Monday, November 16, 2009

Kevin O'Brien, SJ interview

Georgetown Alumni Online: Q&A Father Kevin O'Brien, SJ

Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., joined the Campus Ministry staff at Georgetown University in August 2008 as its executive director. A graduate of Georgetown University (C’88), he joined the Society of Jesus in 1996. He was ordained as a priest in 2006. Father O’Brien spoke with Georgetown Alumni Online about the university’s interfaith tradition, how Georgetown holds to its Catholic, Jesuit identity in today’s world and more.

You spent several years as a lawyer before entering the priesthood. What made you decide to become a priest?

When I came to Georgetown, My zeal for service grew, and I thought I would serve in government, so I went to law school and began a law practice with the intention of giving back as a public servant or elected official. In my 20s, with God’s grace and the help of a lot of people, I came to understand my call to service differently. I was called to serve as a Jesuit priest. I left my practice and taught in a Catholic high school for three years before becoming a Jesuit. So the call to service remains, but how I’m going about it is different.

I’m very happy to be back at this place which has meant so much to me. Before coming here, I served as associate pastor at Holy Trinity Church, just a block away from campus. Many of the skills I learned in a parish – as a teacher, as a priest, as an administrator – translate to my work here. But this is also a very different type of work, because it is a university and that’s very exciting.

It’s been just over a year since you became executive director of Campus Ministry. What were some highlights for you in the last year?

The best thing about working here is the people: the students God sends our way; the staff and other ministers I work with within Campus Ministry and my colleagues elsewhere in the university. They are thoughtful, inspiring, talented people, and they make coming to work a real joy.

I’ve found the interfaith ministry here most invigorating. I’m a Catholic priest and came from a Catholic parish. But at Georgetown, in my role, I’m responsible not simply for the pastoral and spiritual care of Roman Catholics, but for Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists and Hindus – for people of all faith traditions. So I’m learning to be a pastor in a different way than in other work I’ve done.

Thirdly, saying Mass at Dahlgren Chapel is immensely consoling. For a priest, saying Mass is the heart of our life. To say Mass at Dahlgren Chapel means so much to me because it was a sacred place for me as an undergraduate.

In what ways has the interfaith tradition at Georgetown become stronger since you were a student?

Our commitment is greater simply because we have more people serving in Campus Ministry on the main campus and at the Law Center and Medical Center. We have a larger staff because, thankfully, there is a demand for the spiritual care we offer. For example, we have a full-time imam. We did not have and did not need one in the 1980s when I was a student, but we do now, given our growing number of devout Muslim students. We have more Protestant and Catholic chaplains as well. That the main offices of Campus Ministry are in the first floor of the Healy building in the heart of the campus is a sign that faith continues to be integral to the university’s mission. We’re the largest Campus Ministry in the country because we are so dedicated to caring for students from all religious traditions in creative, committed ways.

How has being an alumnus helped or shaped your approach to your work?

As an alumnus, I know and love this university, and that helps me feel deeply invested in what I do here. It truly is a calling, a vocation, for me to be here, and it’s a privilege. Ironically, as a student, I went to Mass regularly, but I wasn’t actively involved in Campus Ministry. God has a sense of humor!

Now, on so many evenings, I walk out of my office and down the steps of Healy Hall, and I look upon the statue of John Carroll, and I have to marvel at how generous God is in giving me this privileged opportunity to come back to my alma mater. I have an innate desire to give back to people and places that have given me much. My family taught me that, my faith teaches me that, and Georgetown taught me that. So it’s a great opportunity to give back to this place that has been so good to me.

Are the questions of faith today’s students ask the same as those asked by students when you were attending classes?

Though the historical context changes, college students present similar questions: Is there a God? If there is, who is this God for me and what difference does faith make in my life? Where do I find lasting meaning in my life? How can I love and serve? How can I grow into the person God calls me to be? How can I find true, lasting happiness in my life? We do our best to help young people find answers to those questions by sharing with them the wisdom of our religious tradition and the depth of Ignatian or Jesuit spirituality.

