Three Years at Newman — By Fr. Joseph, OP
I went into my first assignment at Purdue University having no idea what to expect. I had worked in campus ministries with many priests. But to actually serve people as a priest, I had no idea. I simply wanted to do great things. What I didn’t see was that it was all about the person in front of me.
The Newman Center there, though they don’t call it a Newman Center, is huge. I was at a volunteer fair at the church, and a Chinese student by the western name of Mark, told me this was his first experience of the Catholic Church. He said it was awesome to see all the service the Church does.
I looked at all the displays. There were Bible studies and faith sharing groups of all sorts, but for service, there were relatively few. There was nothing on an ongoing, daily basis. I’ve worked at a number of after-school programs and know how valuable college students can be as mentors to the youth. So, inspired by Mark, I started the Mentoring At-Risk Kids (MARK) program. By the end of the year, we had over a hundred college students mentoring kids.
That just fell into place, and it inspired a young woman to ask me about a similar program to visit the elderly, which became the NAME (Never Alone: Ministry to the Elderly) ministry. This eventually came to include hospice work. While answering theological questions in Bible Studies showed the value of studying St. Thomas Aquinas, I found I had a knack for connecting people to service work. I realized the old mantra that “all college students want is free food” is not true. They want the bar to be raised, not lowered. There were lots of great things happening at Purdue, and I was proud to be a part of it.
I thought coming to Mizzou would be easy; just bring Purdue to Mizzou! And just like the community at Purdue, the Catholic community in Columbia has proven to be as loving and committed. But the unity of heaven provides for endless variety. West Lafayette and Columbia are not the same.
Mentoring kids and visiting the elderly are still important, but how that work got up and running here was very different, and they operate very differently. The majority of my work here has been in other areas. At first, it was assisting FOCUS (Fellowship Of Catholic University Students). The tremendous growth in numbers is largely attributable to them. I also needed to learn how the campus ministry was so successful here.
Recently what seems to occupy most of my time here at the Newman Center is formal “Spiritual Direction,” meeting people on a regular bases. I also see many more resident and student parishioners for informal spiritual direction as needed, and even more people for confession, even outside of posted times. The differences between Purdue and Mizzou are nothing compared to the differences between any two individuals.
I don’t know precisely what my successor has to offer. Regardless, my advice to the newly ordained priest to follow in my footsteps is this: “Don’t worry about being a good priest, worry about the person who crosses your path.” I guess one could say that about any vocation or job. Going to Bloomington I know I have a lot to draw on, but it all depends on what the person in front of me needs. I know this because for three beautiful years, I was a Tiger, and it will always be a part of me. Thank you for all your hospitality, inspiration, and love.