Tim McKeown will enter the Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah today and emerge forever changed. He will be ordained a priest of the Diocese of Savannah.
For three years, the Augustan has studied in the North American College in Rome, considered by American Catholics as the Harvard of Catholic seminaries.
"Rome is the center of the Catholic church," said the Rev. McKeown, 32, who was ordained a deacon in October in Rome. "The Pope (John Paul II) studied in Rome. `You must experience Rome' - that is really true. You are going to experience all those who went there before you - the saints, the history, the city where Peter and Paul were martyred, the catacombs."
The Rev. McKeown will say his first mass at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, his home parish.
He lived at the college and did most of his studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University, staffed by Jesuits. The university has 2,000 students - both religious and lay - sent by dioceses for specialized study. The majority are studying for the priesthood.
The university is international, with students from every country, he said.
"The North American College is basically only Americans," he said. "The (Canadians tend) to send their men over when they are already ordained. We had one Canadian when I was there."
Total enrollment at the North American college was 150. All instruction was in Italian.
The Savannah diocese has sent seven men to the college since the diocese was founded in 1850. Bishop Raymond W. Lessard, former Savannah bishop, is an alumnus of the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome, the Angelicum.
The Rev. McKeown also holds a master's in spirituality from the Angelicum, staffed by the Dominicans.
In considering someone for the North American College, the bishop looked for someone with the intellectual capacity and emotional maturity to be part of its spiritual and academic formation, said the Rev. Allan McDonald, pastor of Holy Trinity. The Rev. McDonald stepped down last week as vocations director for the Savannah diocese.
"He is a very serious-minded person, congenial and down to earth," the Rev. McDonald said of the Rev. McKeown.
While in Rome, he went to St. Peter's Basilica for special occasions such as Christmas or Easter. On the day of his ordination to the diaconate, the Rev. McKeown and other candidates met the pope at a general audience. After the audience, they were ushered back into St. Peter's to speak with him. "He said he was praying for us and we got to shake his hands," he said.
The pope has looked frail at times over the last year, and one arm trembles, but he is sharp mentally, said the Rev. McKeown.
"He is always very gracious with crowds. Recently he had his 78th birthday and I was very impressed by how he is holding up physically," he said.
The Rev. McKeown played basketball on his lunch hours while in Rome and ran a couple of times a week. He got to run in the Rome marathon, a 26.2 mile race through the city, past the Circus Maximus, ancient churches and the Colosseum, he said.
During the first two years, he was seldom in the States. His first summer he interned in a parish in Dublin, Ireland. He was visited by family while there. "Both sides of the family roots go back to Ireland," he said.
Last summer he worked at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Macon, where he will serve after ordination as parochial vicar.
"I'm ready to go out and do what I'm trained to do," he said. "There is definitely a need to share Jesus with people. I feel hungry to go out. I see it as a mission to go forth in the midst of people seeking happiness in many, many ways and to be able to share Jesus as the true, ultimate source of happiness and peace."