The summer of 2001, Fr. Kevin Codd, the president rector of the American College in Louvain, personally visited me in my home town. My bishop had alerted Father that he had a seminarian who was eligible, via the DeRance scholarship, to complete his philosophy training in the small medieval town of Leuven, BE.
I was initially leery. At that time, I was locked into a combative, politicized, teeth-grinding Catholic conservativism. I even told this devoted man of God that I feared his seminary was "very liberal". I even used those words. I was not set at ease when Fr. Codd was joined by an alumnus, a local priest, dressed in Bermuda shorts and telling me, "The worst explanation you can give someone for a Catholic doctrine is 'Because the Pope said so'." I fawningly adored the Pope, which did not bode well for my reception of said advice.
In spite of my fears, Fr. Codd persuaded me that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was not, however, impressed with his dewey eyed, sing-song sentimentalism about the town of Leuven. At that time, I would have studied philosophy in a Wal-Mart broom closet if I was assured that it would be faithful to the Magisterium. I could not fathom that a town's history or beauty was relevant to the quality of my education. Yes, yes, it's very pretty, but what will I be taught?
It took a couple of years, but Leuven broke the hardness of my heart. I never lost my loyalty to Rome--and still haven't--but my loyalty became wiser (a process that remains ongoing). Before, I scoffed at Fr. Codd's cooing about Leuven, and at the lavish praise by Bishop Fulton Sheen of the same. Now, as I think back, I cannot help but to sing the same song.
Lately I've had a recurring dream. In the dream, I am back in Leuven, not a seminarian anymore, but living there as a student of the University. On a whim, in the early evening, I go to the American College. Through the large chapel doors (that are rarely opened), I hear the voice of Fr. Wallace Platt giving an impassioned moral exhortation. I do not enter the chapel, but wait. When the Mass is over and I know that the community is having dinner, I open the front door and peek in. There are the tables, and sitting at them are all of my old formators--Fr. Kevin, Fr. Wally, Fr. Denis Robinson, Fr. Aurelius Boberek, and everyone. The students faces were all new (my dreams mix fantasy and reality), but the priests were happy to see me and welcomed me to a table. I did not eat--I did not presume the right. But I talked and laughed and joked and philosophized.
Sometimes when I have the dream, the students are my old confreres. Sometimes I stay the night--in a bare, unfurnished, musty-smelling room. I am always a guest, never a resident. Sometimes the dream takes me to the cobblestoned streets of Leuven, to cafes and pubs, familiar and unfamiliar. Sometimes my family is there and I am joyfully showing them everything there is to see. It is always early evening, after a rainstorm, with the sun poking out from behind still-present rainclouds, and the smell of rain still in the air. I always walk up or down Naamsestraat, my home street.