By the end of the 2006-2007 academic year, half of the University chaplaincy positions will be vacant. Protestant Chaplain Dr. Gary Comstock’s recently announced retirement after 17 years of service, along with the absence of a Catholic chaplain since the departure of Father Louis Manzo last year, have left two of the four University chaplain posts empty.
With two vacancies in campus spiritual leadership, the University has taken significant steps this year to address whether the future Catholic chaplain would be a full or half-time position. However, some members of on-campus Catholic and Protestant communities remain concerned as to whether the University’s relationship with student spiritual communities needs further changes.
According to Dean of Campus Programs Rick Culliton, the University and the Catholic Diocese of Norwich will work together during the 2007-2008 academic year to ensure there is a full-time Catholic chaplain position on campus.
“The diocese is going to make an annual contribution to Wesleyan to support the Catholic chaplaincy, and Wesleyan will be able to hire a full-time chaplain as a Wesleyan staff member,” Culliton said via e-mail.
Since Manzo’s retirement in Spring 2006, the Catholic Student Organization (CSO) has been concerned whether the new Catholic chaplain post would be a full-time or half-time position. Tom Crosby ’07, a member of CSO, expressed relief at the University’s decision to work with the diocese.
“I’m very happy the University was willing to negotiate to make this happen,” Crosby said.
This comes as a bit of good news at the end of what the Catholic community on campus sees as a difficult year. As the search for a new Catholic chaplain passed its one year anniversary, alternating priests provided by the local diocese continued to lead Sunday masses. Crosby said he has been grateful for the priests’ willingness to fill in, but adds that the visiting clergymen cannot provide the kind of consistent spiritual guidance and community leadership that Manzo provided.
This lack of guidance has manifested itself in many ways, including a scheduling error last week that resulted in the cancellation of Sunday mass. Crosby recalled that he and several others gathered in the Memorial Chapel on Sunday and waited for a priest to arrive. After 20 minutes passed, the disappointed group dispersed without celebrating mass. Later, a dean informed Crosby that a scheduling oversight had resulted in the mistake.
Crosby said such gaffes have caused serious damage to the Catholic community that was fostered during Manzo’s tenure as chaplain.
“Not having a focal or rallying point has hurt the numbers at Mass, [and has] hurt the perception that there is a Catholic community,” Crosby said. “I think that any community Father Manzo created has been dehabilitated.”
Meanwhile, the Protestant community is beginning its search for a replacement for Comstock.
Jason Harris ’09, a member of the Wesleyan Christian Fellowship (WesCF) and co-leader of the WesCF Worship Team, feels that Comstock’s replacement must balance the needs of the Protestant community with the larger need for ecumenical worship within the University.
“I think it’s important for [the incoming Protestant chaplain] to support their specific constituency groups and look at their needs,” Harris said. “However, interfaith work is important to any faith group. I’d like to see more interfaith dialogue and working towards issues of justice and inequality.”
However, Harris also sees an opportunity to re-examine spirituality’s place at the University.
“I hope that Wesleyan recognizes the needs of its own communities,” Harris said. “It has been the norm for Wesleyan to invite students to attend without the infrastructures to support them. It would be a great service to the University for it to ensure that the needs of the community are met. I think some people do not realize how faith is a part of people’s lives and their identities. Not to mention that faith and performance are inextricably linked.”
Greg Hendrickson, a staff member of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, an organization that works with WesCF, thinks that re-imagining the role of the chaplain may help solve some of the tensions that exist on campus. According to their website, the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship/USA is “an evangelical campus mission serving more than 35,000 students and faculty on more than 560 college and university campuses nationwide.”
“It might be helpful to appoint someone as a religious life coordinator, who could coordinate the chaplains and be a resource for other religious groups, such as Buddhist House or WesCF, which are not directly supervised by the chaplains,” Hendrickson said.
The Spiritual Life Committee, comprised of students, faculty, and staff, was created to recommend ways that the University may better address the needs of spiritual communities on campus. Culliton described the committee’s work as far from over.
“The work of that committee is ongoing, but the initial findings demonstrate that many students on campus are looking for connections to faith or spiritual communities at Wesleyan,” Culliton said. “Our goal moving forward will be to work to meet the needs of as many of those students as we can.”
Crosby also expressed cautious optimism for next year, hoping that the Catholic community’s status as a flock without a shepherd has drawn attention to the need for a reassessment of faith issues within the University. He remains confident that the community will become stronger in Fall 2007 with the help of a new Catholic chaplain.
“I think its going to be a re-building year,” Crosby said. “We’re going to bring in the best candidate we have. I think we have limited options, but we’re bringing in the best people we have.”