The Virtue of Friendship
By Br. Finbar Kantor, O.P.
Relationships are central to the life of society. From the foundational relationship of the family to the civic relationships that undergird political and economic systems, our entire lives are built upon relationality. This need for relationships goes deeper than the framework of contemporary culture to the core of human nature. “It is natural for man, more than for any other animal, to be a social and political animal, to live in a group,” St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his De regno. At our core, we need relationships with other people to help us understand ourselves and to deepen our relationship with God.
Fr. Joseph-Anthony Kress, O.P., chaplain to Catholic Hoos at the University of Virginia since 2017, describes his ministry on campus as a ministry of relationships. He sees in the undergraduates in his care a deep need for relationships, primarily a relationship with God. The students at UVA (like many of those at other colleges served by the Dominicans) are motivated and high-achieving. But schedules filled with classes and extracurricular activities often mask students’ painful isolation under a blanket of events, projects, and noise.
When campuses around the country shut down in 2020 and these distractions were removed, many students discovered a profound loneliness, an aching for relationships. But the pandemic did not cause this isolation, says Fr. Joseph-Anthony, it only opened peoples’ eyes to a problem that already existed. It is a problem that has existed from the very beginning of human history and one of the core wounds of original sin. The solution to this isolation has always been the same: a relationship with God.
After students returned to campus, Fr. Joseph-Anthony knew that the answer to the problem of students’ isolation would not be more events, but leading the students to a radical and transformational relationship with Jesus Christ. “If we do anything, any thing that we’re doing has to be geared towards impacting relationships.” Supported by a team of FOCUS missionaries, Fr. Joseph- Anthony has formed the UVA chaplaincy into a mission of relationships based on trust and authenticity. The relationships developed among the students rest on the virtue inherent in an immersive Catholic worldview. “There are so many communities [on campus],” Fr. Joseph-Anthony told me, “but only one is built on virtue.” Through these relationships, students are formed not merely as students who happen to be Catholic, but as Catholic adults pursuing virtue and truth together. They learn and experience the proper dynamics of friendship and intimacy, supported by the clarity that virtuous relationships provide. Building virtuous friendships based on a proper understanding of relationality has enabled students to engage each other in difficult conversations on topics like drug use, pornography, and sexual assault.
Fr. Joseph-Anthony’s ministry of relationships has produced some impressive results. In the last two years, 40 students have entered or returned to the Church through the OCIA (formerly RCIA) program at St. Thomas Aquinas, the university parish. Impressively, most of these conversions or reversions were sparked by students going out to their classmates. Fr. Joseph-Anthony sees “students who have a deep encounter with Christ and then they turn around and are on fire and are ready to go.” UVA now has 33 Bible study groups often led by undergraduates, including groups in fraternity and sorority houses and others with student-athletes. The influence of the relationships built by UVA’s campus ministry continues to be felt even after graduation through vocations to the priesthood, religious life, and faithful, intentional marriages.
Though he has learned a lot in his six years at UVA, Fr. Joseph-Anthony credits the formation at the Dominican House of Studies with laying a foundation that has helped his ministry. Dominican formation imparts a deep understanding of human nature and an intellectual rigor that friars can bring to bear upon their ministry. The Thomistic worldview imparted by our formation helps us to pierce the chaos and confusion of our current society. Over the years of formation, this understanding of reality becomes second-nature for friars. “But for a student who’s looking for answers, who’s exhausted,” says Fr. Joseph-Anthony, “it can be really revelatory.” Fr. Joseph-Anthony’s ministry at UVA aims to hand on this ordered view of the world and provide students with the answers they need, leading them closer to Christ. It is not a ministry without challenges, but Fr. Joseph-Anthony trusts in God’s grace to continue to guide his work at UVA. “The Lord is faithful and this is his work. If we surrender ourselves to him in all that we do, his work is the most beautiful masterpiece you’ll see.”