“I will not leave you orphans” is a solemn promise made by the Lord Jesus on the night of the Last Supper (John 14:18), and it remains eternally valid for his disciples throughout the ages. These words come to mind as I reflect on the present moment in the life of the Catholic student community at the College. Father Gary Caster, our previous Catholic chaplain, faithfully and lovingly served our community for more than a decade. His absence is surely felt by many, including students, faculty, staff and local neighbors alike. Now, the time has come for the College to select a new individual to shepherd this community as Catholic chaplain, a major decision which I believe is of the highest importance and deserves great care and sensitivity.
I have written in these pages before to address questions regarding interfaith relations at the College. I have also expressed here my hopes for the Catholic student community as well as my thoughts on the last search process to hire a new chaplain to the College. Now, with a healthy bit of distance from my own undergraduate experience, I wish to offer a perspective on the Catholic chaplaincy, formed by my years of involvement with the Chaplains’ Office and Williams Catholic.
When I visited the College as an admitted student for Previews in 2014, I clearly remember that my primary goal was to meet the Catholic chaplain, a man whose mentorship and friendship I would come to cherish in the years ahead. Indeed, when deciding which universities to apply to and which one to attend, Catholic student life was absolutely at the forefront of my mind. For faithful Catholic high schoolers around the country, attending a university where our faith is not supported (at the very least) is practically unimaginable. This is completely understandable given the extreme form of secularism that tends to pervade liberal university campuses and the loss of faith that often follows from it.
I can personally attest to many Catholic Ephs, including myself, who would have felt very out of place at the College without the presence of a Catholic priest, whose full-time responsibility was to care for us by celebrating the sacraments, listening to our stories, affirming and strengthening our faith lives and empowering us to be fully ourselves at an institution that otherwise can seem inhospitable to orthodox Catholicism. Accompanying students of all faiths and backgrounds in making sense of their college experience is absolutely central to the work of the chaplains.
The role of the Catholic chaplain, specifically as a Roman Catholic priest, is one which I would like to highlight, as it may seem the most foreign to many outside observers. The sacramental ministry of a priest is to offer the holy sacrifice of the mass, hear confessions, baptize and celebrate weddings, and that work has found a place among students, alumni and the local community. It is the priest who is ordained to bless and sanctify the pilgrim people of God. I can say without a doubt that it is the sacraments that make the flourishing of a Catholic community at the College possible.
This is all the more important when considering the global abuse crisis in the Church, in which priests and bishops have caused scandals that shake the faith of even fervent believers. A good and holy priest can re-affirm the faith of students at a time in their lives when it is especially tempting to fall away from organized religion.
Including a Catholic priest on staff as a full-time chaplain sends a strong message to Catholic college applicants throughout the country and their families: Faithful Catholics belong at Williams. Meeting the Catholic chaplain when I was a high school senior assured me that this institution would provide concrete ways for me to grow in my faith throughout my college experience. I fear that, without a strong commitment, from the administration to guaranteeing the future of a thriving Catholic campus ministry, the College would cease to be a place that attracts top students for whom Catholic faith is central to their identity.
In October 2019, Pope Francis canonized the 19th century Englishman, St. John Henry Cardinal Newman. Ostracized from the Oxford of his day because of his conversion to Catholicism, he has since become a patron saint for Catholic students at non-Catholic universities. He is now memorialized in countless “Newman Centers,” including the beloved room in the basement of Thompson Memorial Chapel. May his intercession continue to strengthen members of the College’s Catholic community to fearlessly live out their vocation as faithful followers of Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life.
David Vascones ’18 lives in New York, N.Y.