In 1551, Ignatius Loyola, well on his way to becoming St. Ignatius, rented a house at 14 via Capitolina in a rural area outside of Rome. With some start-up money from a Borgia -- one of the spiritual ones -- Ignatius opened what he called the Roman College. Ovid, Terence, Hebrew, four years of the humanities and seven years of philosophy and theology formed the curriculum. The young intellectuals absorbing it included the followers of Ignatius, who had founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) a few years before and wanted his rambunctious charges to be men of thought as well as action.

Four hundred and thirty years later, the Roman College, now the Pontifical Gregorian University, named after Pope Gregory VIII -- ranks as one of the world's magnificent centers of learning. What other university can match the spiritual quality of its alumni? Its saints include Robert Bellarmine, Robert Southwell, Aloysius Gonzaga, Camillus de Lellis and Oliver Plunket, the archbishop of Armagh when Ireland was being brutalized by Cromwell. The Gregorian papal alumni number 16, including two of the modern giants, Leo XIII and Paul VI. Its American graduates range from Robert Drinan to Theodore Hesburgh to Archbishop James Hickey, as well as hundreds of members of the U.S. hierarchy, living and dead.

Whatever flaws the leaders of Catholicism may have -- and, arguably, the church in the past 430 years has been a greater force for social justice than any other institution -- serious scholarship is valued. The training of minds has mattered.

As a Jesuit writing about a Jesuit enterprise, Father Philip Caraman, an Englishman, manages to restrain any feelings of boosterism he might have about the Gregorian. He is a writer of history intent on serving the reader, not a university public relations office. It helps that the people he is writing about include not only the well-knowns of history, like Michelangelo and Gregory the Great, but also such names in the footnotes as Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell.

Caraman has an eye for the revealing story. When Ignatius went to Michelangelo to ask the elderly genius to build a church near the university, he was told yes. It would be done free of charge, said Michelangelo. But the church was never built. Living on the proposed site were some tenants who would have to be evicted. Ignatius, refusing to put property before people, told the tenants to stay.

The story is a reminder of how far some churchmen have strayed from the Ignatian ideal. In Detroit recently, the archdiocese, joining with the holy men of General Motors, evicted hundreds of Catholics from their local parish church. The structure was razed to make way for a Cadillac factory.

In 1848, the young John Henry Newman, shopping for an order to join, arrived in Rome and looked in on the Gregorian. His first impression was that "the Jesuits are the real men of Rome." But as he poked behind the reputation, he confessed that their austerity was too much for him and that any desires he once had about joining the order were gone. What helped turn him off was a visit to the spiritual director of the college: "When I go upstairs to Father Repetti," Newman wrote to an English friend, "I find the poor Jesuit in a miserable but clean room -- a poor mean bed on one side, a few books on the other, and a door that lets the wind through." Newman concluded about the Jesuits at the Gregorian: "What a self-denying life is theirs, as regards the enjoyments of this world."

With modesty, Caraman says that he is writing "popular history." Which is what is needed. The Gregorian, for too long, has been known only to scholars. It ought to be as known, and appreciated, as Oxford, Harvard and Fribourg. With this fine work, perhaps it will be.