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from issue no. 11 - 2008

The hundred and fiftieth aniversary of the foundation of the Pius Latin American College

The “Continent of hope” in the Eternal City


One of the signs of the Popes’ predilection for the Church in Latin America (defined by Paul VI as the “Continent of Hope”) is the Pontifical Pius Latin American College, created a hundred and fifty years ago by Pius IX and always entrusted to the Jesuits. Here generations of priests and bishops have lived and trained. We trace its history


by Pina Baglioni


Students of the Pius Latin American College with the portrait of their founder, the oldest photo in the archives

Students of the Pius Latin American College with the portrait of their founder, the oldest photo in the archives

“San Pedro y el Vaticano desde la azotea del Colegio (en G. Belli 3)” says the legend on the old black and white photo. Who knows, perhaps it dates from the ’thirties. And it is obviously a sunny day: six seminarians with breviary in hand stroll along the college terrace in Via Gioachino Belli, in the Prati district of Rome. A seventh is staring at the dome of Saint Peter’s rising in the background.
The Jesuit Father José Adolfo Gonzalez Prados, a Colombian, rector of the Pius Latin American Pontifical College for the last four years, with some reluctance pulls out the precious collection of old photos from a metal cabinet. He shows us more shots with the faces of the seminarians who have succeeded one another over the decades. Those from the early ’seventies, almost all with long hair, jeans and sneakers, make a certain impression. “In 1973 I was at the Pius Latin as vice-rector”, says Father González: “Already then we had more priests than seminarians. I remember that at that time they didn’t want to know about cassocks, they loved dressing like most of their contemporaries. Unlike those, let’s say “tumultuous”, years the priests of the College now don’t hide who they are and wear the collar willingly”, he says, meanwhile indicating which of the students in the old photos has become bishop, cardinal, eminent theologian. And who, instead, back home, suffered death to bear witness to the Gospel. “We have had and continue to have martyrs, for example, the Colombian Isaiah Duarte Cancino, Bishop of Cali, assassinated by the narcos. Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, also lived here from 1937 and 1942 while studying theology at the Gregorian University”, he recalls. “A couple of causes of beatification of former students of ours who died in their priestly ministry are going on at the moment”.
The rector is a person of few words. He teaches Spiritual Theology at the Gregorian. “But it isn’t one of the more important courses”, he parries. And to recount the century and a half history of the respected Pius Latin American he hands us some brief notes on a sheet of paper: from 21 November 1858, the date of the foundation, up to October this year, the College has trained 32 future cardinals, 438 future bishops and 3,971 priests or seminarians. “Since 1975 we have had only priests here, preferably under 35 years old. We had seminarians up to 1974. Now in reality we are a house for priests but we continue to call ourselves a college not only for the sake of tradition, but because we hope that one day Providence will send us new seminarians”.
Today seventy priests live in the Pontifical College, which has been sited on the ancient Via Aurelia, behind Vatican City since 1973. They come from Cuba, Santo Domingo, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Venezuela, Peru and especially from Colombia. Nearly all are studying at the Gregorian University for a licentiate or a doctorate mainly in Theology, but also in Philosophy, Canon Law, Church History, Scripture, Missiology and Social Science. When finished and back home again, more than half of them will teach in seminaries in their country of origin, according to the needs of their bishops.
The celebrations for the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of this respected institution will take place in sober fashion in February. “It will be an in-house celebration: four bishops from Latin America will be here and go back over a wonderful story together. The important date is 19 February, when we shall be received by Benedict XVI. We’re so happy about that.”
It’s enough to glance at the walls of the long corridors, the halls and various living rooms of the College to understand who were the first creators of this wonderful story. The portraits, marble busts, inscriptions: everything leads back to the figures of Pope Pius IX and the Chilean priest Ignacio Victor Eyzaguirre, considered co-founders of the Pius Latin American. Wandering round the splendid complex, it is moving to come across the chasuble in which Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti, the future Pius IX, was ordained priest, cut from the train of his mother’s wedding dress. On it is sewn a strip of cloth with the words “Pius IX” in Latin and Arabic. “The Arabic script is a real mystery. No one knows who, when and why it was written”, adds the rector. Right at the entrance there is a photo of a smiling John Paul II during a visit to the College on 17 January 1982 to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the founding.
Along with the constant reminders of Pius IX and Eyzaguirre there is homage to Our Lady. A large statue of Nuestra Señora del Colegio, from the site in the Prati district, with lots of angels flying around, stands in front of the chapel. And then there is the Virgen morenita of Guadalupe, patroness and queen of Latin America. Images of her, done in all the techniques possible and imaginable, are everywhere. Among them there is also one in mosaic in the splendid chapel designed by Catalan priest Father Luigi Palomera, with the altar set in the middle, intended for concelebrations. “It is here that the most awaited event of the week takes place: every Thursday at 7 pm, mass is celebrated together. During the Eucharist the hymns are accompanied by wind instruments from our part of the world. In short, we are a strip of Latin America in the heart of Rome”.

