5 College Priest-Chaplains on Catholics and Campus Life

Insights from Ave Maria University, Magdalen College, Thomas More College, UC Santa Barbara and USC.

Ave Maria University chapel, Ave Maria, Florida.
Ave Maria University chapel, Ave Maria, Florida. (photo: Oscar Henao/Pixabay/CC0)

I asked five priest-chaplains with many years of experience working with students on both Catholic and secular college campuses to share about their experiences.


Franciscan Father Rick Martignetti

Director of Campus Ministry, Ave Maria University, Florida

Father Martignetti reports that Ave Maria has a strong spiritual formation program for students, including opportunities to attend Mass or go to confession, receive spiritual direction, go on retreats, participate in perpetual adoration and group devotions such as the Rosary and attend vocations programs. He said, “The word you hear a lot with our students is ‘discernment’ — what is God calling me to do? I ask them what they think their gifts are and encourage them to be faithful to prayer.”

One of the benefits of having a spiritual director, he continued, is that when a student is “trying to hear the voice of God, two can hear better than one.”

His students have a great interest in religion, he said, and he hopes his Franciscan community will soon send more of his Franciscan confreres to assist him in his work. And, while he’s in constant demand for spiritual direction and other campus ministry activities, he doesn’t mind the heavy workload. He said, “I absolutely love it here. I couldn’t be happier. The people are great.”


Father Roger Boucher

Chaplain, Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, New Hampshire

Father Boucher said, “I love this college, the students are wonderful.” Referencing his 20 years as a U.S. Navy chaplain, he continued, “I tend to treat them like sailors, expecting a lot from them, but I think they like that.”

The Catholic character of the school is visible throughout the campus, with daily Mass, confessions and various devotions. The school has two single-sex dorms, both with chapels and the Blessed Sacrament reserved, in which students lead morning and evening prayer. Compline, or evening prayer, is always sung, and never recited, assured Father Boucher. He noted, “We’re a singing school.”

The school’s choir is so talented, he added, the Diocese of Manchester, in which Magdalen is located, requests they sing at the diocese’s Cathedral of St. Joseph.

At Magdalen, Father Boucher’s focus is celebrating beautiful liturgies, including a daily Novus Ordo celebrated ad orientem, a weekly Extraordinary Form Mass and an occasional Eastern Rite liturgy. The reason there are three forms, he explained, is that “we want to expose our students to the history of the liturgy.”


Father John Healey

Chaplain, Thomas More College, New Hampshire

Father Healey is a priest of the Diocese of Manchester who has been the college’s chaplain since 1987. Working with the young is an “essential” part of the Church’s mission, he believes, and clergy should “do everything possible to help these young men and women on their pilgrimage to Christ and to the Truth: the truth about God, the truth about others and the truth about the world around them.”

His decades of ministry have shown him that “young people have a strong desire for God.” He continued, “Similar to Saint Augustine, they have witnessed and experienced many ways of thinking and acting which leave them unfulfilled, dissatisfied and restless. Because of Christ, the Church is able to offer them truth and interior peace — something the world cannot give them.”

He added, “[Young people] have an earnest desire to pray and to be virtuous. Older people, who are often cynical and jaded, do not set a good example and very often fail to witness to ‘what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful.’”


Father John Love

Pastor, St. Mark’s University Parish, Isla Vista, California (serving students of UC Santa Barbara)

St. Mark’s operates much like an ordinary parish, with regular Masses and confessions, with the notable exception that nearly everyone who attends is young. In fact, the Isla Vista neighborhood around the parish is made up of fraternities and sororities. Father Love said, “The average age of our residents is 20. I’m the only ‘dad-age’ guy around.”

While the parish may initially seem out of place in the party environment, Father believes it works well, as the parish is seen as a refuge. If the area had a Catholic ethos, he explained, “There would be less of an urgency to practice one’s faith.”

He continued, “However, students quickly realize that the party lifestyle wears them out and offers only temporary pleasure rather than lasting happiness. Students, therefore, begin to seek and find what we have to offer.”

Four FOCUS ministers assist Father in evangelizing students, specializing in leading Bible studies and having one-on-one talks with students. Ten UC Santa Barbara students have joined the FOCUS ministry since it arrived at the campus six years ago. 


Father Richard Sunwoo

Pastor, Our Savior Parish, University of Southern California (which operates in conjunction with the USC Caruso Catholic Center)

The parish and Center serve Catholic USC students with eight weekday and Sunday Masses and weekday adoration and confession. Father said “Working with USC students has been a privilege. Interacting with them is the highlight of my day. They give life to our parish, and it’s exciting to see God working in their lives.”

He continued, “Right now, our focus is on small groups and discipleship. But ultimately our goal is to bring people in relationship with Christ.”

Like at UC Santa Barbara, an important aid to the work of the center is provided by five FOCUS missionaries, young Catholics who work on secular campuses to bring students to Christ. They live off campus, and work with the existing staff of the Center. Father Sunwoo said, “They bring a unique ministerial presence for us. They are young people, only a few years older than our seniors, and are more radically available to students than even our campus ministers can be. Their ability to reach out to their peers has been incredibly beneficial.”

While the fruits of the Center’s ministry cannot always be identified, some examples include USC graduates who have gone on to be FOCUS missionaries, and two who will be ordained as priests this year. Father said, “We hear national statistics that say young people are leaving the Church, but here we see engagement, as well as the beauty of them interacting with Church teaching and going on to make a positive difference in society.”