In love with campus ministry

First slide

"I love it here," said Father Peter Nassetta, chaplain and director of George Mason University Catholic Campus Ministry. Since 2000, the 52-year-old Youth Apostle priest has been attending to the spiritual needs of students at the Fairfax university.

The St. Robert Bellarmine Chapel and the Catholic Campus Ministry offices are located on Roberts Road. You can see the "Welcome to George Mason University" sign from the chapel entrance. Although the campus ministry is not an official part of George Mason and not on university property, it has a profound influence on the lives of Catholic students there.

Working with youths was something that Father Nassetta has wanted to do since he was an undergraduate at George Mason.

"I fell in love with campus ministry," said Father Nassetta. "(The students) live here. You can be a part of their lives. Being a part of their lives you can build a relationship (to begin) to share the Gospel."

He grew up in Annandale where his family attended St. Michael Parish.

"You never missed Mass," Father Nassetta said.

The Nassettas were faithful Catholics, but there was no push for him to be a priest. His parents sent him to public schools. He attended Chapel Square and Pine Ridge elementary schools in Annandale and Luther Jackson Intermediate School in Falls Church.

He went to Falls Church High School and after graduating in 1977, he enrolled at George Mason in the business management program.

At college he was a regular student - going out with friends to places like the Birchemere Music Hall in Alexandria to drink and to listen to one of his favorite country rock groups, the North Star Band.

He was active in student government and Republican politics, but he also was involved in the campus pro-life movement, something he continues to this day.

In 1980 he was invited by a friend to meet some members of the Youth Apostles Institute. Youth Apostles was founded in 1979 by Eduardo Azcarate. Its mission is to inspire young people to live heroic and saintly lives.

"I met a group of Catholics my age who were trying to live out their faith. It moved me," said Father Nassetta.

He was ready to leave behind a life of partying for the life of a Youth Apostle.

He went to a Youth Apostle meeting, which were held every Tuesday night. That was also the night he went out with his friends, but Youth Apostles slowly won out.

When he graduated in 1981 he went to work for the National Pro-life Political Action Committee and became more involved in politics. But he still was active in Youth Apostles and continued to attend weekly meetings.

In 1983, after a Youth Apostle retreat based on the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, he felt God was calling him to the priesthood, but he was still reticent to accept the call.

Father Nassetta quoted from the prophet Jeremiah, "But the Lord answered me, Do not say, 'I am too young.' To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak."

"I knew I was supposed to be a priest," he said.

Because of his work with Youth Apostles, he wanted to continue service to young people. He tried, unsuccessfully, to guarantee a post-seminary role with Youth Apostles. A circuitous route had him as a seminarian sponsored by the diocese of the Virgin Islands, but he eventually settled at Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. He had no guarantee of a ministry with Youth Apostles, but he trusted in the Lord.

He was ordained in 1989 and for five years was a parish priest at Good Shepherd and Queen of Apostles churches in Alexandria and St. Bernadette Church in Springfield. During that time he remained active in Youth Apostles.

In 1994, Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde appointed him as chaplain of Marymount University in Arlington. He was there for six years in a position he loved.

In 2000 the bishop asked him to be chaplain and director of the campus ministry at George Mason, taking over for Father Robert C. Cilinski. He reluctantly accepted the position but knew service at George Mason would be different than at a Catholic university. At Marymount he was part of the university staff, at George Mason he would be separate from the school administration.

It's been a ministry that he's grown and that has become very popular.

"It's growing faster than the university," he said.

The campus ministry tends to the spiritual need of its community, of course, but it also helps students have fun.

A memorable event took place this year. During Mason International Week, the ministry's co-ed soccer team, representing the Vatican, won the soccer championship. The win brought an unexpected kudos.

Father Nassetta proudly displays a letter of congratulations from the late Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio, that in part reads, "On this wonderful occasion, it is my special honor to convey to Father Nassetta and to each of you the warm greetings heartfelt congratulations and spiritual closeness of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI."

The ability to change young lives - and to win kudos from the pope - keeps Father Nassetta working and growing the Catholic ministry at George Mason.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011