Meet the new Rector of the Pontifical North American College
By Deborah Castellano Lubov
Monsignor Thomas Powers, recently appointed rector of Pontifical North American College, is ready for the assignment.
Msgr. Powers was confirmed as the NAC's new rector on 30 March, and will take up his appointment on 1 July. He has lived and studied in Rome, and worked in the Vatican for slightly more than a decade.
Despite his remorse to leave the faithful of Bridgeport, Connecticut, the American priest looks forward to leading seminarians and young priests to love the Lord more.
Amid these complex times, he stresses the need for seminarians and priests to be really well-formed, live exemplary lives, and and be ready to have answers for some very complex questions, and in a way that brings people to Christ and makes the Truth attractive.
Msgr. Powers spoke to Vatican News about his appointment and new mission.
Q: How did you learn and what was your reaction when you had learned you had been appointed rector of the Pontifical North American College?
I received a call from Bishop Bob Deeley [of Portland, Maine], who is the Chairman of the Board of Governors at the Pontifical North American College. I wasn't shocked, but it was not a call that I ever sought or expected.
I felt very honoured in having that conversation with Bishop Deely, but then I took some time to pray, and I told Bishop Deely there are worthier men than myself, and that I had to think and pray hard about this because of my love of the parish and the diocese. Things were great, and things are happening here. It's really hard for me to leave.
However, I have always tried to say yes to whatever the Church and whatever the Lord has asked of me as a priest. And so I prayed and on March 25th, the Annunciation, I gave my 'yes', my Fiat, so to speak, with Mary, to say the greatest 'yes' of my priesthood.
Q: Of course, I am sure it is not easy leaving your Bridgeport faithful... You had worked for at least a decade at the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, and are an alumnus of the Pontifical Gregorian University and John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. You certainly are no stranger to Rome. How does it feel to return?
Yes, I am returning. For the third time, I am heading off to Rome. Once I was there for five years as a seminarian at the college, and then, as you said, I was there just over ten years at the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops. So that's helpful.
I have a big learning curve, as far as formation, and getting on the ground running to run the college. But one helpful thing is that I am familiar with the city of Rome and with the college certainly, and having served as a spiritual director at the college when I lived there during my time in the Vatican. So that's helpful and consoling to know that I am not going to a strange place and that I know some of the people.
Some of the faculty are still there from my time, which is very encouraging, as well as a classmate of mine who is now on the faculty. So that is also a good thing for me.
Q: What does the NAC mean for the Church in America and for the United States?
I think every seminary is important in forming men with the heart of Jesus, and giving them good, human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation so they have zeal for souls.
The uniqueness of the college is that a man studies, really, under the shadow of the cupola of St. Peter's, near the Holy Father and brings back a unique tradition, both intellectual and spiritual, of the Church from Rome. He brings back that universality of Rome and brings it back to the local church where he will serve, and that's good for him and his formation.
It is also good for the People of God, who then get a different flavor of even how the Scriptures are preached and how they come to understand the Church, Her history, and the great Tradition of the Church.
Q: What will your main priorities be for the institution?
I think it is important, as Pope St. John Paul II said, that we want to form men who are bridges and not obstacles to Christ. And so that requires strong foundational principles, and human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation, and zeal for souls in humble service and in kindness. I think that is important for these men to realize.
I always think that I was formed to be a priest at the college, but I really learned how to be a priest during my first parish assignment by the people. So we can learn a lot from the people of God, from the lay faithful. And so, I think we are always learning as priests, always being formed, always continuing our education. But it begins in the seminary. Those are fundamental years.
And I think my goal is to really get these young men to love the Lord more, as I hope I do everyday, and to have hearts like Jesus.
Q: If I may ask, how did you discover your own vocation?
Yes. I thought about it in high school and at the University of Notre Dame, where I spoke to the vocation director of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Then I just kind of kept my heart open. I never ruled it out. And the Lord just kept opening doors along the path.
I think the most crucial year was probably my year in Puerto Rico where I served as a volunteer through the University of Notre Dame in a very poor section of Puerto Rico. It was probably the hardest year of my life, but the most important year of my life. During that year, I would take that step forward and join the seminary.
Even when I was in the seminary, I never told my family and friends, "I am going to be a priest." I said, "I'm considering it still." So I just kept leaving my heart open to the Lord and I think that's what we should ask all young Catholic men to do, "just leave your heart open" and be willing to consider it. The Lord will lead you there if that is what He wants you to do and live your life.
Q: What do you perceive as being challenges in the years to come at the NAC?
I think we are facing a very confused and rather chaotic world, and so, these men who are studying not only at the college, but at any seminary, they are going to be facing complex questions, moral and societal questions. And so they are going into the brink, so to speak.
We have to be really well formed, living exemplary lives and and ready to have answers to some very complex questions, and answer them in a way that brings people to Christ and makes the Truth attractive, as it always is, and to really lead people toward heaven.
Q: What do you hope seminarians and young priests at the NAC will take away with them during your tenure as rector?
Like any seminary, I'm hoping I bring something to the college and that is a lot of experience in the Church and in my experience. For me it was a matter of saying 'yes'. I never sought any position or assignment I never asked for it. They just asked me to do it.
So, I hope that they have that Marian 'yes' themselves. I want them to be able to say yes, even when it comes with great sacrifice, as this does for me quite frankly, and they are able to give their lives and die to self, to serve others, and to lead others to heaven.