ROME — Joe Delka and Christopher Gray live at the Pontifical North American College, within sight of the Vatican. They study under some of the best theologians in the Catholic Church and sit in the classroom with men from all around the world.
When the two seminarians complete their studies and are ordained priests for the Diocese of Salt Lake City, they will bring with them a "rich sense of the continuity of the Church, which can be lost in a mission diocese like Salt Lake," said Bishop John C. Wester, who met several times with Delka and Gray while he was in Rome with other bishops from California, Hawaii and Nevada for their ad limina visit.
During the visit, Delka served as lector for the Masses the bishops celebrated at the Pontifical North American College and at the Altar of the Tomb at Saint Peter’s Basilica. Gray was cantor at the Mass at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran.
Gray, who has been in Rome for three years, is finishing a baccalaureate degree in sacred theology and will be ordained a transitional deacon in October. He plans to remain in Rome to earn an advanced degree in Christology, but "My hope and dream for the future is to go back to Salt Lake City and ... experience the parish life with the people on the road together toward God," he said.
His time in Rome will help with that goal because the truth that Christ offers love and the possibility of union with him is palpable in the Eternal City, Gray said. "It is very, very present in a very full and rich kind of way, but what I hope to bring back is the same thing that any priest wants to bring back, which is a love for Christ."
Each seminarian serves a role at the college. Gray is the house organist. During the April 19 Rector’s Dinner he arranged the entertainment, which included numbers by a seminarian who trained at the Eastman School of Music, another who was a tenor with the Amalfi Coast Opera Company and a third who, at the age of 17, had his own tap dance school in New York City before becoming a seminarian.
A typical day at the Pontifical North American College starts with morning prayer at 6:15. Classes, which are at different institutions throughout Rome, begin at 8:30 a.m. They attend daily Mass; vespers is at 6:45 p.m. Seminarians also serve an apostolate: Gray is involved with campus ministry for students of Saint John’s College and Delka is in hospital ministry.
Much of their free time is spent hitting the books.
"Studying is something one can never do enough of; the fountain from which we drink is a gushing torrent," Gray said.
Delka, who is in his first year of the sacred theology baccalaureate program, said his first nine months in Rome were "a wild ride." Not only is this is first time out of the United States, but he had to learn Italian because the classes are all taught in that language.
Like Gray, Delka feels the Church’s presence in Rome. "The saints are more apparent here," he said, explaining that this past Lent he participated in the Stations of the Cross at a different church every day and now has seen many saints’ relics.
"These aren’t just stories; this actually happened," he said. "These were real people who lived their faith. They lived out their call, whatever that was.... They came from every walk of life."
Both men also said their time in Rome has allowed them to experience the breadth and depth of the Catholic Church.
"Being here in Rome has given me an experience of the universal Church that I do not think I could have had back in the United States, simply because everyone from everywhere is here," said Delka, adding that he has classmates from Africa, "where the Church is growing rapidly," and has made good friends with Irish seminarians, "who have chosen the priesthood even in the midst of the crisis in the Irish Church and yet are still willing to embrace this call and ... do their best to follow the call and bring the Gospel to the Irish people."
Rome is a good place for the seminarians to be nourished in the Catholic faith, as well as in prayer, theology and the lived expression of the faith, Bishop Wester said. "I think when they come to Utah … these men will be good resources for us."