Eat, Pray, Study: a student’s life in RomeMar 8th, 2011 | By Sacred Heart | Category: Feature Stories
Three years ago, Fr. Francis Vu Tran, SCJ, left St. Martin of Tours parish in Franklin, Wis., for studies in Rome.
Most of his first year was spent in language studies in preparation for graduate work in biblical theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
First there was Italian, the language of the country in which he now lives. He needed Italian not only to make daily life easier, but also to understand his courses. All of his classes at the Gregorian are taught in the language.
But after a year in Rome, Italian became a comfortable language for Fr. Francis. Joining native Romans at a café he easily yells over the lunch-time crowd clamoring for the barista’s attention. “Due caffè per favore!”
With Italian added to his other two languages of Vietnamese and English, Fr. Francis moved on to Hebrew and Greek. The ancient languages are prerequisites for entrance into the biblical theology program.
It was the first time that Fr. Francis’ new language skills were really put to the test. The Greek and Hebrew classes are taught in Italian. It is one thing to order a couple of coffees in a new language, but to use it for academic study? It was a challenge, but one that Fr. Francis had gone through before. When he was 13 he immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. Soon after his arrival he was using his newly learned English to study alongside his American classmates.
“But Greek and Hebrew are a lot different than English or Italian,” said Fr. Francis as he reviewed study notes for his winter exams. The line “It’s Greek to me,” isn’t much of a joke for Fr. Francis.
“I have to pass these classes because they are the base for the rest of my studies. If I don’t pass these, I cannot go on. “
Meaning, he really couldn’t even begin his graduate program in biblical studies if he didn’t pass Greek and Hebrew.
But in February, pass he did, and with flying colors.
Forty percent of his classmates did not pass their exams. For some, advanced studies were halted before they even got under way.
A student’s life
So what is a student’s life like in Rome?
Fr. Francis is a member of the International College. Housed in the same building as the SCJs’ general curia (central government), the International College includes SCJ students from around the world, generally those who have already completed initial theology and seminary education. Most, but not all, are ordained. These are SCJs who are often preparing for teaching, formation or administrative assignments in their home countries. They include SCJs from Africa, Asia, North America, South America and Europe.
“I asked to do my studies in Rome for several reasons but one of the most important is that I want to get a better sense of what it means to belong to an international congregation, to get to know who the Priests of the Sacred Heart are,” he said.
Living in a multi-ethnic community has been a good experience, but sometimes “you miss home, you miss being with other Americans,” he said. Periodically Fr. Francis gets a care package with some of his favorite foods –– a mix from both his Vietnamese culture and his adopted American home: Asian noodles to replace Italian pasta now and then, along with flavored creamer, something that isn’t a staple in the coffee bars of Rome.
“You miss the little things,” he laughed as he poured a creamer into his cup.
A typical day for a student at the International College begins with Mass at 6:30 a.m. That might seem brutally early, but for some it just barely allows enough time for a quick breakfast before catching a bus to school.
The pontifical universities are generally a 15 to 30-minute bus ride from the International College, which is located just over a mile from the Vatican. As Fr. Francis walks to the city bus stop on Via Gregorio VII and Via Leone XIII he pulls out his phone to check the bus schedule. “The 64 will be here in two minutes,” he says.
Fr. Francis may be attending a school that dates back to the 1500s, but the students of the Gregorian have certainly adapted to modern times.
“There’s an app for that,” easily fits into a student’s life in Rome. Even apps for the missal and breviary are available. It’s not unusual to see students in a chapel in Rome following the prayers of the day on their phone instead of a book.
Much of a student’s day is spent in class or in study. Some have pastoral obligations, celebrating Mass at a nearby convent or parish. The community’s Sunday liturgy is on Saturday night to allow students to do weekend ministry at parishes.
At 6:50 p.m. (or 18:50 in the preferred 24-hour time of Italy), the college community gathers with the curia in the chapel for evening prayers and Adoration. Members of the community take turns leading the prayers and organizing liturgies.
And then it is on to “cena,” the evening meal at 7:30 p.m. Students here take turns as well, being servers in the dining room where platters of pasta and meats are distributed “family-style” to tables of 10 – 12. The main meal is the 1 p.m. pranzo.
An important part of the shared meals is an important part of the international education experience –– spending time with members of the Priests of the Sacred Heart from around the world. In the years ahead many of these SCJ students will serve on international committees or in the administration of their provinces, regions and districts. Some may even find themselves back in Rome, working in general administration.
“It is important to make connections with other members of the congregation,” said Fr. Francis. “If we end up working together in the years ahead we will already have a connection. We will have a face that goes with an email address or signature. We will have a sense of the congregation beyond our own provinces.”
After passing his initial Hebrew and Greek classes, Fr. Francis moved on to courses in biblical studies.
“I have to read Hebrew in the class on Exodus,” he said. “Greek in Corinthians class, Greek in the Resurrection story of the four Gospels and Hebrew in critical text. The languages are still hard, but it’s getting better. I am so happy that I am finally learning something other than languages!”
Fr. Francis is expected to complete his work toward a licentiate this summer. After that, it is back to language studies again — this time German in preparation for work toward a doctorate.
He chose biblical theology because it is something that he could teach on the seminary level.
“I want to help to maintain the SCJs’ presence at Sacred Heart School of Theology,” he said. “I am not pursuing this just so that I can teach at Sacred Heart, but it will be an option if the province needs me there.”
“But I am open to wherever the province needs me,” he added. “I am just happy for this opportunity.”