Vocations Boom in Boulder
Colorado Catholic Center illustrates how community fosters discernment.
BOULDER, Colo. — Amid the afternoon rush of the busy University of Colorado-Boulder campus, outside of Drogo’s Coffee Bar, operated by the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at the University of Colorado, sat Father Peter Mussett, director of the college ministry.
A group of college men gathered around him, asking deep theological questions. Father Mussett answered each of their questions, following up with his own questions about how they could apply that topic to their own lives.
This wasn’t the first instance of “Ask a Priest.”
For 12 years, Father Mussett has served as pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center, ministering to college students through some of the most formative years of their lives.
What sets the Catholic Center at the University of Colorado apart from other Catholic college ministry programs is the number of vocations that have emerged from Colorado. Currently, there are 22 active priests that are alumni of University of Colorado-Boulder, with the majority of them attending the university in the last 20 years. Next year, three University of Colorado students will be entering the seminary.
What is the secret to the Catholic Center’s vocation success? It begins with fostering strong community, according to Father Mussett.
“When you’re living in authentic community, you share life with others in a very raw, vulnerable way,” Father Mussett told the Register. “Being able to see and keep the space open, especially for those who are just learning, and then to encourage and invite students to more deeply invest in their faith, is essential to college ministry. It’s just the best way to build generosity and discipleship, and once they have that, generosity begets generosity.”
Many of the priest alumni of the Catholic Center cite the vibrant community as being a major help in their discernment process. Whether it be through a Bible study run by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), late-night conversations, the bi-annual “Buffalo Awakening” retreat, or the enriching conversations inside Drogo’s, this sense of community helped many priests recognize their calling.
For Father Shaun Galvin, now pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Lafayette, Colorado, the Catholic Center became a home for him where he could rediscover the Catholic faith that he had been apathetic toward during his teenage years. “One factor that really helped me was my FOCUS Bible study. I had a great leader who was a student, and he really helped me to start learning about my faith. That was really an important part of my growth in the faith,” said Father Galvin, who was ordained in 2017. “Beyond that, the Catholic Center provided all sorts of great opportunities to pray, to socialize, to live with Catholics, to be with Catholics, so I ended up being there pretty much every night of the week.”
In the early 2000s, when Father Brian Larkin was a student at Colorado, a new era of formation was beginning at the center. Invited to join the first FOCUS Bible study on campus, student Larkin fell in love with the Catholic faith through the help and support of the Bible study community and eventually entered the seminary after serving with FOCUS for two years. Since his time at the Catholic Center, he has observed the continued evolution of the ministry and the graces that have emerged from it.
“When Father Peter arrived, he did two things that really helped the Catholic Center take off,” explained Father Larkin. “First, he started just preaching the faith in a dynamic way. Second is outreach. They do a great job trying to go out and reach students across the campus and invite them to the center.”
Since his arrival, Father Mussett has embraced his call as a college chaplain, making a significant effort to grow and expand the ministry. Observers cite his ability to recognize students’ unique, individual gifts and use them in a specific way as his great gift.
“Father Peter has the ability to help draw the uniqueness out of each person that comes to him,” said Megan Dillon, director of advancement for the center. “He is able to understand their story, understand how God is acting in their lives. All of that helps to foster vocations. Discerning one’s vocation is about understanding how God is working in their life — what’s he asking you to do — and reflecting on what one’s gifts are.”
The witness of Father Mussett and the other campus chaplain, Father Matt Magee, highlight the beauty of the priesthood and serve as a shining witness to young men at the Catholic Center. For sophomore Nathan Bailey, who will be entering the Norbertine Fathers’ monastery in Orange County, California, next semester, the example of the priests helped him to discern God’s calling in his life. “A big part to my discernment was being around awesome priests. I just got to spend more time with both Father Peter and Father Matt. As I learned more about what a priest’s life is really like and what it really means to be a priest versus what I had understood from my last 18 years of not having any close relationships with priests other than seeing them at Mass, the thought of discernment and potentially becoming a priest was put on my mind.”
Next year, Bailey and two other young men from the university will experience the four-pillar approach to seminary formation, which focuses on the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. However, these three young men have already experienced a taste of what this four-pronged approach entails. When Father Mussett arrived, he decided to structure the formation that the Catholic Center would offer around the four pillars of seminary formation.
“The Catholic Center has structured its ministry around the four areas of the formation of priests,” said Father Mussett. “We’ve done that so that we can always consider the formation of the whole human person. When a student comes here, they’re at various levels of engagement with the faith. Our job, as a center, is to provide a support and formation to them where they continue to deepen their relationship with God. Because as you move towards God, then you begin to discover your vocation written on the heart of God.”
The number of vocations that have emerged from the University of Colorado may seem like an anomaly, but Father Mussett believes that this could happen anywhere. He believes that as long as the culture invites, and serves, others in a supportive, encouraging way, any campus ministry program can help students effectively discern their vocations.
“The powerhouse of vocations is available to anybody, anywhere,” said Father Mussett. “It’s just a matter of if the culture is willing to be bold and invite people into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Father Larkin, who was ordained in 2011 and is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Denver, underscored the importance of community to support one’s vocation.
“I found out the importance of community during my college Bible study, and now I am a member of a community of diocesan priests called the Companions of Christ, which is beautiful. Jesus didn’t send the apostles out one by one. He sent them out two by two into the world. God made us to live in community so that we’re not supposed to figure things out and discern our vocations by ourselves. We’re supposed to do that in relationship with others.”
Jack Figge writes from Atchison, Kansas, where he is studying at Benedictine College.