Skip to Main Content

Peter Hatlie

Rome After 50 Years: The Eternal Threshold

Peter Hatlie, Director, Dean, VP and Professor of Classics

Founding Director James Fougerousse with Sister Georgeanne, Mother General of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, at their Generalate and Mother House at Via della Stazione Aurelia in Rome in Spring 1970
Founding Director James Fougerousse with Sister Georgeanne, Mother General of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, at their Generalate and Mother House at Via della Stazione Aurelia in Rome in Spring 1970

The UD Rome Program turned 50 years old this spring, an anniversary that invites us to join together in proud celebration, to indulge in cherished memories, and to make a reckoning of sorts. As many as 10,000 UD students, professors, staff members and friends have lived the Rome experience over the past 50 years. As we reflect upon the impressive number of successful semesters completed and people hosted and held dear, we may dare to ask ourselves what the Rome experience meant and means to us, then and now, in both the millimeter and the mile. Looking back in time for answers, we encounter our photos of the Rome experience — photos, old and new, depicting young, smiling, and often playful and provocative faces, almost always set against some dramatic or curious background. Thinking back, we also encounter our peers and role models in memory and reflection, sometimes vividly and sometimes in elusive shadow, leaving us with a wave of feelings ranging from admiration, affection and gratitude to nostalgia, regret and perhaps loss.

If there is one narrative that can possibly encompass this vast spectrum of experience, it may be this: Rome is not only the Eternal City, it is also the Eternal Threshold. As Wallace Stevens so wonderfully puts it,

On the threshold of heaven, the figures in the street / Become the figures of heaven....The threshold [is] Rome, and that more merciful Rome [is] / Beyond.

Stevens goes on to observe that Rome incorporates the extreme of the known in the presence of the extreme of the unknown and that “The life of the city never lets go, nor do you / Ever want it to.” In all of its complexity, Steven’s “To An Old Philosopher in Rome” gives us a framework in which we can begin to pay due homage to UD Rome, too. Stevens goes on to locate “The sources of happiness in the shape of Rome, / A shape within the ancient circle of shapes.” We would do well, albeit with restraint and humility, to follow him in doing the same with UD Rome.

One threshold of the UD Rome experience is that leading from the love and attachments of one’s family home into the warm embrace of UD Rome. The character of the house itself matters here to a degree, as we see in the photo of founding director James Fougerousse, proudly putting up the very first plaque on the very first campus in fall 1970 (see above). Different campus locations have come and gone in the decades since, with one common human element belonging to them all: People make their friends for life in Rome. Whatever form they may take, friendships are essential to a functional adult life, and UD Rome plays a decisive role in helping us understand how adult relationships work, what counts and what doesn’t, and what a true (or at least decent) friendship consists of. Rome’s carousel of eating, drinking, studying, praying, playing and traveling together — practically nonstop — is part of that critical process of sorting-out and discernment. Sharing the challenges, burdens and joy unique to being far away from home and on your own is another.

Professors in Rome

Dr. David Sweet (Classics) and Dr. Lyle Novinski (Art) on site with Rome students, circa. 1980

A second threshold, corresponding to Stevens’ shape within the ancient circle of shapes, brings us to the impact of UD Rome’s academic and religious life programs. As any Rome alumnus will tell you, it’s a very big deal that students have the chance to cross that physical threshold from the familiar associations of their formative experience to the distant and rarified realm of the ancients, be it near the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul, on the heights of Mount Parnassos, or on the very Athenian street where Socrates lay in wait for his next conversation. How many arresting pictures (like the one above of Drs. Sweet and Novinski with students) have been taken and cherished? How many skipped heartbeats and tingles-up-the-spine have accompanied these virtual epiphanies? Such threshold moments in the physical sphere have left thousands of students better disposed to cross thresholds of another kind, notably in spiritual and intellectual terms. One way to put it is that the Church and the Core come alive in Rome, another that students finally — and maybe for once in a lifetime — have the right occasion, incentives and guidance at hand for a return to their beginnings and an opportunity to bear witness to the astonishing breadth, depth and living colors of the Western tradition. To go there — to cross this threshold in earnest — means confronting yourself with archetypal shapes of virtue, justice, truth, beauty, the good life and much more in regard to what it means to be fully human. Nor is the darker side of humanity, from evil and horror to delusion and dystopia, glossed over. I doubt that I’m mistaken in believing that one of Rome’s unique gifts and greatest areas of impact is its focus on fundamental, unvarnished and often intimate truths about the human person, truths that students may harbor within themselves for decades and ever after. Such truths are as much in play in a Michelangelo statue as they are in the hearts of the Athenians at Marathon and St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures,” all subjects of the Rome experience.

Students, staff and families at the Farewell Dinner, Fall 2018

Students, staff and families at the Farewell Dinner, Fall 2018

The last threshold of the UD Rome experience consists of finding the gateway you entered from on your road to Rome and then passing back through it — as a new person — to the other side. What in the world do you do with Rome after Rome? In recent times we have grown accustomed to calling this threshold Romesickness, defined as the heart’s inability to detach and fully forget. But, apart from sounding negative, this term only treats the fever and not the cause of how Rome first wounds and then heals us, so to speak, how the city never lets go, nor do you ever want it to. Your guess is as good as mine as to why Rome gains such a profound and lasting grip on its visitors’ affections, and why UD Rome does the very same. But let me attempt an explanation anyway. At its best, UD Rome is a near complete universe of learning and personal growth, unifying and enriching in a way that is hard to find practically anywhere today. Furthermore, the fact that we are in constant dialogue with Rome, where we encounter the extreme of the known in the presence of the extreme of the Unknown, both focuses and elevates our learning and personal goals. So, yes, passing through this last threshold can be heart-wrenching in the short term, as anyone who has attended the riotous farewell ceremonies of any semester certainly knows. In the long term, however, students cross that final threshold of their Rome experience not only with a better sense of purpose, but also bringing with them a model, or even icon, of learning and growth that, indwelling, will shape them and those around them for decades to come.

After more than 20 years on the job here at UD Rome, let me confess that I am blessed to have lived in Rome the Eternal Threshold, and I have never once tired of the UD Rome thresholds I mention above. My personal congratulations, therefore, go out both to our far-seeing founders and our many and dear colleagues, alumni and friends, without whom there would sadly be fewer figures in the street becoming the figures of heaven. Are we taking ourselves too seriously after this half-century? Yes, of course we are.