North American college seminarians, priest share excitement from Rome during papal transition

As the American Church waits in anticipation for the start of the papal conclave to elect a new pope, several St. Louis priests and seminarians studying and working in Rome are soaking in the excitement and activity surrounding this time of transition for the universal Church.

First-year priest Father Don Anstoetter, transitional Deacons Charles Samson and Chris Seiler, and seminarian Zach Povis are currently studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. St. Louis archdiocesan priest Father Don Henke also serves on the faculty at the college.

They're not the only ones from St. Louis who are living in Rome, though. Father Aaron Nord and Father John O'Brien are studying at the Casa Santa Maria, Father Michael Houser is serving as secretary to Cardinal Raymond Burke, and Father Philip Bene is working at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Priests and seminarians at the North American College have been busy hosting the American cardinals, and their staff members, since they arrived in Rome late last month. Cardinals have been meeting at the Vatican for the past week, to discuss Church matters in preparation for the conclave. As of Review press time March 6, a start date for the conclave had not yet been set.

American cardinals will be staying at the college until the start of the conclave, said Deacon Samson. They have been conducting private meetings in the college's Red Room, where the college faculty normally has its meals. Seminarians also have been helping the staff of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in arranging media interviews, he added.

The Benedict generation

While many young Catholics have referred to themselves as being part of the "John Paul II" generation, Deacon Samson, who is expected to be ordained a priest this May, considers himself and those in his ordination class a part of the "Benedict XVI generation." The seminarian's home parish is St. Clement of Rome in Des Peres.

Throughout their priestly formation "he's been our father and model," Deacon Samson said in an email interview. "I hope to spend my days as a priest imitating his courageous witness and sacrifice, his meekness, his wisdom and his devotion to Our Lady." Pope Emeritus Benedict also has taught his generation how to pray the liturgy with devotion, a deep respect for tradition and to see with the eyes of faith the face of Christ within the Scriptures.

Above all, the pope emeritus has modeled within members of his generation an understanding of how to "sacrifice our will and desires for the good and will of the Church," he said.

Deacon Samson said his hope for the future of the Church is that all Catholics — laity, religious and clergy alike — will continue to carry on Pope Emeritus Benedict's legacy, which has largely been marked by his gentle, yet firm, insistence on developing a personal relationship with Christ.

"The heart of his first address to the world as pope was the same as his last address to the world as pope: It is beautiful to encounter Christ — in personal and communal prayer, in charity and in good works, and especially in the liturgy and in the Sacred Scriptures," said Deacon Samson. "This is the goal of our Catholic faith: to meet the God who came down to meet us, be with us, and by incorporating us into His Mystical Body, the Church, to redeem us."

An incredible task ahead

Father Donald Anstoetter was a brand new seminarian the last time he witnessed a papal conclave in 2005. The priest, who was ordained for the archdiocese in 2012, never thought he would be in Rome for the next conclave. Father Anstoetter has been living in Rome since 2008, where he has been studying theology — his master's thesis is on the theology of Benedict XVI — at the North American College.

The images of Blessed John Paul II's death eight years ago are still etched in the young priest's memory: "the swarms of pilgrims flocking to Rome for the funeral Mass, the pictures of John Paul II lying in state in St. Peter's Basilica, his simple wooden coffin, and the wind-blown Book of the Gospels lying atop that casket."

Equally, the subsequent conclave was awe-inspiring, he said. "The secrecy and security, the pageantry and tradition, and the anticipation of that white smoke," which signals the election of a new pope.

Father Anstoetter said that as he sees the American cardinals walking through the halls of the college "I am reminded of the incredible task that has been entrusted to them. More importantly, I am reminded to pray for these humble servants of the Church.

"My own perspective has changed a lot in the last eight years," said Father Anstoetter. "I'm so grateful to God for the opportunity to spend these historic days in the Eternal City. I am confident that the Church is in good hands and that the Holy Spirit knows what He is doing."

Exciting days for the Church

Last week as he was sitting in his room at the North American College, Deacon Chris Seiler heard several people talking outside of his window. It was Cardinal Timothy Dolan, doing an interview with CNN. That's been typical of the activity at the college in the past week, he said.

Last weekend, nine cardinals participated in a Mass instituting 62 acolytes at the college. Afterward, Deacon Seiler talked to Cardinal Justin Rigali, who asked about how things were going in St. Louis. "He was interested in (Kenrick-Glennon) seminary. He just asked me to keep praying for (the cardinals) as they prepare for the great task ahead of them." This week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan was expected to celebrate a Mass for the college community.

Deacon Seiler, whose home parish is Holy Spirit in Maryland Heights, said while he is sad to see Pope Emeritus Benedict step down, "it will be great to have a new pope who will do what every pope does — teach us the truth and lead us to Jesus Christ."

There are certainly great challenges facing the Church in this early part of the 21st century," he said, "but in challenging times God provides many graces to live up to the challenges." 

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