The "West Point of the Catholic Church in America" will soon have two new students from the Albany Diocese. Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger has decided to send seminarians Stephen Yusko and Matthew Duclos to study for the priesthood at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy.

The "NAC," as it's informally known, is the alma mater of both Bishop Scharfenberger and Bishop Emeritus Howard J. Hubbard, and the college where Bishop Scharfenberger's close friend from the Brooklyn Diocese, Rev. John Cush, now serves as dean of students. (Father Cush is also one of the writers for The Evangelist's "Word of Faith" Scripture column.)

The NAC has existed since 1859, created by Pope Pius IX specifically to train candidates from the United States for the priesthood. It's overseen by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and, today, educates about 250 future priests at a time from across America and Canada.

It has been 19 years since seminarians from the Albany Diocese were sent to the NAC to study. Bishop Scharfenberger told The Evangelist that an informal conversation with Father Cush during the Bishop's trip to Europe for World Youth Day last summer led him to consider changing that.

The NAC, said the Bishop, has always had "a certain cachet," particularly since many alumni have gone on to become bishops. However, he just spent a week there in March and, in the process, learned that "it's just a good seminary."

Bishop Scharfenberger cited the NAC's academics, pastoral formation and "human formation" as impressive. Regarding the first, students study at the NAC's Pontifical Gregorian University, Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (also known as the Angelicum) or Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

The coursework is demanding -- much of it in Italian. The Bishop noted that, before beginning their studies, English-speaking students take an Italian immersion course and live with a family in Italy so that, by the time they begin, their command of the language is well underway.

Knowing the cultural disconnect that can sometimes occur when students study overseas, Bishop Scharfenberger said he paid special attention to the NAC's pastoral formation program during his visit. He was pleased to learn that students work in prisons, hospitals and parishes in Rome and even do "streetside catechesis" in St. Peter's Square, engaging pilgrims in conversations about faith.

Since students don't tend to come home to the U.S. for a visit for at least the first two years of their education, the Bishop said he planned to choose seminarians who are academically capable and able to cope with being away from home for extended periods of time.

The NAC students he met, he said, were mature and comfortable with speaking to people of many cultures and backgrounds. Bishop Emeritus Howard J. Hubbard told The Evangelist that attending the NAC gives students "a sense of the Church universal," as well as a different perspective on the U.S. Church.

Bishop Scharfenberger noted that he experienced no adherence to a particular ideology or political leaning at the seminary during his visit; instead, he saw great diversity in the student body.

Surprisingly, the Bishop said, the cost of educating a future priest in Rome is comparable to the U.S.: about $50,000 per year. With all of those pluses, he decided to add the NAC to the roster of seminaries attended by priesthood candidates from the Albany Diocese.

The hope for any seminarian, said Bishop Scharfenberger, is that his formation helps him become well-rounded, with good social skills and "emotional intelligence," and that he'll be successful and happy as a priest.

Attending the NAC should help with that, he said -- and "the Diocese will be enriched by the experience they'll bring back here."

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