High school chaplain offers ministry of presence

First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
Previous Next

Sometimes bringing Christ to people means picking up wads of paper towels covered in PB&J stickiness. Other times it requires answering tough questions about sex and marriage.

Father Gregory S. Thompson is eager to do it all - and everything in between - as part of his chaplaincy at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington.

It's a ministry of being flexible, enthusiastic and, most importantly, present.

"This job is a relational ministry," Father Thompson said. "When you're trying to be a credible witness to the Gospel, the first principle is to converse, to relate to students."

It's only 9 a.m., but the chaplain has been at the school for about three hours. In one of his rare seated moments, he swivels his office chair under a crucifix flanked by portraits of Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde and Pope Francis.

"This ministry is a matter of your enthusiasm," said Father Thompson, filled with caffeine-free energy (he doesn't drink coffee). "It's about your willingness to share yourself with the kids, to talk to the kids, to listen to them."

Sacraments and 'Doctor Who'

More than an hour before sunrise, Father Thompson drove from St. James Church in Falls Church, where he resides, to O'Connell. The 43-year-old priest sustains his busy life the same way he challenges his students to: through a relationship with God. On this recent Friday he arrives a bit earlier than usual to fit in a few extra prayers before a day that will not end until after 10 p.m.

After prayers and cloaked in Lenten purple, Father Thompson celebrates 7 a.m. Mass for about 13 people in the student chapel. Light the color of his chasuble streams through the windows as he distributes Communion to the mix of students, faculty and Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who live in the convent adjacent to the school.

Following Mass, Father Thompson walks a few steps down the hall to Café Vaticano, aka the student lounge, just outside his office.

In the mornings it's a place where faculty and staff sip coffee or tea and grab a bite to eat before class.

Father Thompson chats and laughs with teachers as they share updates and discuss the next day's Superdance, the school's annual fundraiser for cystic fibrosis.

"Father Thompson is very lively, very bubbly," said theology and history teacher Matthew Rose. "He injects life into the students."

"And he definitely has a heart for youth ministry and evangelization," said theology teacher Meredith Bumbarger, adding, "and for 'Doctor Who' (the PBS science fiction series)."

Evidence of Father Thompson's diverse interests sprinkle his office: two guitars in the corner and a "Doctor Who" "sonic screwdriver" and miniature time-machine police box on his desk.

Such openness about his interests helps Father Thompson connect with students, said David Owens, chairman of the theology department. "His playing the guitar, for example, is a real unifying factor with young people."

'An ordained youth minister'

While teachers trickle out of the lounge and into their classrooms, Father Thompson spends the next 45 minutes hearing confessions.

As chaplain, he witnesses the everyday challenges of teenage life along with students' spiritual struggles.

High school can be a tumultuous time as teens navigate the stress of dating, parties and getting into college, said Father Thompson. "But mostly kids are struggling with who they are - their identity and coming to know themselves and knowing God and how they fit in," he said.

After hearing the last confession, Father Thompson finds a quiet corner to make a quick phone call. He hopes to visit sixth- and seventh-period senior theology classes, and he needs to find a priest to cover afternoon confessions for him.

Back at his desk, Father Thompson talks about the job he's had for the past year. Before coming to O'Connell, he served as parochial vicar of St. John the Beloved Church in McLean.

"The way I approach the job is like an ordained youth minister," he said. "You need to take an interest in students' lives and interests. They need to know you care about them and are not trying to impose the Gospel on them."

In a culture hostile to the faith, evangelization is a key part of the ministry.

"We can't just give students information, we have to evangelize them," he said. "We have to bring Christ to them, to demonstrate this is a life to be lived, not just knowledge for a grade."

Lounging for Christ

Back in the lounge, Father Thompson sets out jars of jelly and peanut butter and loaves of bread.

Café Vaticano offers students a chance to enjoy a break from the often-frenzied cafeteria and is "prime ministry time," said Father Thompson. "It's an opportunity to engage with kids in a casual setting."

Moments later, students file in with backpacks and early afternoon chattiness. Some flop onto the plush leather couch while others wait in line to assemble a sandwich. A small group begins a game of Uno in the corner.

Father Thompson, a big Eric Clapton fan, soon is engaged in a conversation about music with a student.

"Father Thompson is really easy to talk to about any topic," said junior Christian Tran. From music to movies, "he knows something about everything," added classmate Zach Wilson.

Wilson, a member of the O'Connell ice hockey team, often talks hockey with Father Thompson, who played in high school and is a member of an Arlington league.

Forming virtuous student-athletes

A quick lounge clean-up finished, Father Thompson's next stop is the gym for the school's first Athletes for Christ meeting.

"A lot of kids play sports here, so we're trying to use athletics as another way to help form students in the faith," he said.

Looking out at an empty court, he wonders how many students will turn up. "It's always a challenge starting something new," he said. "Eight or 10 students would be a great."

Three girls arrive, then a few boys. When the meeting starts, 10 students are gathered.

Dennis Dwyer, an O'Connell Hall of Famer and religion teacher, speaks about the four cardinal virtues. Joe Wootten, athletic director and varsity basketball coach, explains that a lived faith goes beyond Sunday Mass and is carried onto the athletic field.

Back in his office, Father Thompson is visibly excited about the turnout. "Well, that was fantastic, just completely awesome," he said.

Checking his cellphone, he receives more good news. Father Ghenghan Mbinkar, also in residence at St. James, is able to cover afternoon confessions.

Tackling the tough questions

Black cassock flowing, Father Thompson takes swift strides down the hallway to teacher Allison Lattie's theology classroom. At 5 feet, 5 inches tall, his gait belies his height.

During sixth period, Father Thompson speaks to students about marriage preparation.

"If there's anything I want you to take away from this class, it's this: When you get engaged, call a priest."

Seventh-period students recently finished a unit on theology of the body, and Father Thompson opens the floor to questions related to marriage and sexuality.

The seniors don't skirt tough topics, and the first questions are about infidelity and homosexuality.

His ministry of presence gives Father Thompson credibility when he tackles such challenging subjects.

"Being at afterschool games, in the student lounge, in the cafeteria - if you show up to things, they know you care," he said. "Then when you need to talk about difficult issues, like abortion and marriage, they know you're coming from a perspective of love."

Joy-filled days

A little before 4 p.m., Father Thompson makes his way to the lacrosse field to lead a prayer before the boy's game.

He'll watch the game before finally leaving campus, but his day is not quite over. In a few hours he'll lace up his ice skates and pull on his No. 12 jersey at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. The semifinal game is at 8:20 p.m.

It's a long day, but Father Thompson finds energy from his ministry.

"It's a fulfilling job, or apostolate, and my favorite part is hanging out with the kids," he said. "There is such joy in being with them every day, in knowing that you're part of the formation of all these young people and trying to bring Christ to them. That's exciting."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015