2009 Rome Experience

2009 was the inaugural year of The Rome Experience, an intensive summer program for diocesan seminarians!  The theme of the 2009 program was “Year for Priests” in honor of the opening of the event proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI.  The seminarians, who hailed from across the United States, lived and studied in Rome for six weeks taking courses in Spirituality, Philosophical Anthropology, Liturgy, Sacred Scripture, and Theology.  You can read about their experience and journey through this blog, but here we introduce you to The Rome Experience Class of 2009:

Andrew DietzANDREW DIETZ, St. Gregory the Great Seminary, Diocese of Rockford

“I am the second oldest of four children.  My family is extremely close and very important to me. My father’s job forced our family to move multiple times.  This was difficult for all of us, but as a result we are very strong and dependent upon one another.”

Andrew says that, from a young age, he felt called to be a priest, but became self-conscious about it during high school.  Later, as a business and finance major in college, he realized that call was still there, waiting for an answer.  And then, he says, “On summer break after my sophomore year of college, I talked with the pastor of my home parish at a barbecue.  He was the first person I ever told that I thought God was calling me to be a priest. I have been in my diocesan seminary program for two years.”  In summers, Andrew says, he has been involved in the “Totus Tuus” program.


 Ryan Ford , Sacred Heart Seminary, Diocese of Marquette





 Ryan says his greatest influences have been “my family, my parish priest and music. My family has always been close; Sunday afternoon gatherings were frequent, and their love and support has meant the world to me.” He grew up a block from his grandparents and often stopped by after school for a game or a snack with grandpa.

Ryan initially studied piano, but switched to trumpet in fifth grade and even decided to go to college to become a band director. He says his love of music “led me eventually to discover my true vocation.”


   John Grant , St. John Vianney Seminary, Diocese of Tulsa

John grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the oldest of four, and was an altar server and Eagle Scout; he received the John Henry Newman Award for excellence in faith, leadership, scholarship, and service.  He has studied computer engineering and electrical engineering and worked as a systems administrator for a manufacturing company. During college, he took an active  role in Catholic campus ministry – taking classes, going on pilgrimages, even helping to build houses for the poor in Guatemala. John’s call to the priesthood came into focus at the funeral of the priest who prepared him for his confirmation, during an inspired homily.

Justin Hall, St. John Vianney Seminary, Diocese of Madison

Justin Hall





  Justin tells us he grew up Lutheran in central Wisconsin, but encountered the faith during his sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and was confirmed a year later.  After entering seminary, he particularly enjoyed studying philosophy.  The question he gets most:  “What does your family think about all this?”  Justin says they’re quite supportive, and that “God has been extremely good to me in giving me a loving family, supporting me even in the midst of something so radically new and different for them:  the road to the Catholic priesthood.”

 Garrett Kau, St. John Vianney Seminary, Diocese of Madison





Garrett grew up on the family dairy farm, loves the outdoors and went out for track and field in high school.  He was an altar server through his senior year.  While studying bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he began to grow in his faith, surrounded by fellow Catholics at the Newman center there:  “It was my first experience of community, and I absolutely loved it.  Having been from a rural parish, I hadn’t had a youth group of any sort.”

One of Garrett’s fraternity brothers was a strong Catholic who led a Bible study; Garrett was greatly encouraged by his presence, and even took over leadership of the group when his friend left the house.  Following a vocation’s retreat – which, Garrett says, he mistakenly thought was just a “men’s retreat” – he began to consider the idea that God was calling him.  “I finally applied to be a seminarian for the Diocese of Madison, and the last three years of formation have truly been the happiest of my life.”


 Benjamin Kneib, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

  Benjamin, eldest of four children, attended Catholic school for two years, but was later homeschooled for most of elementary and high school. He says, “I was fortunate to grow up in a home that fostered a deep respect and appreciation for the Catholic faith. Often, my mother would take us to daily Mass and encourage devotions such as the Rosary. The family has always had good relationships with a number of holy priests, whose presence we not only enjoyed, but to whose example I attribute my discernment of my vocation.”


Joseph LaJoie, St. John Vianney Seminary, Diocese of Denver

 Though the idea of the priesthood occurred to Joseph as a child and again as a teen, he says, he “sought other things in life that I thought would bring me happiness, but that pursuit led me to emptiness.” Following the death of a family member, he says, he reached a low point during which “happiness was completely absent from my life.”

The death of John Paul II, a hero of his even during times when his faith seemed less important, came only six weeks after the death of his aunt. Then came Joseph’s “lightbulb moment”: during noctural Adoration while on retreat, Joseph – alone in the chapel – heard, “You keep looking for a direction; why do you keep running?” That night, Joseph made his first confession in a decade, and that fall he entered the seminary.

 Joseph says he has especially prayed to be able to visit the tomb of his confirmation patron, St. Peter – a prayer that will be answered affirmatively during the Rome Experience.


Jean-Francois Lapierre, Grand Seminaire de Quebec, Archdiocese de Quebec



 Born into a military family, Jean-Francois has lived in several different Canadian provinces. With degrees in political science and international relations, he has assisted the needy in Quebec City, served as padre to an army cadet summer training camp, and taught adult catechism classes. Jean-Francois says he has felt a strong call to the priesthood since 2005, especially after the death of Pope John Paul II, and sees the Rome Experience as a “unique privilege” of benefit to his future service in his archdiocese.


