Ministry at Mac

It is mid April. I am standing in front of the Macalester College Student Union in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a handful of Jewish students who are reading the names of people who died in the Holocaust. "Berko Pesin, Ukraine, age 73 ... Viana Shulman, Ukraine, age 42 ..."

Across the way several students are tying yellow ribbons on trees in support of U.S. soldiers involved in operations in Yugoslavia. One of them, Matt, is a young man from the South who was raised both Protestant and Catholic but converted to Islam a couple of years ago.

A Peace Village of tents, chairs, and clotheslines stands nearby, newly born in response to NATO's bombing of Serbia.

Africans, Asians, athletes, atheists all pass by flowing to and from the dining hall. I am scheduled to go to lunch with one of the Catholic students, but she comes up and cancels it. "Just feeling tired and wrung out," Margie explains. She is going to be handling the phones for the first time at the Domestic Abuse Hot Line this weekend and is anxious; her father has cancer but is doing well now.

In the midst of all this, the former editor of the campus paper greets me with a suggestion. In the next ten minutes, she, I, our college chaplain, and one of the young men from the Peace Village (with whom I've supported School of the Americas protests) have organized a vigil to commemorate those who have died in the recent Balkan conflict.

Fr. Roc O'Connor's easygoing manner and youthful spirit have helped him in his job asCatholic campus minister at Macalester College, a non-Catholic liberal arts school in St. Paul.

This is a glimpse into the world in which I serve as campus minister at Macalester.

My week begins Sunday night. After two parish masses Sunday morning followed by our Jesuit community supper and meeting, I pack my guitar and Franklin Planner and whatever else I need into my little blue Neon to make an arduous two-and-a-half-block journey to Macalester's chapel. Let the Gentle Reader refrain from judging the stamina of this campus minister; this is Minnesota, where only during the summer months can we usually be sure it will not snow. This Sunday night is chilly and blustery, just what we expect in mid April.

In the chapel lounge, students Kate, Emi, and Geoff are furiously planning next year's student organization budget. With little interruption, we manage to set out the chairs, table, altar covering, candles, and music books to transform the lounge into an oval-shaped worship space. By 8:40 p.m. the community, including three Jesuit novices from the novitiate in St. Paul, has gathered. Susanna has written a new "Alleluia" and needs time to teach it. Then we begin: "O God, behold the people that longs to see your face."

Tonight about 30 of us pray and sing and listen and respond during the hour of mass. It is a little longer tonight because we have so many announcements.

Discussion Group

If it's Tuesday and it's 10 P.M., you will find members of Macalester College's Catholic discussion group (here are Jason Schulde, Anne Poduska, Roc O'Connor, Susanna Chilbert, and Laura Burrack) taking up matters of faith and talking into the wee hours of the morning.

After mass, Christina, Laura, Stephan, Simon, and others put out the food, and people take time to catch up with one another. The novices, just back from their work at L'Arche communities, attract a crowd. Above the hubbub, Jason, Anne, Lissa, and I try to plan one more retreat day for the community. Then, clean-up and Cigar Club.

In 1996, Macalester students Mike Hong and Dylan Huntsman and I founded the "Cigar Club," the philosophical and theological discussion society of Macalester College. Dialogue is the goal, especially interreligious dialogue; the cigars are optional and often enhance the dignity of the discussion.

Past topics, which are all student driven, have ranged from "The Existence of God" and "Vocation vs. Career" to "Is there Such a Thing as a Completely Selfless Act?" and "The Religious Function of Atheism." Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, agnostics, and others have all taken part in Cigar Club discussions.

Tonight, Tracy, Samara, Christine, Dan, and I talk until after midnight about NATO's bombing of Serbia and what the vocation of teaching looks like.

My week has begun.

When folks find out that I'm serving as the associate Catholic chaplain at this small, liberal arts Presbyterian college, their first question is usually, "Shouldn't you be working at a Catholic school?" My answer involves first a little history and then some stories.

