ROME, Italy – History seems to crash into itself in Rome. That impression is particularly strong to Americans accustomed to tidy, insulated historic sites, urban renewal and a past that’s still wet behind the ears.

Here billboards advertise cell phones and merchants hawk everything from artwork to soccer shirts in Piazza Navona, where Bernini’s famed 17th-century fountains keep watch. Graffiti tags the amazingly solid remnants of third-century walls. The honking and screeching of scooters, taxis, buses and thousands of autos cannot still the ever-present chimes calling from the towers of the more than 600 churches and basilicas in the Holy City.

In St. Peter’s Square, where a first-time visitor expects an imposing reverence, a papal audience draws 250,000 pilgrims from all over the world to an atmosphere not unlike a World Series game — except that everybody’s happy with the outcome. As the Holy Father greets groups of visitors in their native languages, cheers and impromptu songs erupt, flags unfurl and signs ("Viva Papa!") flap in the breeze. All that’s missing is The Wave.

Here, what might seem nestled in one era is resurrected for another. Apparently Rome discovered recycling much earlier than the rest of us: It’s said that even the massive marble top of St. Peter’s main altar originally was part of a pagan temple in the Forum of Nerva, looted by an enterprising 14th-century pope. And church and state, which Americans try to keep profoundly separate, are intertwined as tightly as Italy’s famous grapevines. Trying to trace family trees both royal and papal could give a history student a headache. Everything’s fuzzy, related to everything (and everyone) else. What’s clear is a 2,700-year-old adrenaline rush in a city of juxtapositions ancient and contemporary, sacred and profane, intimate and mysterious.

"The truth of Rome is that there are layers and layers of … Christian culture built on pagan culture that is almost impossible for Americans to comprehend in our very short span of attention for history," says Dr. Mary Reichardt, who this year is faculty director of the St. Thomas Catholic Studies Rome Program.

Dr. Don Briel, director of the St. Thomas Center for Catholic Studies, agrees: "There is no better city in Europe or in the world in which you have a sense of the historical sweep … of Christian life … of the levels of its history. … You get a profound sense of the church as a living reality engaging culture, not just in the past, but in the present reality."

Eleven St. Thomas students are experiencing that reality this year, along with faculty member Reichardt, as the first residents of St. Thomas’ new Bernardi Campus in Rome: Nicole Bettini, Beth Bergaas, John Gallas, Emily Jovanovich, Catherine Maas, Amy Morrison, Jason Pagsisihan, Ben Sember, Jona Serie, Matthew Willkom and Nicholas Zinos.

The new campus began a little over a year ago with St. Thomas’ purchase of a 20,000-square-foot, residential estate on the banks of the Tiber River, just a few miles from the Vatican. More than $1 million in renovations converted the early 20th-century residence into a home base for students and faculty in Catholic studies and other academic programs in Italy.

Under the Catholic Studies Rome Program, St. Thomas juniors and seniors who are majoring in Catholic studies spend either a semester or year living in Rome and studying at the Angelicum, the Dominican Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Thomas has a formal affiliation with the Angelicum and is the only U.S. college or university with an affiliation to a pontifical university in Rome.

Holy C’s: Culture, coursework and community living

A few weeks into an experience that’s anything but a Roman holiday, the campus’ inaugural residents — including Reichardt — were immersing themselves in Italian culture, beginning with a three-hour-per-day crash course in the language taught at the Angelicum by Dr. Giovanni Cerretti.

Meanwhile, "We’ve learned to communicate by hand gestures," said Sember, a St. John Vianney Seminary junior from New Holstein, Wis. He proudly showed off his new, albeit sign language-assisted, haircut.

Adjusting to Italian culture can provoke in Americans simultaneous frustration and delight. Seemingly simple tasks, such as using a cash machine, paying for a meal or buying a new suit, challenged the travelers. But they remained undaunted: "In Italy if it doesn’t work the first time, try again. It’s Rome … you don’t know what’s going to happen," said Bettini, a senior.

Traffic lights are deemed "a suggestion" and pedestrian crosswalks in this very busy metropolis are only a little safer than open road. "Don’t make eye contact with drivers when you cross the street," the students chime in unison. That’s the secret for crossing a busy street, even with a green "avanti" light.

Morrison, a senior, had looked forward to the experience of a new culture "completely outside of my comfort zone." That it is. "The only thing in Rome that’s consistent is that it’s inconsistent," she laughed.

Frustrations aside, however, these Catholic studies students already were discovering a new breadth in their education. Reichardt, who has taught English and Catholic studies at St. Thomas in her 12-year tenure, explained that one of the program’s primary goals is a melding of intellect and spirituality that fosters development of the whole person.

For seminarian Willkom, who had been to Rome right after his high school graduation, the experience is an opportunity to ask himself tough questions: "When I see these frescoes of martyrs, I wonder, would I have the strength to do that, to die for my faith? Every time I walk out the door, I’m faced with questions like that."

Jovanovich, a senior, said that when she first saw Pope John Paul II, "Rome became real to me. It struck me that we are this close to Peter, the first pope. … Where would we be today if Peter hadn’t persevered and hadn’t taken on this responsibility? It was like seeing two Peters in one day."

Pagsisihan, a junior, said he "loved the fact that the world is here in Rome — people from every continent. There’s solidarity here, expressed vividly (in St. Peter’s Square). It’s so awesome to see that we’re all one human family."

