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‘I sincerely hope we won’t need to call on your services this year, Father’

Leon Ó Giolláin SJ Some people in college think that chaplains are only there to perform duties at crisis times. But for Leon Ó Giolláin, one of the UCD chaplains, there is much more to it than that. He recounts his experience.


I met Philip at the student bar one evening. When he heard that I was a chaplain, our conversation turned immediately to religion. He assured me that ‘he was quite a spiritual person, but not into religion’. He proceeded to take a medal of St. Christopher out of his pocket as proof of his spirituality. ‘I take this with me everywhere I go’, he said. ‘I feel it protects me, keeps me safe’. I asked him if he knew who Christopher was. He didn’t. Nor did I enlighten him, not wanting to disillusion him or deprive him of his source of spiritual security. I did challenge his overall belief system, however, and questioned his stance vis-à-vis Christ, but this only met with vague and evasive answers. I recalled a previous conversation with another student who had become disillusioned with his church and had opted instead for his girlfriend’s belief in ‘the great goddess’, a notion he found appealing!

John was a bit different, however.On one of my walkabouts on campus, he approached me out of the blue, addressed me as ‘Father’, and asked me if I knew where he could get a rosary beads! He had lost two pairs already, one belonging to his grandfather, which he treasured, and another given to him by a pious relative. ‘I feel lost without it in my pocket’, he said. ‘It gives me a sense of security’.

He went on to describe his greatest fear – loneliness – which ran deeper than the feelings one might have on an off day when friends or companions are in short supply. Our conversation continued like a catechism lesson, he asking basic questions like: ‘Do you think God exists? How would you know he exists? Who is God for you?’ and I attempting to put into contemporary language age-old truths of the Christian faith. I could see him visibly relaxing as our conversation continued.

His reaction reminded me of an incident at a friend’s funeral some years back, a very poignant moment that revealed to me the power of God’s word to soothe the soul. The eldest daughter of the deceased, aged 12, became hysterical during the Mass. Her father was standing beside her but seemed utterly lost and unable to console her. I left the altar and went down to see if I could help. ‘Where is Mum?’ she cried. ‘Where is she?’ ‘She is in heaven’, I said, ‘and that’s a most beautiful place. You can’t see her, but she sees you and is very close to you still and always will be’. Her crying sank to a whimper and she managed a feeble smile. God’s truth was for that moment medicine for her soul and it eased her suffering just a little. I felt John too was tasting, perhaps for the first time, something of that inner peace that God’s word, God’s truth alone can bring.

When God, in effect, has been bracketed out of the human equation, a void remains. It is plastered over with a thin veneer most of the time, but when the façade fails, a most fearful ‘angst’ emerges into consciousness. We have a drop-in centre at UCD. It is not unusual for us, as chaplains, to meet students in crisis. And I see them scrambling back through memory to rediscover moments in their childhood where they experienced a soothing presence of a unique quality, and which they now miss: lighting a candle in church and praying for a moment with a grandparent, that mysterious moment of reverential silence after the consecration, the dark church alight with candles at Easter, the sweet smell of incense at a funeral. I have more than once sensed in these young people something of Mary Magdalene’s cry at the tomb of Jesus: ‘tell me where you have put him…’. There is a clinging quality to their need as they seek some answer to the terrible loss they feel within, a loss occasioned by some human deprivation but which touches also the depths of the soul. Medals of St. Christopher or rosary beads or other objects like pendants or charms can, in the uninitiated, point to a lack of what Ignatius would call an interior sense of being loved (by God). This is what is often missing in these young people’s lives, though they do not know what ails them or what it is they really seek.

Then there are the converted! Like Cathal who comes to Mass as often as he can and cannot understand the religious apathy of his peers. ‘Come on to Mass’, he says to them, ‘sure it can’t do you any harm! What’s wrong with you? He’s pushy, but gets away with it because he’s smart and has charm. Then there’s Youth 2000 who come together to say the rosary and pray before the Blessed Sacrament every week and who organise talks on such topics as ‘The Theology of the Human Body’ by John Paul II. They tell me that over 700 young people attended a weekend retreat in Knock this summer! Not an insignificant number, and the formula is no way ‘feely-feely’, but talks on the Real Presence, the Eucharist, the sacraments, as well as ‘prayers’ in the traditional sense.

Lay Student Advisers now do much of the work chaplains previously did, so it is imperative that we define and make known our specificity as chaplains. In an increasingly secularised environment, our role is more and more obscured. Many have the idea that we are called in when someone dies or is bereaved! One Dean unwittingly said to me at the start of the year: ‘I sincerely hope we won’t need to call on your services this year, Father’! The context was a student suicide which had tragically occurred on campus the previous year. Such a reductionist and narrow perspective has to be challenged and the full range of offerings provided by us put before students and staff.

We hope our labour on behalf of students is seen as a labour of love. What counts is that we communicate our real concern for the integral welfare and wellbeing of this new generation, which must include the spiritual dimension, if it is to be authentic and effective. It is the area most often neglected in their formation as persons and so the area of ‘greatest need’ and hence the place St. Ignatius would want us to be.