Terry McGowan,  Pontifical College Josephinum, Diocese of Nashville

 Terry McGowan, 27, entered the Church eight years ago, having been raised in the Wesleyan tradition, and is not only the only Catholic in his family, but comes from an area where Catholics are a “distinct minority”.  Terry tells us he tried to lead well-balanced, integrated life; he enjoys experiencing sacred music as well as playing soccer, a lifelong interest.  Terry says, “I am aware of being surrounded always by the materialism and secularism which pervades our culture.  I hold the faith as a jewel to be guarded and prized above all possessions.  I have been blessed beyond all expectation in my seminary experience, and I look forward to what this summer holds for me.”


Gilbert Mashurano, St. Joseph Seminary, Archdiocese of Chicago





  Gilbert was born in a  village in Tanzania.  After secondary school, he says, he joined the Congregation of the Precious Blood., followed by several years studying philosophy, theology and neuro-linguistic programming. In September, 2008, he joined the Archdiocese of Chicago and is now a seminarian at Loyola University.


  Samuel Morehead, St. John Vianney Seminary, Archdiocese of Denver

 Samuel describes his family as supportive of his vocation, though “largely unchurched and religiously non-practicing”; he says he has felt a calling since high school. Samuel says he prays, with Our Lady, “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum,” and was deeply touched during a visit to New York to see Pope Benedict XVI during his first apostolic voyage to the United States. Accompanied by brother seminarians, Samuel recalls the Holy Father’s words on that occasion: “The People of God look to you to be holy priests, on a daily journey of conversion …. Strive for a pattern of life truly marked by charity, chastity and humility, in imitation of Christ, the Eternal High Priest, of whom you are living icons.” Samuel hopes the formation promised by the Rome Experience will assist him in becoming such a living icon.


Ian Murphy, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

Born in Kansas City, Ian says he was brought up in a very faith-filled family, and can remember being interested in the priesthood from a young age. He was blessed to have an uncle who was a diocesan priest, and whose influential example made accepting his vocation feel like a natural step. Nearing the end of his first year of theology study in St. Louis, Ian says he is “filled with a sense of contentment and joy in my call to study for the holy priesthood.”


Jayd Neely, Notre Dame Seminary, Diocese of Nashville





Oklahoma-born Jayd has a bachelor of arts in philosophy and spent several years in a religious community before embarking on studies for the priesthood through the Diocese of Nashville, Tennessee.  It is is a year of milestones for Jayd, who will be joining The Rome Experience with a newly-awarded master of divinity degree from Notre Dame seminary in New Orleans, and will be ordained a deacon later in 2009.  All this is preparation for his anticipated ordination to the priesthood in 2010.

Ryan O’Neill, St. John Vianney Seminary, Archdiocese of Denver





 Raised in a house built by his carpenter dad, Ryan recalls an imaginative and happy childhood. He credits Catholic elementary school with being much more academically challenging than his subsequent public school experiences. An active Boy Scout, Ryan was good at swimming and running, was a drummer in marching and concert band, and parlayed his well-rounded interests and high grade-point average into a full-tuition scholarship to college, where he majored in both mathematics and Spanish. It was during college, he says, that his faith began to blossom, and during this time he discerned his vocation.


Thomas Ongige, St. Joseph Seminary, Archdiocese of Chicago





Born in Nyamira, Kenya, 33-year-old Thomas is currently a student at St. Joseph College Seminary in Chicago, Illinois. He tells us he believes “The Rome Experience” will be a helpful preparation for his future life as a priest, and finds the schedule of classes and the initial spiritual retreat appealing.

Richard Pagano, St. Vincent de Paul Seminary, Diocese of St. Augustine





 Richard is in seminary in Florida; before that, during college, he says he worked as a handyman, parish youth director and cemetery maintenance man (not all at the same time). Many members of his parish encouraged him to consider a vocation to the priesthood. Richard says he is “immensely grateful” for being chosen for the Rome Experience, as well as for the scholarship he received to do so. “I look forward with joyful anticipation to share with fellow seminarians and priests the love of Christ, the history and culture of the Eternal City, and the formation available” this summer.


Bryan Thompson, Pontifical College of the Josephinum, Diocese of Lake Charles, LA

The third of four children, Bryan was raised a Methodist in Louisiana. He credits his parents with providing a very good moral education, teaching him to persevere in his endeavors. Bryan became an Eagle Scout; even better than that, he became a Catholic at the end of his senior year in high school. He calls his conversion “among the greatest blessings I have received from God.”

After living as a Catholic for some time, Bryan was struck by something his parish priest asked in a homily: “Have any of you young men ever thought of what God’s plan for your life is?” Initially, Bryan thought of a calling to the priesthood only in terms of what he would have to give up! But after much prayer, he entered a religious order. Three years with the order brought many graces, but eventually Bryan moved on to seminary in Ohio to study for the priesthood in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Bryan reminds men discerning a vocation that Christ tells them “Be not afraid!”


Nicholas Thompson,  Sacred Heart Seminary, Diocese of Marquette





 Call him “Coach?” A former altar boy, Nicholas was in sports year round, and describes himself as “ultra competitive”. Born in Omaha, Nicholas has four older brothers and a younger sister; he praises his parents as “good examples of fidelity in their marriage, and to the Catholic faith.” During high school he was part of two state champion teams – one baseball, the other football!  He played Division I football in college and achieved his dream of coaching a college team, but soon realized he had been running away from a call to the priesthood. Nicholas is now in his second year of theology studies at seminary in Detroit.


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