A ’thirties photo showing seminarians reading their breviary as they stroll on the college terrace in Via Gioachino Belli, in the Prati neighborhood of Rome

A ’thirties photo showing seminarians reading their breviary as they stroll on the college terrace in Via Gioachino Belli, in the Prati neighborhood of Rome

Pius IX and Father Eyzaguirre
The idea of sewing a patch of Latin America into the heart of Rome for the training of Latin American clergy is due to the tenacious priest Ignacio Victor Eyzaguirre. “If there were ever a country in the world that needs to forge closer and closer links of union with the center of Catholic unity, it is without any doubt America”, he wrote in January 1856 in a note to Pope Pius IX. “So if the Holy See has protected and promoted in the capital of the Christian world ecclesiastical seminaries for various countries of Europe and Asia, to erect one for Spanish and Portuguese America does not seem less deserving of your pious consideration”.
The Latin American Church was plagued by a serious crisis from the time of Joseph I of Portugal and Charles III of Spain who between 1759 and 1767 drove out of Brazil 328 missionaries of the Society of Jesus and two thousand others from the various Spanish-speaking countries. The violent expulsion of the Jesuits, with its impact on the reducciones of Paraguay and all the work they were doing on the continent, also caused a backlash on the development of vocations that were flourishing in number. Around 1820 then the independence movements in the Spanish colonies threatened the survival of the Church even more. Out of a sense of loyalty to previous regimes, more than one bishop and several priests left the territories dominated by the insurgents, for the most part returning to Spain with their fellow countrymen, while others, including members of the clergy and episcopate, were driven from their homes by the new governments.
Thus in the early decades of the nineteenth century there was what was called the “tragic interregnum” in the governance of dioceses. In 1830, for example no less than 8 of 10 episcopal sees in Mexico were vacant.
By a curious stroke of fate the champion of a plan that was to prove decisive for the history of the Latin American Church met the very first pope who had set foot on that continent. Indeed, in July 1823 the priest Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti, then little more than thirty, had left for Chile and Argentina as part of a papal mission headed by Monsignor Giovanni Muzi. The mission came in response to the desire of the Chilean government which in 1822 had asked the Holy See to recognize the Republic and appoint a papal representative. However, between the time of the invitation and the arrival of the papal legation the government had changed and the new one did not want a papal representative. Mastai Ferretti did not lose heart and used the chance to gather all the information relevant to stimulating greater closeness to the Holy See, as is shown by much evidence and the letters he wrote to the Secretary of State, Cardinal Giulio della Somaglia (G. De Marchi, Lezioni di storia della diplomazia pontificia, pro manuscripto [History lessons in papal diplomacy, from the manuscripts]).
In 1856 when the Chilean Eyzaguirre asked to be received, Pope Pius IX seemed to be expecting nothing else. He welcomed him with open arms and immediately gave him full approval for the establishment of a Latin American College, promising, among other things, every kind of help.

