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The new rector of the American seminary in Rome was announced Wednesday morning, after more than a year’s delay filling the position because of both the coronavirus pandemic and wrangling over the proposed candidate list.

Msgr. Thomas Powers of the Diocese of Bridgeport was confirmed as the new rector of the Pontifical North American College by the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy March 30, and is due to take up his appointment in July.

Msgr. Tom Powers. Courtesy photo.


Powers, who is now the vicar general of his Connecticut diocese and a parish pastor, is himself an alumnus of the college, as well as of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Marriage and Family. 

As a priest, Powers also served for a decade at the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops from 2005 until 2015, residing at the North American College during that time and serving as adjunct spiritual director.

Some alumni of the Pontifical North American College have greeted the news of Powers’ appointment warmly.

Father Craig Vasek is a NAC graduate ordained in 2010. Vasek told The Pillar that Powers “is an older brother whom I look up to.”

“He was adjunct spiritual director while I was studying at the NAC, and members of my class looked up to him, because we saw things in him we wanted to emulate in our lives as priests, such as holiness, integrity, and humble joy,” Vasek remembered.

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Power’s appointment marks the resolution of months of deadlock over the appointment of a new rector for the college. The outgoing rector, Fr. Peter Harman, an Illinois priest who has worked at the seminary since 2013, was due to leave the role in January of this year, after his five-year term was extended by one year due to the pandemic. 

But Harman was asked to stay in post for a further six months, after the seminary’s governing board and Vatican officials initially failed to reach agreement on his successor.

While the NAC’s board of governors submitted the name of their preferred successor to Harman to the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, the name was not submitted as part of a required shortlist of three candidates, leading to a protracted exchange between the seminary board and Rome, multiple sources told The Pillar.

As that exchange developed, The Pillar reported that Vatican officials had broadened the consultation beyond the seminary board, asking for input from senior American cardinals, including Cardinal Kevin Farrell and Cardinal Blase Cupich, and requesting feedback from the metropolitan archbishops of the United States.

The congregation has reportedly told some archbishops that the wider consultation aimed for more regional representation on the important appointment, even though membership on the board of governors itself is determined by regional election — each of the USCCB’s 15 regions has an elected representative on the board.

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Powers said in a statement released by the seminary Wednesday that he is “very grateful to be asked to take on” the job of rector. 

While the priest said that the role was “neither something I ever expected nor sought,” multiple sources familiar with the appointment’s process confirmed to The Pillar on Wednesday that Powers was the original candidate nominated by the seminary’s board.

Powers’ bishop in Bridgeport, Bishop Frank Caggiano said he was “not surprised at all” by his selection.

“In my opinion, they could not have made a better choice,” Caggiano said.

“While we will miss him terribly in the Diocese of Bridgeport – both as vicar general and as pastor – I am pleased for the College.”

The Pontifical North American College, founded in 1859, is currently home to some 200 men either in formation for the priesthood or pursuing graduate studies in Rome. 

The position of rector at the North American College is widely regarded as one of the more important assignments for an American diocesan priest, with three of the previous four past rectors becoming bishops, including two cardinals.

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