By Robert Duncan/Catholic News Service
ROME — The addition of a $7 million, 10-story building was the most visible change at the Pontifical North American College during Msgr. James F. Checchio’s tenure as rector. But more than the concrete and glass legacy, the monsignor takes satisfaction in having shepherded hundreds of men toward the priesthood.
Since 2005, when Msgr. Checchio, a priest of the Diocese of Camden, was appointed rector of the U.S. seminary in Rome, 490 of his students became priests. Msgr. Checchio also oversaw the largest class sizes the college has enrolled since the late 1960s and, for the past five years, a full house of about 250 men.
“Their enthusiasm is contagious,” Msgr. Checchio told Catholic News Service. “They really are just very enthusiastic young men; sure, idealistic, and they should be.
“The men,” he said, “give him hope for the church’s future. They are such good, strong men ready to go do the work of evangelization and care for souls.”
“It’s hard to walk away from that,” Msgr. Checchio said.
The NAC, as it is called by the seminarians who live there, had “just turned 50” when he arrived in 2003 as vice-rector. He returns to the United States Jan. 30, finishing a 10-year stint at the helm.
Pope Francis visited the college last May, making it the only national seminary in Rome he has visited, the monsignor said.
The NAC formation program has as one of its top priorities the development of what Msgr. Checchio terms “friendship with Christ.” It is an emphasis that found a receptive audience with Pope Francis.
Reflecting on a private meeting he had with the pontiff, a former Jesuit novice master, Msgr. Checchio said, “He had good keen insights. He asked, ‘What do you do? How do you do it? There’s a lot of men, how do you take care of them?”
“The big emphasis that he had was on fraternal, communal life,” Msgr. Checchio said. “He said that’s where they learn; how they interact with one another here, and their sense of serving one another here is going to be how they dispose themselves later.
“Though the program at the NAC is rigorous, “there’s no cookie-cutter ‘Checchio seminarian,’” the outgoing rector said.
Having done his own seminary studies at the NAC from the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, Msgr. Checchio said a lot has changed at the college in the past 20 years.
Following the clerical sex abuse crisis, the college required men to have a psychological evaluation before coming to Rome and there is now a staff psychologist on the college premises.
“The scandals that the priesthood experienced have made them (seminarians) step back,” he said. “They are ashamed by it, number one, as we all are, but they also want to make sure they are formed the best they can be going forward.”
New tests and evaluations are not the only changes, however. Msgr. Checchio said the seminarians are different, too.
The seminarians today are “much more open and transparent, docile than we were, much more prayerful, too; they take the development of their spiritual life very seriously, their love for the poor. They are really exceptional,” he said.
The advice Msgr. Checchio leaves for his successor: “Pray well, find good collaborators and love the men.”
The Catholic Church “gives us this assignment to love the men and to accompany them on this road to priesthood,” he said.
“They are very good, generous young men that have come forward, and so how do we best accompany them, giving them all that they need?” Msgr. Checchio said.