After spending 16 years as chaplain at George Mason University in Fairfax, Father Peter Nassetta went from a place he knew so well to not having an office or a place to live for his first two weeks as chaplain at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. Despite a lack of office and residence due to renovations, Father Nassetta has found the students “incredibly friendly and welcoming.”
“I want to be settled in and meeting people and students and faculty and staff and getting to know the campus so I can best see how to serve the campus and share the Gospel and the good news,” said Father Nassetta. “So many students are hungry and hurting and searching and don't know what they're searching for, and we know they are searching for Jesus.”
Father Nassetta notes that he is not the only one to experience change in the campus ministry office at JMU. The university hired a full-time lay person, Eric Horne, to be the director and work alongside the chaplain.
“It's the same model at Virginia Tech, a lay director and priest chaplain. It will free up the chaplain from the administrative side of things and make the chaplain more available for the sacramental side. That is very exciting,” he said.
“We're both brand new and figuring things out,” Father Nassetta said. “There's a big learning curve. I've been doing campus ministry for 22 years and every campus has its own personality and what works.”
Father Nassetta said they didn't start full-time until August, but the development director was consistently on campus.
“The potential for growth in the ministry is profound,” said Father Nassetta. At GMU there were around 6,000 students on campus and some lived nearby. “There are 15,000 undergrads here or right next to campus. It's easier for faculty and staff to connect to Catholic Campus Ministry because they live so close,” he said.
Father Nassetta has incorporated something from his time at GMU by giving away T-shirts.
“With the donations I received when leaving George Mason, I printed shirts to give away and it's been wildly popular,” he said.
The shirt reads JMU Catholic Dukes on the front and on the back, “Go Dukes!” Begins with GOD. Father Nassetta said alumni and other community members want to buy the shirts, too, so they'll need to reorder more soon.
The Catholic Campus Ministry at JMU is a student-run ministry.
“The students really have a lot of ownership and take charge. We just had an overnight retreat for freshman that was completely organized by the student leaders,” he said. “Eric and I gave a little input at the beginning. Most things here happen with the student leadership taking charge and that's very exciting.”
Hoping to build on the community he finds at JMU, Father Nassetta said the Catholic Campus Ministry will find ways to connect to the campus, including hosting tailgates where about 30 percent of the students are Catholic. He wants the campus to know they are there to help the students deepen their relationship with God.
Elliott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.