10 Reasons to Enroll in a Roman Pontifical University

Eamonn Clark

Almost 2 years ago, I decided to leave the United States and move to Rome to study. There were, and probably still are, people who thought I was crazy for doing so. I can understand the sentiment, but it was an excellent decision. In this post, I want to demystify the “Roman Schools” a bit and give 10 reasons why taking the leap is totally worth it for anyone who wants a good theological or philosophical education.

First, a distinction. The universities are not colleges, and the colleges are not universities. If your seminarian friend goes to the North American College, that does not tell you what university he attends – it could be one of a dozen or so. A college is where a student (especially a seminarian) lives and would usually receive mostly non-academic formation, like help with personal growth or practicums on how to celebrate the sacraments. Some students live in religious houses (convents, monasteries, etc.) or in their own apartments and are therefore not at any college whatsoever.

There are many kinds of degrees that can be earned at the universities, though the three which are most pursued here are the theology degrees: the S.T.B., the S.T.L., and the S.T.D. Respectively, they are the Roman versions of a Bachelor’s, a Master’s (“Licentiate”), and a Doctorate. To study for the S.T.L., one must have the S.T.B. – a normal Bachelor’s in theology will not cut it, though some courses might be accepted for credit. The S.T.D. requires the S.T.L. The S.T.B. requires having a sufficient background in philosophy, although this can sometimes be made up for while studying for it.

A Pontifical University is a school which is accredited by the Holy See, and the degrees conferred (especially the S.T.L.) give one a heightened professional freedom within the Church. There are many such universities around the world, but here are 10 reasons why any prospective pontifical student should consider moving to Rome to go to school.

  1. It is cheap as dirt. I first approached a former professor who had done studies in Rome to ask about some of the basic things. One of them was money – it must be pretty expensive to go to some of the most storied schools in Church history, right? Wrong. Plan to spend about $2,000 on tuition… Not per class, not per semester, per year. There are not many extra fees thrown in either, and the ones that are added are reasonable and also relatively low. For example, a final comprehensive degree examination might cost 250 euro, a pre-requisite Latin class might cost 300 euro, etc. (Fun fact: when Fr. Karol Wojtyla finished his doctorate at the Angelicum, his diocese was so poor it couldn’t pay for the degree, so he technically did not receive it. When he became John Paul II, he made a visit to the university. Unsurprisingly, his degree was finally conferred!) Cost of living is the only hurdle, as it is impractical (and illegal) for most students to work a full-time job. However, part-time work is possible, and there are scholarships available. Private fundraising is possible as well, which is how I obtained most of my funding. Parishes and individuals are very generous with students coming here.
  2. You will get admitted. This was another concern I brought to my professor. I’ll never forget his response when I asked what was required for admission: “A pulse.” As long as you can gather the paperwork and pay tuition, you’ll be good to go. Every university has open seats which they are looking to fill, and they will gladly take your money and let you sit in class. It doesn’t matter how many intellectual giants, saints, and popes went to the Gregorian – you do not have to be any of these to get in. Low admissions standards may be the reality at some other pontifical universities, but given the tuition rate, it is especially true in Rome.
  3. You will pass. The entry-level degree programs (like the S.T.B.) are designed to be easy enough that the vast majority of students can pass. The difficulty might vary somewhat from university to university and from professor to professor, but in general, it is quite hard to fail a class in the entry-level degree programs. (To go on to the next degree level, you do need to get a good G.P.A.) Attendance policies are also quite lenient.
  4. There is real, meaningful diversity in the student population. At the larger universities, there will be students from around a hundred different countries or more. The networking alone is worth the price of tuition.
  5. You will learn Italian. Yes, most universities are taught exclusively in Italian, (with the notable exception of the Angelicum, which also teaches in English,) but most other students are in the same boat. There are ways to learn course material without knowing any Italian, such as note-taking systems, but with a little effort, immersion in the language will slowly render the fruit of fluency. Being able to add that to a resumé is a definite bonus.
  6. There are some of the world’s best professors here. Nowhere else is there such a concentration of competent Catholic intellectuals. And many of the big names who aren’t teaching here often visit to give talks at conferences.
  7. It’s Rome. Enough said…
  8. It’s Europe. If you want to go to France for the weekend, you can. If you want to take your spring break to go backpacking in Germany, no big deal. Etc. Everything is right next door.
  9. There are some extremely specialized programs, too. On top of your standard degrees, there are entire schools dedicated to Christian archaeology, oriental Christianity, scripture studies, patristics, and so on. (NB: Some of these might be pontifical institutes rather than full universities.)
  10. The degrees carry global respect. “You went to Santa Croce? Wow, you must know your stuff,” etc. It is a big advantage to go to a school which is known around the world for its high quality education.

