminarians find that being miles away from their parishes, which are already in need of all the help they can get, to be an even greater sacrifice.

“It was a difficulty having to move from New York to Rome,” Colalella said.  “Being away from family and not having contact with people back home. But all these sacrifices in the end you understand as a gift.”

Garnett, 29, is from the Diocese of Rockville Centre said that he first felt the call to priesthood when he was in high school.

There was one priest there in particular, Garnett said, who inspired him. The priest, he explained, “ set the example of what every priest should aim for. Someone who cares deeply.”

Vocations to the priesthood in the Catholic Church have fallen since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which initiated a series of modern doctrines and practices.  And the clerical sex abuse crisis that rocked the church in the United States has made recruiting young capable men to the priesthood even more difficult.

But for the first time in many years, the North American College founded by Pope Pius IX in 1859, is at maximum capacity. The seminarians there know the hostility with which the priesthood is viewed, especially given the abuse scandal cover-up by many in the church hierarchy. Despite that, there is a sense of duty and desire to push on.

“Western culture is not receptive to the idea of becoming a priest,” said Prochilo a graduate of Fordham University in the Bronx. “The task is daunting.”

As a seminarian at the North American College, Prochilo had the opportunity to serve as a commentator for radio stations broadcasting in the U.S. on the papal conclave that elected Pope Francis.

Raised Catholic, Prochilo, 24, knew early on that the life as a parish priest is what he wanted for himself. He recently left the Jesuit order to become a priest serving solely in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.  Prochilo says that diocesean priests have more of an opportunity to devote themselves fully to the church since they live a life of complete service on the local level.

“I see myself more free than most of my peers,” he said. “No one’s expecting us to come home at the end of the day.”


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