You’re one of a number of Jesuits or chaplains in-residence at Georgetown. How do you think that arrangement benefits the students and the clergy?

There are 25 chaplains who live in the residence halls. Nine of them are Jesuit priests; the others are ministers and lay men and women of different faith traditions. I live in Copley, which was the residence hall where I spent two years as a student.

I think the students benefit from our living in the residence halls because we offer an experienced, adult presence particularly in times of personal need. We also provide a spiritual presence and offer programs for students to learn how to pray and learn about other religions. And we serve a lot of food, which engenders lots of good conversation!

Living with students helps me understand them better. So I’m a better minister, priest and teacher because I’m living with students. It’s life-giving, too, because so many of our students are so full of life, interesting, and funny, and they ask wonderful questions and have so much to say.

What are the most successful programs your office oversees?

We offer vibrant religious services in various faith traditions. We offer worship services that are appealing to young people – in terms of the preaching, sermons, the music, and the sacred spaces – and we have a talented, exceptionally gifted staff of people to prepare and preside over these services.

We also offer excellent retreat opportunities for students to leave campus and reflect on their lives and what they’re learning and experiencing at Georgetown. The ESCAPE retreat for first-year students and transfers is by far our most popular retreat because it engages those really important questions like ‘Who am I now and what do I stand for?” ESCAPE also helps new students find community here on campus. We have found that ESCAPE serves as a gateway into specifically religious retreats offered by the various chaplaincies. I am also excited about our growing program in Ignatian retreats, which are prayer experiences based on Jesuit ways of praying.

The third area of our ministry I would highlight is our religious formation or education programs. We offer a variety of programs that teach students about their own faith tradition and those of other students. We serve at a university, so everything we do here has to be about teaching and working with our colleagues in academic departments to help our students grow intellectually as well as spiritually. In Jesuit education, we like to say that we care for the whole person – mind, body, and spirit. So in all we do here, we strive to nourish the mind and the heart, the intellect and the spirit.

Are you developing any new programs in response to student demand?

Students want to learn more about discernment – making decisions from a perspective of faith. Basically, they want help addressing the question ‘What does God want me to do with my life?’ That is the question every student asks here, particularly as they move toward graduation. So we try to teach people both traditional and modern practices of discernment, particularly in the Ignatian tradition.

Often students deepen or renew their faith commitments by working for social justice and engaging in direct service with the poor. We are working to develop some faith-based national and international service projects where students work with the materially poor and then return to campus and integrate that work with their academic and spiritual life.

Has Georgetown had to make significant adaptations in order to better achieve its mission as a Catholic institution in today’s world?

A hallmark of Jesuit education and Ignatian spirituality is adaptation because God works with each person so differently and labors in all times and in every part of our lives and our world. The challenge is for us to find God in all things and all people, and then respond in a way that makes this world a more just and gentle place. A twentieth-century Polish Jesuit wrote that a Jesuit university lives “on the borderline where the Church meets the world and the world meets the Church.” This is a very exciting, but also very complicated place to be – but it is where we need to be as a Jesuit university and this is where the Church sends us. Thus, a Jesuit university is a place where there is an animated dialogue between faith and reason, religion and culture. At Georgetown in particular, we assist the Church in engaging in thoughtful, meaningful interreligious dialog, which in the 21st Century is ever more important.

What remains the same on the Hilltop across generations is our commitment to the integration of learning, faith, and service.

What goals do you have for your office in the years ahead?

We want to strengthen our relationships with different academic departments in order to contribute to the teaching mission of the university. We want to expand our faith-based service programs and retreats, particularly Ignatian retreats.

But before we create or expand a program, we ask a very “Jesuit” question. One of the principles of the founding of the Society of Jesus was to meet the needs of the Church and the world that were not being met. In the same way, we are asking today – what needs are not being met for today’s young people? And we want to listen very carefully to their responses so that we can help them grow into the people God calls them to be.

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