Fr. Bryan Page, the new chaplain at the Aquinas Institute, sat down with the Tory to answer questions about the Catholic chaplaincy. Fr. Bryan replaces Fr. Dave Swantek, who was called back to a parish. Originally from Jersey City, NJ, Fr. Bryan comes to Princeton after several years as a parish priest. The Aquinas Institute is the Catholic ministry on Princeton’ campus, located in the Aquinas House, which is on the corner of Charlton and William Streets, across from the Friend Center.
THC: What brought you to Princeton?
FB: I was enjoying parish life—I was in a parish where the majority of my family goes to Mass. One day I was at a BBQ and the bishop called and said “I need you to go to Princeton.” I usually have my ringer off, but that day I had a little twinge telling me to keep my ringer on. A big part of the reason was that the bishop needed Fr. Dave at another parish, and I had worked with campus ministry for three years in Newark, so they wanted someone who could jump in last minute.
THC: How does being a college chaplain compare to being a parish priest?
FB: The similarity is in administering the Sacraments, i.e. saying Mass and hearing confession. The biggest difference is the hours. In a parish you’ll get mostly older folks going to early morning daily mass. Here, we have daily mass from 12:00 to 12:30 on weekdays and Sunday Mass once in the afternoon and again at 10:05 pm. Another difference—you get fewer weddings as a college chaplain. [Laughs] A parish community is different to engage than a college community. The college community is very transient. If someone is involved for four years, that’s pretty much as long as you’ll ever see them. In a parish, people might take years before they stop feeling new. In a way, there’s a lot more support in parish life, especially with the consistency of everything being the same every week, being the same throughout the holidays. In a parish, even those who might not come to Mass every week, you will still see them for weddings and baptisms and certainly for Christmas and Easter. As a college chaplain, on the other hand, I have nowhere to celebrate Mass on Christmas Day this year, since all the students disappear.
THC: What is hard about being a Catholic student living away from home for the first time, and how do you respond to those challenges as a chaplain?
FB: Let me make that a little broader—I think it’s hard to be faithful to any faith on a college campus today. Princeton seems to be a lot more friendly than other schools, but even so, social challenges and differences with peers can be the hardest to reconcile, because it’s just unpopular to be faithful. Not only because of how distant God appears to so many people—maybe students weren’t raised with faith, maybe they weren’t taught it well, maybe they had it forced down their throats—and when they get the chance to stop being active in their faith, they take it. But not only that, religion sometimes demands that we think differently or behave differently, and that often means sacrifice, giving up things that are socially acceptable and fun but damaging to our souls and to our futures. Catholicism in particular has become more unpopular in the last fifteen years partially because of crises in the Church and how they were handled but also because some of our core teachings are being upended in today’s culture. To identify as a Catholic makes you seem like you’re out of touch or you don’t pay attention to what goes on in the news. A lot of people want to do what they think they want to do right now, and then when that changes in ten minutes, they do that. So they don’t like the commitment that being a faithful Catholic, or a faithful of any religion, demands.
THC: Could you talk a bit about this culture?
FB: The Church has such an incredible richness to her. And when we are active in the Church, our lives are richer than they ever could have been outside. But it’s hard to make a connection between what I’m giving now, the sacrifices I’m making now, and the benefits I receive later. We see so much, we see so many people, what’s glorified in Hollywood and the media, how being reckless with ourselves—and often times with others—is such a thing to be heralded as a wonderful way to live. The carefreeness that is scripted in the movies and even the blasphemy we see there, is something that people begin to emulate.
THC: So is there a critical period when students are especially likely to stop practicing their faith?
FB: Research shows that if a student doesn’t go to Mass in the first four weeks of their freshman year, odds are they’re going to leave the Church, either forever, or until they get married or need the Church for some other reason.
THC: How do you engage with people who are either wavering in their faith or, on the other hand, those who are non-religious but curious about Catholicism?
FB: The most important thing is your own prayer life. If you don’t talk to God, you won’t have things to say to other people about Him. Next, it’s also very important to invite people, whether to Mass or to Adoration (for the braver students) or a meal or just an event that’s going on here [at Aquinas]. Then people will say “Wow, they’re normal… but they’re faithful! They’ve got something I want.” Storms can be raging around, but so long as you know God is with you, you have peace. And that peace is attractive, especially on a college campus, where there is so much anxiety, so much fear.
THC: What is Adoration, exactly?
FB: I never formally went to Adoration until I was in the seminary, but I was doing it informally for a while. Before or after Mass, I would just sit and reflect in the Presence of God. Once it became a part of my routine, I noticed that my life was radically changing. I was quieting down all the noise and listening for the still voice of God. All the noise that you deal with in your life, whether it’s something that your parents want for you, or some ambition that you have, stuff that you’re learning in class, something horrible that you may have seen on the news, or God forbid, in person, some fear that you’ve gone through or are still struggling with, all of these things create such static in our minds and in our hearts. And all that noise makes it impossible to hear God’s Voice, because God doesn’t raise His Voice. When we sit in Adoration, we let all the static quiet down and God speaks at the same volume He always does. If you make 20 minutes of Adoration three times a week a priority, after a month you won’t be able to imagine how you lived without it.
THC: Here at Aquinas there are always events going on. What is the role of the Aquinas House in the life of Catholic students?
FB: There are three weekly events here and many other one-off events. We have Apologetics on Wednesdays, the graduate fellowship on Thursdays, the seniors working on their theses on Fridays, various meetings for the leadership teams. Unfortunately, there is no room in Aquinas House that comfortably fits more than 20 people, but it works great for smaller gathering or for larger ones like the beginning of the year BBQ where people can wander between rooms and the courtyard without needing to assemble in one space. It provides a homey environment that is very suitable for discussions like Apologetics, in which small groups of students discuss the articles of our faith and the Church’s teachings, or for the seniors working on their theses, as they try to bring moral conviction to their academic work.
THC: How do you see the role of Aquinas evolving in the future?
FB: Well the ministry team has been just amazing—a really talented group of people with a handle on what’s going on here, and their faith life is just inspiring. That said, we can always get more students involved at different levels, and create specific jobs for people with specific skills, for example working on specific projects [social media outreach, social justice, etc.]. Why do we want to get more people involved? Well, because everyone wins! More people develop a faith life, more people get involved in spreading their faith. You weave a tighter web of Catholics – we need to make sure that everyone knows that there is a space on this campus where they can and need to practice their faith. To give glory to God is an innate need that we have, built inside of us. That’s what the Church is doing everywhere, trying to get people to actualize that need.
The Catholic community here at Princeton is really just so talented in so many different ways, so bright, and really gives a bright sense of hope for the future of the faith and of the world. So many people finding their faith and living their faith, nurturing their faith. They’re going to be going out into the world, and they’ll bring that faith with them into their work. [The fact that there many members of Aquinas converted to Catholicism here at Princeton] speaks to the good work of the chaplains before.
THC: How does the University help students practice their faith and what more could it do?
FB: The Office of Religious Life does a great job of making faith a priority for those who are willing to make their faith a priority. They are a great envoy to the University, and they are mindful of student’s religious observances. Colleges and universities can be hostile to religion, but Princeton seems to be one of the friendliest academic environments to religion in the country. Of course there is always more that they can do, but having been here for only a few months, my first concern is the students here at Aquinas. What do they need? How can I provide that for them?
Thomas Clark is a freshman from Tokyo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.