Alumni and students explore faith in unique Catholic fellowship programs.
Not too many people can say they lived in a former German castle or studied at a Vatican university in Rome, but for four members of the Saint Leo University community, these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities have become a real and memorable part of their life stories.
After being accepted into highly selective fellowship programs, these students, some now alumni, were not only able to travel and explore the world during their time at Saint Leo, but grow in their Catholic faith and more.
Engaging in Interfaith Studies at Vatican Institutions
It was an interest in interfaith studies that led Iris Semer ’16, ’19 and Gloria Guisbert ’18 to pursue prestigious fellowships at Vatican institutions in Rome, Italy. While students at Saint Leo, the pair served as fellows in the university’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies under the leadership of the center’s director and associate professor of theology, Dr. Matthew Tapie. Their exposure to conferences and events organized by the center helped them to learn about the importance of building relationships and dialogue between people of different faiths.
Semer, who had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Saint Leo, was able to secure a fellowship with the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Guisbert, who was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in theology, obtained a fellowship with Angelicum: Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. Both of these institutions are highly selective. Hundreds of people apply to participate each year, but only a few are accepted.
As part of the fellowship, Semer spent two years living in Rome. She was able to make friends with people from different nationalities and was exposed to new ways of thinking. One of her most memorable experiences was visiting the largest Jewish synagogue in Rome.
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“It was exciting to observe the prayer taking place and see all the voices saying prayer and doing the liturgical practices we learned about,” Semer said.
Guisbert’s studies in Rome were slightly different due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While she did not have the opportunity to study in Rome for the full two years, she was able to spend some time there and partake in a similar experience as Semer.
“As part of the fellowship, I had the opportunity to go to Israel and see Jewish life,” Guisbert said. “That helped me understand more about the conflicts between faiths.”
Today Semer is a teacher at St. Peter Claver Catholic School in Tampa, FL, where she takes the time to listen and understand her students, who come from different backgrounds, and does her best to model Christ-like behavior.
“My professors at Saint Leo were really invested and cared about my success as a student,” Semer said. “It was a good model for the teacher that I wanted to be.”
Semer recalls how passionately her professors taught. She said they were not just researchers, but educators who she could tell invested time into how they presented information.
As for Guisbert, she has plans to continue on a path toward learning, obtaining her master’s degree in theology. “I’ve had a love for theology since I was young,” Guisbert said. “I’ve always wanted to be a missionary, so pursuing a degree in theology just made sense.”
Developing a Catholic Worldview in Germany
Last summer, University Campus seniors Rafael Soto and Jeremy Bobowski had the opportunity to stay in a former castle in Schloss Wissen, Germany, as they participated in the Catholic Worldview Fellowship. Each year about 30 students from colleges and universities across the United States enroll in the fellowship to learn about the Catholic faith, while also earning college credit, in an engaging experience that includes a weeklong trip to Rome.
“It was an opportunity where I could grow as a leader, grow in my faith, and then have the experience of traveling to different parts of the world,” said Soto, who graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
Soto learned about the opportunity through Saint Leo’s University Ministry Department. He said the fellowship included a mix of classes where they explored ethics and philosophy, as well as took day trips that allowed them to study architecture and history. Overall, he said the program gave him great perspective about being a Catholic leader in today’s challenging world.
“No matter what spiritual or religious journey you are on, it takes effort — one step at a time,” Soto said.
Like Soto, Bobowski, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in religion, also enjoyed the opportunity to travel overseas and engage with others. After graduation, he would like to pursue priesthood.
“We did so many things together as a group that it made it easier to learn and engage in spirituality and prayer,” Bobowski said.
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