It is Thursday night, and on the eighth floor of Village C West that means open-door night for Fr. David Collins, S.J., the Jesuit-in-Residence. Some students walk in and out; others have pulled up an assortment of chairs to form a circle in the living room. Most have sampled the cookie of the week: Portuguese Love Knots.
“The goal is never to repeat a cookie recipe,” Collins said, dressed in a red short-sleeved button-down shirt and jeans.
After attending to the snacks, Collins returns to his chair in the corner, just as the conversation shifts from “Dora the Explorer” to excommunication. Behind him stands a bookshelf that spans the entire wall. The titles, not to mention the conversation that fills the room, are as eclectic as their owner. A copy of “Civilization of the Middle Ages,” stands alongside “Hitler’s Priests: Catholic Clergy and National Socialism,” with biblical commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke nearby. The voice and melody of Ray Charles drifts in the background.
Collins says the atmosphere is part of the learning experience for students.
“It fits into the bigger picture of what it means to be a professor at a university,” Collins said.
A day in the life of Collins showcases the modern roles of a Jesuit at Georgetown: professor, researcher, chaplain and priest.
Collins’ day starts early at 5 a.m. While much of campus remains asleep, Collins takes 45 minutes to reflect and pray. The format for this time period is unstructured — a deliberate choice.
“I let my mind and soul wander,” Collins said.
Afterwards, Collins heads to Yates to work out. At 6 a.m, the campus is serene. Breakfast at Wolfington Hall, where most of the Jesuit community resides, follows before his day truly begins.
On this particular Friday morning, Collins leads a discussion section as part of his introduction to European civilization history course. Once again the students form a circle around Collins, though this time sitting in desks.
As he introduces “What We Knew,” a compilation of oral interviews collected during the rise of Nazi Germany, Collins looks at ease, leaning back in his chair with the top button of his clerical clothing undone. He uses his hands freely to emphasize his points. After his introduction, he tries to curb his own enthusiasm
for the text and lets the students take over the class.
“I don’t want to have to do that much talking,” he said.
In contrast to this relaxed group setting, Collins gives formal lectures on Tuesdays and Thursdays. As for the rest of his week, Mondays and Wednesdays are devoted to to his own scholarly work, which centers on magic and superstition throughout history. Ideally for Collins, the divide between teaching and research should be 50-50; but he finds that when a balance is hard to achieve, he always sides with teaching.
“If I spent an hour researching for every hour teaching, there would be no hours left for sleeping,” Collins said.
Nevertheless, Collins finds time to develop his own work, which is organized on a cryptic-looking whiteboard that hangs from a wall in his office.
As part of his hefty workload, he is organizing a panel for a conference on superstition, writing a book on Albert the Great, constructing a chapter on the late medieval church, editing a chapter of an anthology and analyzing a 15th-century text that has never been studied, all while mentoring several graduate students also pursuing their own projects.
Around 5 p.m. his responsibilities as a faculty member end, and Collins heads over to the Jesuit residence. A daily community Mass is said at 5:45 p.m., at which the homily is expected to be insightful but brief. After all, dinner awaits at 6:30 p.m.
“I couldn’t tell you what we talked about,” Collins says with an ambiguous smile.
Returning to his room in Village C West after dinner, Collins takes time to relax and unwind. Sometimes he turns on his stereo. Other times, he sits back and watches television — his guilty pleasure is South Park. By 9 p.m., Collins begins preparing for the next day before heading to bed.
“For it is through him, with him and in him. In the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.”
“Amen,” the congregation responds, as Collins raises the Eucharist toward the ceiling of Dahlgren Chapel.
The regular celebrant of the 5 p.m. liturgy on Sundays, Collins begins preparation for Mass much earlier in the week. The readings for the service occasionally become a source of reflection for his morning prayer, but he finds that often it is best to let the meaning of the Gospel develop subconsciously.
“The ideas gestate. I don’t really have to be paying attention to them,” Collins said.
Saturday night, these internal ruminations begin to take shape. Collins begins by referring to his sources of biblical commentaries that augment his personal reflections. For the history teacher, preparing a homily is much like preparing a lecture. The goal is to develop a main idea and support it with references from the day’s Scripture.
“I can bring up heavy issues that cause people to question things, but [I] always end on a hopeful note,” he said. “Sometimes I do it better than
The fusion of professor and priest is on display during his 10-minute address to the congregation. Reminiscent of his classroom demeanor, Collins makes constant use of his hands, explaining the significance of sight as seen through Jesus’ healing of a blind man in the Bible.
Standing on the other side of the altar, Collins sees the diverse crowd at the 5 p.m. Mass.
“You just see this cross-section of humanity,” he said. “What a privileged view I have of the human condition.”
The white collar of priesthood might to some seem like a hefty responsibility. However, Collins sees himself on the same level as those surrounding him.
“I like to fashion myself, in a sense, as not so extraordinary,” Collins said. “[Students] deal with me at my verbal wittiest and verbal clumsiest.”
Collins finds that by crossing paths with students each day in his various roles, he serves as a subtle reminder that priests can be ordinary, too — even if their vocation aims to transcend mere worldly matters.