WASHINGTON — Father Greg Shaffer, the Catholic chaplain at George Washington University, learned early that a good pastor can defy the odds and lead the young to embrace a priestly vocation.
Growing up in Bethesda, Md., Father Shaffer was inspired by the example of Msgr. Thomas Wells, a charismatic figure in the archdiocese who possessed a deep and infectious love for the Eucharist.
Msgr. Wells brought many young men to the priesthood before he was murdered during a 2000 robbery at his Maryland parish; he was 56 years old.
Now, 13 years later, that beloved pastor remains a source of inspiration for Father Shaffer, who has revealed a knack for fostering vocations at a secular university better known for jump-starting careers in government.
Since the priest’s arrival four years ago, Sunday Mass attendance at the campus Newman Center has increased from 100 to about 400 people — and, this year, four men will enter the seminary.
Ask the chaplain what he remembers best about his pastor, and he’ll recall that every time Msgr. Wells consecrated the Host, his demeanor fully conveyed the presence of Christ. And during all of his interactions with parishioners, he radiated joy and thus attracted others eager to investigate the vocation that made this man so happy.
“When Msgr. Wells consecrated the Host, he spoke directly to me, ‘Greg, this is my body.’ That really changed my life. I dedicated my priesthood to the Eucharist,” said Father Shaffer, who lost his own father when he was young and turned to the pastor for guidance.
Now, as a new generation of young men ponders their future path in the world, Father Shaffer shares that same palpable sense of joy and mystery. And, so far, his service is bearing fruit: Besides the four men who will enter the seminary this year, including a Fellowship of Catholic University Students missionary, another 10 students have joined a Melchizedek Project group designed to help them begin the discernment process. Father Shaffer established the new program at the chaplaincy, which uses Father Brett Brannen’s To Save a Thousand Souls: A Guide for Discerning a Vocation to Diocesan Priesthood, to provide a framework for group reflection and formation.
A Spiritual Pilgrimage
“Father Greg has been central to my spiritual pilgrimage,” said Michael Russo, 21, a senior who will enter Blessed John Paul II Seminary for the Archdiocese of Washington.
When Russo arrived as a freshman from Waltham, Mass., he hadn’t given the priesthood a thought. But the chaplain’s welcoming presence gradually opened up a different vision of his future.
“Over my sophomore year, the idea was planted. Father Greg does regular discernment events, like dinners, where a priest or seminarians might give a talk. Junior year, it became an option, and, senior year, I began the application,” said Russo.
“He preaches on the Eucharist,” he added. “I didn’t really understand the Eucharist before coming here.”
At the university’s Newman Center, Father Shaffer frequently offers a second daily Mass, at the students’ request, as well as 10 hours of Eucharistic adoration on Wednesdays. Further, the chaplain is always on call for students, and he meets regularly with those considering the seminary as their next step.
“GW gave me a chance to get to know a priest well,” Russo told the Register.
However, during a time of upheaval in the culture, some Catholics on campus have turned against the chaplain, not for failing to fulfill his duties, but for upholding Church teaching on same-sex unions.
During the spring semester, two homosexual students called on the university to investigate whether the chaplain had violated George Washington’s anti-discrimination policy by counseling them to remain celibate.
The controversy initially gained traction, drawing coverage from Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor. But the attacks fizzled after Catholic students posted a blog with testimonials supporting Father Shaffer, and hundreds attended a Mass led by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who applauded the chaplain as a gifted practitioner of the New Evangelization.
In hindsight, Father Shaffer believes that the unwanted headlines were a boon for the chaplaincy.
“In the midst of all this controversy, we have had more kids coming for the first time. They look around and say, ‘Gosh, everyone is so happy.’”
“And then, when they have specific questions about doctrine, they see the benefits of a celibate priest who is here every day, all day — and they take full advantage of that,” he joked.
The media furor generated by the students’ charges revealed another silver lining: The conflict prompted young men like Michael Russo to re-commit themselves to preaching the truth of Christ and never retreat from engaging the culture.
“This episode has been a great unifying moment for our community. The lesson is that we must stay close to Christ. Knowing that we have the truth, our response should never be hateful, but loving and open,” said Russo.
Matt Norwood, 19, a freshman from Wellesley, Mass., who will also enter Blessed John Paul II Seminary this year, pointed to the attacks on the chaplain as a defining moment in his spiritual life.
He was among the hundreds of students and other supporters of the chaplain who filled St. Stephen the Martyr Church, a parish affiliated with the campus, for the Mass celebrated by Cardinal Wuerl. During the homily, the cardinal expressed his “solidarity” with the embattled chaplain, earning a standing ovation from the congregation.
“In recent years, it has become more commonplace for priests to be persecuted. We have to pray for strength for the future. We have to have an answer [for our faith], and we have to defend truth,” Norwood told the Register.
He said that, after he arrived on campus last fall, he soon met with Father Shaffer to discuss his growing interest in the priesthood. After they spoke together, the chaplain encouraged him to put the issue on the “back burner.”
“During Advent, I spent an hour a day before the Blessed Sacrament, trying to figure out what was going on,” Norwood explained. “I was able to go to Father Greg for spiritual direction every week. He was always there to discuss anything for an hour or more.”
As he pondered his next step, Norwood said he was “humbled” by the number of students attending daily Mass and other activities that nurture an active prayer life and a “relationship with the Lord.”
Father Shaffer said he will miss the young men headed for the seminary, many of whom were leaders at the Newman Center, but he is busy working with students to plan activities for the fall. Along the way, he still looks to Msgr. Wells to guide his efforts to nurture vocations.
“I know he is still with us. People who visit the Newman Center feel his spirit,” said Father Shaffer.
“He was a brilliant, holy man who loved the Eucharist. He was not really of this world. He had an eye on heaven, but he was real, human.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.