Cardinal Pio Laghi, who spoke at the Bernardi Campus’ dedication, put it well: "Rome is a wonderful professor. It teaches about the history of our faith and culture. … It challenges the intellect with new opportunities for learning." Laghi is prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Catholic Education and recently was named chair of the St. Thomas School of Law board of governors.

And those opportunities will attract students and faculty from a host of academic programs, noted St. Thomas Executive Vice President Dr. Judith Dwyer. "There are so many opportunities here for students from many disciplines," she said. "Our location in the heart of Rome provides an ideal base for students to experience one of the world’s greatest cities."

"Given that the housing piece is now an easier part of the planning puzzle, course development is a bit easier," added Bernardi Campus Director Marlene Levine, who pointed out that the campus also welcomes visitors and small study groups. "Right now, faculty from sociology, education, finance and entrepreneurship are all developing program ideas for courses here in Rome."

The campus’ first residents last fall kept busy with coursework as well as culture:

In addition to their Italian language course, the students began Church and Culture in Italy, team-taught at the Angelicum by a pair of sisters, Teodora and Margherita Maria Rossi, who hold doctorates in theology. The course examined the impact of Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition on the growth and development of the modern city. The Angelicum’s Rome program director, Sister Helen Alford, O.P., taught another course, Politics and Economics of Europe, which considered the influence of Catholicism on the continent.

Reichardt taught Spiritual Journeys, a Catholic literature course that covered works of inner pilgrimage: Augustine’s Confessions, Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Thérèse of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and others.

Each of the students and Reichardt also noted the rich experience of living in community. While St. Thomas students have studied in Rome in various programs over the past 10 years, they have resided apart from one another. With the addition of the Bernardi Campus, however, learning continues outside the formal classroom. Friendships are nurtured. Living and learning become seamless.

In addition to taking their classes together, students joined one another for meals, sightseeing and shopping trips, weekly Mass and, of course, the three-mile jaunt to the Angelicum for classes each day. (Bettini said she wished she would have "trained" for Roman hills and cobblestones. Getting in shape is an unexpected benefit of spending time in Rome. Because the city’s traffic congestion is infamous, "you can walk anywhere almost as fast as you can drive there," quips Levine.)

Community living, along with the round-the-clock availability of the campus computer lab, also helped to avert homesickness; students tended to gather there each evening to read and write e-mail notes home, check hometown newspapers and even tune in to an occasional Vikings game, thanks to the Internet.

"It’s wonderful having a community where you can live, eat, work, laugh and pray together," said Bettini, who hopes to work as a parish youth minister after graduation. "It’s good to have a common place as we grow in our faith and in our lives."

Added Morrison, "Living in community is absolutely fantastic. I always envied my seminarian friends because I never had that experience before."

A pilgrimage for friends, benefactors and trustees

A community experience also enriched the Rome campus’ dedication celebration in early October for some 60 university trustees, benefactors and friends — including several members of the Bernardi family, whose gift enabled the university to establish the facility.

Real estate entrepreneur Antonio Bernardi was born in Treviso, Italy, in 1921, and immigrated to the United States in 1962. He and his wife, Cecilia, live in Edina, Minn. The Bernardis regularly return to their home country to visit friends and family.

This year, the couple, along with several of their children and grandchildren, joined a seven-day Jubilee Year pilgrimage to Rome arranged by St. Thomas in connection with the dedication festivities.

In addition to dedication events at the campus Oct. 6, the group enjoyed the Oct. 4 papal audience, a "Holy Door" tour of the major Roman basilicas, visits to galleries and museums, and guided tours of historic excavation sites such as the Roman Forum and the Colosseum.

Highlights of the group’s tour included private visits to the Sistine Chapel, the Borghese Gallery and the spectacular Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. The Renaissance palace houses more than 400 paintings dating from the 15th to 18th centuries, including works by Titian, Caravaggio, Lorenzo and Velazquez. Bob MacDonald, managing director of 3M Italy, and his wife, Pam, hosted a special reception and dinner at the palace for the group.

Near the tiny town of Frascati, located a few miles from Villa Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence southeast of Rome, the group experienced exceptional Italian hospitality, food, wine and music at the charming Azienda Agricola L’Oli-vella, a local winery with centuries-old vineyards and olive and persimmon groves.

"The trip was a very special shared experience for all of us," said St. Thomas trustee William Reiling, who enjoyed the dedication celebration and pilgrimage with his wife, Joanne. The Reilings’ gift made possible the preservation and renovation of the campus’ charming, 50-seat chapel, now named the Luisa e Dante Seghieri Cappella (the Luisa and Dante Seghieri Chapel), named in honor of Joanne Reiling’s parents.

"We came here as tourists and as pilgrims, and we’ve come here for a singular event in the life of St. Thomas," said Monsignor Terrence Murphy, St. Thomas chancellor, who accompanied the group along with the Rev. Dennis Dease, St. Thomas president. "This is the only place outside of Minnesota where we have acquired a building and established a permanent presence. We’re in the city of St. Peter, the first pope … so that our students will get a sense of the whole of Christian culture. Our students will go home with an experience they will keep. We hope you have a sense you’ve done something worthwhile."

Patricia Sirek, ’00 M.A., is associate director of the St. Thomas News Service.