Dean MacDonald with graduate students on the roof of the Pontifical Biblical Institute (the Biblicum), overlooking the Pontifical Gregorian University

An Inspiring Stay in Rome

By Matthew Halliday | fall 2018

Dean of Arts Dr. Margaret MacDonald BA’83 has spent her professional life immersed in the scholarship of early Christianity and the world of ancient Rome. So it was quite literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in spring 2018, when she was offered a three-month position as the McCarthy Chair in Biblical Studies at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute (PBI), one of the world’s foremost centres of theological scholarship.

“It was one of the most exciting professional honours of my life,” says Dr. MacDonald. “And it just exceeded expectations in every way.”

PBI welcomes students from more than 60 nations, and the McCarthy Chair has been designated for a senior woman scholar on a rotating basis since 2015. Recent Chair holders hail from Duke University and Yale Divinity School, each of whom, like Dr. MacDonald, conducted their own personal research and worked with graduate students from around the world.

The study of ancient texts and languages is at the heart of the intellectual life of the Biblicum. Dr. MacDonald has previous published work on a variety of aspects of the ancient Roman world, from family life to the “house churches” where early Christianity took shape. Her work not only made PBI a fitting scholarly choice, but an incredible personal experience.

“Rome was a perfect backdrop to explore Paul’s letters with an understanding of the first-century Mediterranean world where these documents were written,” says Dr. MacDonald. “The library at the Biblicum is superb, welcoming scholars from all over the world and is a precious resource for biblical scholars and those in classics and archaeology.”

Working with another invited professor, Professor Santiago Oporto Guijarro from the Pontifical University of Salamanca, Dr. MacDonald accompanied students on explorations of Roman sites such as Ostia Antica—a vast archaeological site located at the harbour of ancient Rome, and often referred to as “mini” Pompeii, with houses, markets, temples, and an ancient synagogue offering a real-world insight into the ancient Roman world Dr. MacDonald has spent her career studying.

The wealth of archaeological sites, including ancient houses—many of which were the first centres of early Christian worship—provided new insights into her own research, and an appreciation for the city’s incredible layers of history.

“The Basilica of San Clemente is only a few minutes’ walk from where I was living,” she says. “It was built on the site of an ancient commercial or industrial building, and an ancient domestic dwelling where the god Mithras was worshipped in the first century. The site also has an early Christian Basilica going back to the fourth century. And the Basilica standing above all of them dates from the 12th century!”

Dr. MacDonald also had an opportunity to present some of her work at the Lay Centre in Rome—a centre devoted to fostering Christian unity and inter-religious dialogue. Dennis Savoie, Canada’s Ambassador to the Vatican was in the audience for the event. And, somewhat unexpectedly, she was able to catch up with old friends, including Saint Mary’s alumnus Luca Codignola-Bo, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame, who holds an honorary degree from Saint Mary’s; and Reverend Richard Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton, a Saint Mary’s alumnus in BComm’81 in the city for meetings.

“Rome is truly an international centre for culture and learning, and it was inspirational to be there for three months,” says Dr. MacDonald. “I hope that the experience will help me support the many global endeavours at Saint Mary’s in the future.”

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