ROME — Under a cloudless sky with the lingering smell of barbequed hamburgers and the NFL theme song radiating from loudspeakers, young men lace up their sneakers for an old-fashioned football game. No, it is not a scene from the backyard of a fraternity house at a U.S. college in mid-September but rather a scene from a different kind of fraternity.
On the Sunday of every Thanksgiving weekend, seminarians from the Pontifical North American College in Rome, known as the NAC, trade in their clerics for flags and compete in the Spaghetti Bowl, a flag football game between the first year seminarians, or “new men” and seminarians from the three upper classes or “old men.”
The game, which was first played in 1953, not only signifies the culmination of the weekend but serves as a chance for the new men to earn the respect of the old men through friendly competition. The teams begin practicing weeks before the game, elect other seminarians as coaches and even have a fifth-year priest serve as a chaplain for the team.
Valuable bragging rights emerge from the game, prompting both the old men and the new men to take the competition very seriously. This year, the new men even designed their own shirts.
Earning respect, however, is not the only outcome of both this competition and the entire weekend. During Thanksgiving, many seminarians, especially first year men, experience homesickness since it is often the first time they will celebrate the holiday without their families. The seminarians organize various activities including preparing meals with one another, Thanksgiving Mass followed by a banquet, a skit organized and performed by both the old men and new men and, finally, the Spaghetti Bowl.
Before the game, Josh Laws, a second year seminarian reminisced about his experience as a first year seminarian last Thanksgiving, and he drew parallels between Thanksgiving at the NAC and his Thanksgivings at home.
“As a first year (seminarian), it was the first time I started to feel at home at the seminary since there are so many activities that bring us together. Since I love sports and competition,the Spaghetti Bowl is my favorite activity. But I also enjoy preparing breakfast on Thanksgiving morning with my entire hall since it reminds me of Thanksgiving morning back home when all my relatives would trickle into our house at various times,” he said.
The weekend activities highlight that the men have joined a new family, one consisting of their brother seminarians who are all traveling on the same journey. From planning the skit and practicing for the Spaghetti Bowl to sharing Thanksgiving dinner together, the seminarians further strengthen the foundation of the fraternity.
“When you enter the priesthood you understand that you are giving up having a family of your own, and one of the most important things to consider is building a family with your brother seminarians,” first year seminarian Joey Farrell said.
As the seminarians transition from new men to old men, the old men use this weekend as an opportunity to share past experiences and provide guidance for the first year seminarians while the new men gain a further sense of belonging at the seminary.
“The old men and faculty have been gracious from day one here at the NAC and no doubt when I am one of the old men I can pay those gifts forward to the new men entering the seminary. This entire weekend is an example of the domino effect of Christian hospitality that is embedded in the heart of the NAC,” Farrell explained.
Despite the old men claiming victory over the new men for the twelfth straight year, seminarians from both sides gathered at the center of the field to forge their brotherly bond through prayer and thanksgiving, signifying the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving for both the seminarians and Americans alike.