Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Polish Dominican priests energize Providence Academy campus in Plymouth

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Providence Academy is being re-energized by the addition of two vibrant white-robed campus ministers.

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Dominican Father Jacek Buda, second from left, talks to seniors Sarah Utz, left, Nick Blackhawk and Claire George at Providence Academy in Plymouth, where he is serving as a campus minister along with fellow Dominican priest, Maciej Okonski. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit
This summer, Polish Dominican Fa­thers Jacek (sounds like “yah-chek”) Buda, 39, and Maciej (sounds like “mah-chek”) Okonski, 28, joined campus ministry co­or­dinator Brian Trexel to serve the youth at the K-12 Catholic college preparatory school.

In the campus ministry office over­­looking the school’s football field, Trexel said he is delighted to have “the kid” [Father Okonski] and Father Buda on the campus ministry team. The priests not only provide a liturgical resource, but their ministry to students has gone beyond expectations.

Caring presence

The priests arrived in July and set up residence “less than a rosary’s walk away” from the K-12 school, Father Buda said.

Soon after beginning a 7:40 a.m. daily Mass at the school, the student pro-life group asked to be part of the Thursday Mass. On Sept. 25, students handed out a prayer sheet to worshippers to pray after Mass for the end of abortion and to commit to speaking out and doing all they can personally to end the practice.

Todd Flanders, Providence Aca­d­e­my headmaster, noted that the ef­fort was initiated entirely by the students, not the priests.

However, the priests have initiated a sense of fun and caring on campus, said senior Claire Rin. “They are so supportive of us,” she said.

The priests, who playfully banter with each other, will joke with the students and then ask how they are doing, taking time to listen to their answers, she added.

“One thing that really impressed me was they both knew my name, without having to ask,” senior Sarah Ytz added. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking with both of them. They are both open and welcoming.”

Senior Matt Kopp said, “I love these guys. They’re awesome. You can walk into their campus ministry room and they’ll tell you to sit down and offer you candy. They’re just pleasant guys to be around.”

They have shown up in their flowing white robes at his soccer games — also volleyball, football and other sports events — leading cheers, sometimes in Polish, Kopp said.

“They have been a positive influence” and great representatives for vocations, who provide opportunities for spiritual growth, he added.

“But they don’t force it on you,” Rin said. “Sarah and I always talk about how there is a different spirit here at the school.”

The students also look forward to going on retreats, pilgrimages and service trips with the priests, such as one being planned in the spring to meet with students in Poland.

The Dominican spirit of prayer, presence and community is exactly what Flanders was hoping to promote in this new collaboration with the order’s province in Poland, in which they are training young priests for ministry on college campuses.

Father Buda and Flanders formed a friendship at Krakow University in 1994, when they attended a three-week seminar on freedom and faith, promoted by Pope John Paul II.

The idea was to create solidarity between students in the United States and Poland based on prayer, said Father Buda, who most recently served as campus minister at Colu­m­bia University in New York.

That fruitful idea planted the seed for the Polish Dominicans to share and further train their young priests for college campus ministry by having them serve in high schools for one or two years.

With an average of 12 to 13 new vocations each year, the order was eager to share John Paul II’s idea of finding God through meeting and working with other people, Father Buda said.

“Campus ministry is millions of conversations,” the priest said.

After Flanders received the blessing of both Arch­bishop John Nienstedt and Arch­bish­op Harry Flynn for the Domini­cans to serve at the school, Father Buda worked with his Polish Dominican community to find the first candidate — Father Okonski, who was ordained in 2007.

“We trust that God will lead us to something new in campus ministry,” Father Okonski said Catholic Spirit
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