The mass in the College chapel celebrated by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Father Adolfo Nicolás, on the 150th anniversary 
of the foundation, 21 November 2008

The mass in the College chapel celebrated by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Father Adolfo Nicolás, on the 150th anniversary of the foundation, 21 November 2008

The first sites
Eyzaguirre left for Latin America with letters addressed from the Pope to the Latin American bishops asking for seminarians and money to start the project. In January 1858, after trekking far and wide over the continent, Eyzaguirre returned to Rome with 58,700 pesos in his pocket and accompanied by the first students: ten Argentines, six Colombians and a Peruvian, chosen from among the most gifted in seven different dioceses. A little money was used to rent temporary quarters adjoining the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle and the inauguration took place on 21 November of that year in the chapel of the building. During the ceremony those first seventeen students solemnly consecrated themselves to Our Lady. In the meantime the Pope decided to entrust the running of the new institution to the priests of the Society of Jesus so that the training of those young men would be based on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. The best students were sent to the Roman College to study dogmatic and moral theology and philosophy, and were helped by tutors in all subjects. The less educated, who did not know one word of Latin, were sent to a public high school. Just three years later the seminarians moved to quarters with the Benedictines at Santa Maria sopra Minerva. A bad period that one: the seminarians found it difficult to adapt to the iron discipline of the College. So much so that in February 1863 a committee “for the good governance and safeguarding of the College” had to be set up. But more than the committee the initiative of the rector Francisco Vannutelli seems to have been decisive. He created a Marian congregation whereby the students were invited to daily recitation of the rosary and singing of the Ave Maris Stella. The benefits soon made themselves felt: a more intense spiritual life, observance of the rules, sick-visiting in hospitals, proper attention in serving mass and to domestic tasks. But the poor seminarians began to fall ill because of the wretched conditions in those first quarters in the heart of Rome, asphyxiating in summer and lacking heating in winter. Some died of fever, others from tuberculosis. Precisely for that reason, in 1867, they decided to move to Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, near the papal residence, where the air was healthier. The eighteen-hundredth anniversary of the martyrdoms of Saint Peter and Saint Paul also fell that year and among the five hundred bishops from all over the world who flocked to Rome, the Latin Americans brought with them new students for the college, who thus increased to a total of 59 (cf. Luis Medina Ascencio SJ, Historia del Colegio Pío Latino Americano. Roma: 1858-1978, Editorial Jus, 1979, pp. 45-53). But that 1867 is memorable also because the Pope once more showed his affection: besides giving money, paintings, books, he granted that, in his honor, the college be called the “Pius” Latin American College.

The first Latin American Plenary Council
Meanwhile the guests of the college continued to grow in number. In July 1870, in connection with the work of the Vatican Ecumenical Council, the Latin American bishops coming to Rome brought more students with them, so they became 82.
With the end of the temporal power of the popes and with Rome having become the capital of the Kingdom of Italy, it took pressure from the Emperor of Brazil on the Italian government to prevent the expulsion of the students from Sant’Andrea al Quirinale. They were allowed to remain there until they found a new residence, which, with the help of Pius IX first and then Leo XIII, was found and fitted out in 1887 in Via Gioachino Belli, in the Prati district of Rome. And finally the nomadic life of the Pius Latin ended, at least for the next 75 years.
The number of seminarians had meanwhile reached 120 and the prestige of the college had grown to the point that in 1899 it hosted the first Latin American Plenary Council, with the presence of 53 bishops and archbishops from those countries. At that Council, Leo XIII decided to extend an invitation to the Philippines to send their seminarians to the Pio Latino.
One constant feature emerges throughout this story: the deep affection shown not only by Pius IX, but also by all his successors. On 19 March 1905 Pius X openly asked the Latin American bishops “to send to Rome at least one student a year not sparing expense ... Because among the institutions that show the provident care of the Supreme Pontiffs for Latin America the first place is without doubt held by the college founded in Rome by our predecessor Pius IX”. Not only that: it was Pius X who granted the college the title of “Pontifical” with the letter Sedis Apostolicae and entrusted it definitively to the guidance of the Society of Jesus. After him, Benedict XV, Pius XI and Pius XII insisted on the benefits deriving from an ever increasing number of Latin American aspirants to the priesthood coming to Rome to be formed. “The students of the Pius Latin, no less than those of other colleges, find in Rome teachers of virtue and knowledge”, Pope Pacelli stressed, “teachers who, in turn, each in his own branch, have also been the subject of careful selection”. (Discorsi e Radiomessaggi di Sua Santità Pio XII,[Speeches and Radio messages of His Holiness Pope Pius XII], Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, Città del Vaticano 1956, X, p. 456.

