Ian Gaston, from the Diocese of Orange, California, stands in front of St. Peter’s Basilica after climbing to the top of the dome with fellow seminarians during this year’s The Rome Experience. (Courtesy of Ian Gaston)
Ian Gaston, from the Diocese of Orange, California, stands in front of St. Peter’s Basilica after climbing to the top of the dome with fellow seminarians during this year’s The Rome Experience. (Courtesy of Ian Gaston)
Two seminarians from Mount Angel were chosen to participate in The Rome Experience last summer and found it to be a life-changing journey.

Anthony Hoangphan and Ian Gaston were part of a group of 25 seminarians from across the United States who spent six weeks in the intensive program, which combines spiritual formation, church history, theology studies, fraternity and pilgrimages to holy sites in Rome and Spain.

Hoangphan and Gaston received scholarships from the sponsoring organizations of The Rome Experience, but the bulk of the program cost was covered by their dioceses. Hoangphan is from the Archdiocese of Portland, while Gaston is from the Diocese of Orange in Southern California. Both are second-year theology students.

“The wonderful thing about being a seminarian in the Archdiocese of Portland is that it is so supportive of our formation,” Hoangpan said.

The program is inspired by the life of St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, a movement started to help lay people live a life of holiness. Ten years ago, the Midwest Theological Forum and the St. Josemaria Institute began The Rome Experience program for seminarians to supplement their priestly formation.

The first five days were spent in a silent retreat in Ars, France, home of St. John Vianney. Hoangphan said the focus on vocation discernment and the meaning of the priesthood set the tone for the entire six weeks.

Every week they had a meeting with their spiritual director.

“Being in Rome, at the heart of the church, helped me appreciate so much about the church,” said Hoangphan. “The first day I got there I went to St. Peter’s Basilica and immediately felt like I was at home, that my heart belonged to the faith.”

Gaston said he appreciated the opportunity to practice the “plan of life” laid out by St. Josemaria and the program’s focus on holiness.

“It was a really good experience,” Gaston said. “The priority was God the whole time, as we were focused on prayer and spiritual formation. It was awesome. It changed my life in little ways, like how I get up in the morning. A little thing but it sets the tone for the whole day.”

One of the most memorable experiences for Gaston was making a visit to the ancient church of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. “Anthony and I went to St. Paul Outside the Walls on one of our last days there. We went just to pray next to the tombs of the saints. I was reading St. Paul at the time and he describes being a prisoner in chains for the Gospel, and there we are looking at the chain which held him as a prisoner.”

Hoangphan is a native of Vietnam who moved to the United States when he was 19. He said the whole program reinforced his commitment to faith in his daily life.

“For me, being Catholic is a call to daily conversion,” Hoangphan said. “A yearning for God, a yearning for the Eucharist. To have quiet time to reflect on the day and realize you need to rely on the Holy Spirit for support and guidance.”