It can be very intimidating to move to another country.  Family and friends from home will probably be very far away. And it is certainly difficult – sometimes maddeningly so – to deal with Italian bureaucracy. But there are so many people here who feel just as lost… Family and friends from home will want to visit… And as for the bureaucracy, well, you just have to suck it up!

I welcome any questions in the combox or through the contact tab.

Ci vediamo…

Some art in the Roman Forum!

I was in the Roman Forum the other day to see Santa Maria Antiqua… It is the oldest church in the Forum, connects to the Imperial Palace, was the one-time seat of the Bishop of Rome, and it has some killer frescoes. Due to ongoing renovations and excavations, it is rarely open – this year it allowed visitors in for a few months, and the last time it did so was 1980. Sadly, as of tomorrow (Sunday, 10/30/16) it will be closed for who knows how long (the figure I heard was 20 years). Since you missed your shot, let me provide it for you!

First things first… Behold, the first basilica in the world!

It has a sunroof.

No, it is not the brick building. That’s the old Roman curia – before it was a Church thing, it was a Roman thing. You are looking through the basilica, which is a ruin. You can see the pillars sticking up out of the ground. Once again, before it was a Church thing, it was a Roman thing. We baptized both ideas, and they stuck around.

Another first… Behold, the first real CCD classroom on planet Earth!

The church itself is to the right, and leads up towards the Imperial Palace and observation platform. Hold that thought.

Before there was coffee and donuts at RCIA, there was the Oratory of the 40 Martyrs. If you teach Sunday school, here you can go back to your roots. Let’s take a look inside, shall we? (Click to enlarge the photos.)

The Byzantine influence is almost as clear as the weathering. But all throughout the site there are slightly different styles, reflecting the fact that there were many different patrons and artists at work over the ages. Like the rest of the Forum, there are layers, and analyzing this site is made especially difficult by the unique character these frescoes have among contemporary Roman works.

Here’s the exterior of the church:

Santa Maria Antiqua is called “Antiqua” for a reason… She’s been around since the 5th Century! After Constantine, the Forum became more than just a safe place for Christians, it became an opportune place for worship.

Into the church we go!


The hanging picture is called an “iconostasis.” Notice the use of arches, with the apse in the back (surrounding the iconostasis). Many of the frescoes are in rough shape, but we will look at some of the better preserved ones.

The left side of the nave.

Yes, even the pillars were decorated. See the one on the right there? This place was like stepping into an ecclesiastical coloring book. Every inch was covered, it seems.

Close-up of the wall.

Here is an image of some the frescoes in one of two “corner chapels,” on the right side of the nave near the back… It is called the “Chapel of Physicians” (or the “Chapel of the Medical Saints”), where there would be constant intercession for the sick, whether the infirm were present or not. (The other is the “Chapel of St. Theodotus” on the left.) Apparently St. Francis visited this place, by the way, when he was in Rome.

The saints pray along too! They cover all four sides.

The apse has the earliest Roman image of Mary as a Queen, and the image of the Cross (in the Chapel of St. Theodotus) is notable as well…

Pope John VII was totally enamored with Santa Maria Antiqua. Not only did he commission a ton of work on the church, he also moved there, way back at the start of the 8th Century before there was an Associated Press to misunderstand why he might do such a thing. However, only about a hundred years later, an earthquake would cover much of the church, leaving it dormant for 1,000 years or so. (The Chapel of the Medical Saints apparently remained accessible, and somehow people forgot there was a church attached!)

Another view. This looks over where the ambo would have been toward the main altar.

Here there was a main altar and a “holy table” further back near the apse where the gifts would have been prepared.

From the holy table toward the main altar.

To make sure that everyone understood that Christianity was not ditching its Jewish roots, there was significant emphasis on the Old Testament. Here is a sarcophagus with stories of Jonah and some more frescoes of OT events:

It was lunch time in Rome, which beckoned, but in the end the platform won out. The long climb was definitely worth it. Panning left to right:

There’s just too much to point out. Sorry. But do notice that the corner of the church is on the top left. The rest of the view is mainly out towards the Quirinal Hill and Capitoline Hill (the Forum is on the Palatine).

Considering that you will probably never actually be inside this amazing church… you’re welcome for the quick glimpse inside!

Post by: Eamonn Clark