Paul VI visiting the College for the inauguration of the Via Aurelia site on 30 November 1963

Paul VI visiting the College for the inauguration of the Via Aurelia site on 30 November 1963

The time of Vatican II
The predilection of the popes for this college was more than justified. Opened in 1858 with 17 students, in the years 1928-29 there were 300 there, too many even for the spacious residence of Via Belli. The decision was therefore taken to “split” off a section, the Brazilians who, because of their language and the will of their bishops, went off on their own account on 3 April 1934 to give birth to the Pontifical Pio Brasiliano College. The destination chosen was that of Villa Maffei, on the Via Aurelia, an open space in the Roman countryside already donated by Pius IX in 1859 to the infant Pius Latin American for holiday weekends for the students. As time passed other sections were to split off, giving rise to new colleges: in 1961 it was the Filipinos and in 1967 the Mexicans.
Meanwhile the Pius Latin went its own way. In 1958, during the celebrations for the hundredth anniversary, described by Pope Pius XII as “visibly blessed by God and fruitful in all kinds of good works”, the college hosted the first congress of rectors of the upper seminaries of the Latin American continent. And in that same year the Latin American Episcopal Conference (ECLAM) had its baptism in 3 Via Belli. The time had come, however, to leave the Prati neighborhood and think of a more spacious abode: the pupils sent each year by the Latin American dioceses were increasing and many applications for admission had had to be rejected. It was decided to erect a new building in the grounds of Villa Maffei, where the Pio Brasiliano had already moved. In December 1960 Pope John XXIII, in the presence of the superiors, students and the entire diplomatic corps of Latin America, went to lay the foundation stone of the future college. It was a stone taken from the Vatican cellars, specifically from an ancient construction adjacent to the tomb of Peter. A fact that was to be remembered by Paul VI on 30 November 1963, during his visit to the college for the inauguration of the residence on the Via Aurelia: “With fine insight this cornerstone was picked... almost as symbol of the deeper foundation on which the college stands: of loyalty, of devotion and of sincere affection for the Apostolic See”, he said. “Be worthy of the solemn time that the whole Church is living through today, the time of the Ecumenical Council: know how to experience its spirit and penetrate its hidden depths. Know how to grasp and retain the Christian essence of Rome eternal and sacred, that you will bear in your souls and spread throughout your lands”.
A period of great euphoria, that of the Council. The wave of optimism also flowed through the new Pius Latin on Via Aurelia, the fifth “stage” on the pilgrimage that the College had gone on since its beginning. The building contained three hundred rooms. There was even a storey for the Jesuit fathers, another for cardinals and bishops visiting Rome, yet another for the nuns. “Shortly afterwards, however, we realized we had been too optimistic”, says Rector Father González today. “The number of seminarians slowly began to decline. We were going through years of great confusion. Just think that to fill that mammoth building we housed the Lombardo College. We realized after some years that it was time to sell the place and find a smaller one, more fitting the reality. So in 1973 the Pius Latin changed address again, establishing its final residence here on the ancient Via Aurelia”. A beautiful place, surrounded by an eighteenth-century park bordering the Don Guanella Institute. Behind the building, a small 1660 villa houses a library holding valuable texts of the Canon Law of past centuries, donated by the Latin American bishops.
“Today our priests finishing their studies here in Rome are ‘fresher’ than those of 1968. Freer from the ideological point of view”, the rector adds. “They know that when they return home they will find poverty, so much poverty. Especially in rural parishes. And in some countries, such as Colombia, guerrilla war and the killing of priests and nuns. But they are learning the answers to all that here in Rome, close to the Pope and the tombs of the early martyrs. They know they will have to respond to all that in the ‘manner of the Church’, witnessing to the Gospel with trust and simplicity. Taking into account that our people, though fascinated by the Protestant sects entering homes and families because of their, shall we say, greater “affectionateness”, still has great trust in the Church, in its great heart, always close to the oppressed”, he adds. “There is something else awaiting them, and it’s the most urgent: the loss of faith. We must again teach the catechism, the ABC of Christianity. That’s what people expect from them. And that they will have to do”.


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