Building Kingdoms or Building the Kingdom?

Fr. Joseph-Anthony Kress, O.P., speaks with the Catholic community at the University of Virginia.


Building Kingdoms or Building the Kingdom?
By Fr. Patrick Mary Briscoe, O.P.

When I went to visit my classmate, Fr. Joseph- Anthony Kress, O.P., and catch a football game in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend, I was looking forward to seeing a taste of his ministry. I was astonished by what I found.

Fr. Joseph-Anthony is the Catholic chaplain at Mr. Jefferson’s university, the University of Virginia. The ministry there — part of the outreach of the Dominican-run parish of St. Thomas Aquinas — has exploded in recent years. In spring of 2020, the chaplaincy sponsored 12 Bible studies. They began the fall semester of 2022 with 32 and will continue to grow. Twenty-seven of those 32 Bible studies are student-led and bring together over 250 participants, including a significant number of student-athletes.

Our day began with Saturday morning Mass. The front rows included a young boy and his family (he made his first holy Communion at Mass) sitting opposite an impressive group of clean-cut, well-dressed young men. I later discovered this was a group of leaders of the campus ministry. Over 100 people attended, including two dozen students and FOCUS missionaries. The Mass included the recitation of morning prayer, from the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, and I was delighted in noticing many people had parts of the psalms and canticles memorized.

After the Mass, we adjourned for an espresso and then ventured out to visit a few tailgates. As we walked about in our Dominican habits, student after student spotting Fr. Joseph-Anthony waved or called out, “Hi, Father!” As we stood among students taking in the game, a steady stream of undergrads came by, having spotted their priest in the crowd. Their delight in seeing their chaplain out and about on gameday was evident.



Prying a bit more into his strategy, Fr. Joseph-Anthony stressed the importance of making it clear that the ministry needs people. “Without any context, it’s insulting to suggest that they need the ministry.” He pointed out that it’s easy for a student to pass on an invitation to an event; college students have plenty to do. “But when you ask them for help, when you invite them to come meet someone, to friendship, that’s something different.”

And this ministry is a long cry from being a mere social club. Last spring, Fr. Joseph-Anthony began hearing confessions before the 9 p.m. Sunday night student Mass. He would head to the confessional and make himself available for a few confessions. After a little catechesis and preaching, students now readily avail themselves of the sacrament. Now, two friars begin hearing confessions an hour before Mass and often conclude after hearing for well beyond an hour.

In his homily at the beatification Mass of Blessed John Paul I, Pope Francis emphasized the Lord’s invitation to discipleship. Blessed John Paul I lived “in the joy of the Gospel, without compromises, loving to the very end.” John Paul I recognized that “we are the objects of undying love on the part of God.” Only this kind of love for another can allow the disciple to make an authentic invitation, to reach out and offer something more.

Pope Francis said: “Jesus asks us precisely this: live the Gospel and you will live your life, not halfway but to the full. Live the Gospel, live life, with no compromises.”

That’s a good summary of what I found at the Catholic Hoos ministry at the University of Virginia. Life there is lived to the full, without compromise.

That these students have found the vibrancy, the fullness of joy of the Gospel, is unquestionably due to the leadership of their chaplain, who is a true shepherd of souls. “I don’t want to build kingdoms,” Fr. Joseph-Anthony insists. “I want to build the Kingdom here.”

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