In the late 1980s, Fr. Bert Thelen, SJ, provincial of the Jesuits' Wisconsin province, met with Archbishop John Roach of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Archdiocese. The archbishop had in hand a survey that indicated that each of the five small, local, non-Catholic colleges-Carleton, St. Olaf, Macalester, Hamline, and Augsburg-had a student body about 30 percent Catholic. They developed a plan to mission three Jesuit priests to St. Paul in 1991 to tend to these Catholic students' needs. Among the Jesuits was Fr. Ed Witt, newly ordained and still a Cubs fan, who began the work at Macalester.

In early 1993, when I was up for a new post and Fr. Witt was ready to return to high school teaching, Fr. Thelen asked me to investigate the work at Macalester as a possible assignment.

I never really wanted to work with college students, but what fascinated and intrigued me was the vision of Prof. Ed DeCarbo, Macalester's dean, who wanted to bring about a higher profile of religious discussion on a campus that prized diversity yet rather disdained organized religion. Much to my surprise and later delight, the provincial sent me to Macalester in fall 1993, and it has turned out to be the best thing I have ever done.

I soon realized that I had two orders of business at Macalester: to nourish and foster the sturdy little Catholic community I inherited and to work with others to create a climate that would be more open and less hostile to organized religion.

Understand that the "about 30 percent Catholic," while true on paper, was not so in practice. Nevertheless, by the grace of God, I have begun to meet my first goal. The five or six names I had on my Macalester Catholic student mailing list in 1993 have grown to 110; Sunday mass attendance is right around three dozen. This community boasts representatives of 22 countries, hailing from every continent but Antarctica.

Macalester College's chaplaincy staff, including Shirley Idelson, a rabbi, and Rev. Lucy Forster-Smith, a Presbyterian minister, work together to serve students of many religious traditions

And we are on the way to nearing the second goal-and I do mean "we." My boss is a woman and a Presbyterian. Not many Jesuits have a superior with these two distinctions. Lucy Forster-Smith has served as college chaplain here since 1994. From the first, she set about creating a collegial relationship between her, chaplain Rabbi Bernie Raskas, and me. And we have worked together to raise the level of interreligious awareness and dialogue on campus. We three offered a very popular January-term course, "The History of God." Lucy and I host a weekly dinner/discussion called Table Talk that brings together students and faculty over a simple meal to discuss how today's issues intersect with religion.

And sometimes our new rabbi colleague, Shirley Idelson, joins us at "Life's Big Questions-5 minutes/5 cents" booth in the Student Union, where we are available to engage a broader range of students in brief but rather deep conversations.

A colleague at Mac told me, "Your job is all about relationships. I make relationships with students in my work, but that's what your work is all about." It is all that, yet more specific.

My work is all about fostering spiritual conversation and discernment and aiding a young adult's growth in identity formation, or vocation. To help students discern anything that has to do with identity at this age is a step in helping them discern their religious vocation. "Interested in Buddhism? Don't just sit there and pretend! Here, call the Zen Center. Talk to this person. Seek!" "Interested in Judaism? Apply to live in the Hebrew House and learn to keep a kosher kitchen." "Have you read Kathleen Norris? Good, here's the address of the Benedictine Center in downtown St. Paul."

More and more, my service to students, faculty, and staff has been about discerning one's deeper vocation as a gift from God.

Students move on, and I trust that we have helped them find direction. And I am planning on moving on too. As I have concerned myself with the vocation of others, it is now time for me to search out another facet of my own vocation. In the fall I will be pursuing Ritual Studies with Sr. Mary Collins, OSB, at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.; I will have the opportunity to reflect and write about the Triduum. So, it's one more graduation and one more season of softball here at Macalester.

But the community here at Mac will go on. New students will arrive in the fall. Meetings and discussions and vigils will have new faces and voices with new issues to occupy young minds and new causes to engage young hearts.

And the Society of Jesus will be with them in the person of Peter Etzel, SJ, who will join the other campus ministers to help the students find their own way to their own place in God's creation.


Fr. Roc O'Connor, SJ, is one of the founding members of the St. Louis Jesuits; songs to his credit include "Seek the Lord" and "Lift Up Your Hearts." When he's not composing, he's batting clean-up (last season he averaged .700) for St. Luke Parish's Gold softball team.