ROME – Yesterday was the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is a holy day of obligation for the church everywhere but also a public holiday in 25 countries, including here in Italy – where, at least in terms of a day off work, it’s observed with a fidelity bordering on religious zealotry.

The Immacolata is also a special day for a variety of Catholic institutions and organizations which have Mary Immaculate as a patron, including Rome’s Pontifical North American College, the American seminary in the Eternal City.

It was December 8, 1859, when Pope Pius IX formally inaugurated the original “NAC,” as it’s called here – pronounced as in “knack” – in a former convent of the Visitation Sisters located on the Via dell’Umiltà in the heart of the city. (If Pius IX thought it ironic that the American beachhead in Rome was to be located on a street named for humility, which is probably not a defining American national virtue, he kept it to himself.)

Though the NAC’s primary campus relocated in the 1950s, to this day the seminary hosts a luncheon on Dec. 8 for students, faculty and friends, which my wife and I were fortunate enough to attend yesterday. The event has a reputation as a good time – first, because you tend to run into many of the Americans you know in town, but don’t get to see all that often; and second, because you generally eat and drink pretty well.

Beyond the “let the good times roll” aspect, however, it’s also a reminder of why it’s so important for the American church, or really any national church, to be anchored in the Eternal City.

It’s customary for the Immaculate Conception lunch to end with three toasts – to the pope, to the United States and to the NAC itself. Yesterday, the toast to the NAC was delivered by Father Joseph Mominee of the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, who invoked the memories of two pope-saints, Paul VI and John Paul II, both of whom made visits to the North American College.

Mominee recalled the words of Pope Paul VI when he visited in February 1970: “Your being here in Rome is neither accidental nor unimportant,” Paul VI said. “It is not pure coincidence.” Ten years later Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at the NAC and repeated Paul VI’s words, saying that the presence of seminarians from around the world in Rome is linked to “the mystery of Peter’s mission in the universal Church.”

That might seem like pious rhetoric, or perhaps the sort of verbiage fundraisers would use in hitting up deep-pocket Catholics back home for donations, until you hear the sort of story told yesterday by Father Zack Rodriguez of the Diocese of Austin, Texas.

Rodriguez, who delivered the toast to the pope, said that at one point while he was studying at the NAC, he was selected to be a book bearer at a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis. Rodriguez said that when he arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica to join the others who would be taking part in the liturgy, the pope came around and greeted them all personally, and comported himself exactly as you would expect – smiling, joking, making everyone feel comfortable.

What Rodriguez wasn’t expecting was what came next. The Papal Master of Ceremonies, at the time Father Guido Marini (who’s now the bishop of Tortona here in Italy), came up to him and explained he’d also be holding the book for the pope’s private vesting before Mass. He walked Rodriguez into the reserved sacristy and gave him just one instruction, as he jokingly recalled: “Don’t talk to the pope!”

Before long Francis walked in, Rodriguez said, and they were alone. In that moment, he said, the pope seemed to sink into himself – not in the sense that he’d been putting on an act and could now be himself, but rather, Rodriguez said, that he was carrying this immense weight, the weight of the whole world and the entire church. He said Francis then prayed the prayers of vesting with an intensity, and a reverence, which, to this day, influence the way Rodriguez himself prays before Mass.

What he saw in that moment, Rodriguez said, also shaped the way he prays for the pope now – not just for the Office of Peter and its paramount role in the church, but also for the man, the human being, called by providence to struggle under that enormous burden.

In theory, that’s an insight one could acquire other ways, but let’s face it, the odds are much higher spending time in Rome moving in and around the Vatican. If you ever want to know why American Catholics bother funding a seminary here, it’s so graduates will be better priests because they’ve had precisely that kind of experience.

(As a footnote, the next time someone tries to sell you on the narrative that American Catholics are all plotting against Pope Francis, feel free to share this story.)

The toast to the NAC concludes with singing Ad Multos Annos, a traditional salute to the pope, newly consecrated bishops, and so on. However, it’s also a fitting wish for the NAC itself, which, whatever its flaws or excesses, grounds a sometimes-myopic culture in the broad and timeless perspective of Rome.

So, to the Pontifical North American College: “Ad Multos Annos!”

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr