The university hired Fr. Gregory Schenden, S.J., as its newest Roman Catholic chaplain in July, replacing Fr. Patrick Rogers, S.J., who previously served as the director of Catholic chaplaincy, a role that the Office of Mission and Ministry has transformed into two positions.
According to Vice President for Mission and Ministry Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., Director of Liturgy, Music and Catholic Life Jim Wickman will address the administrative side of the position, while Schenden will focus strictly on the pastoral side.
Schenden said the diversity of student life and inclusive atmosphere drew him to Georgetown.
“I’m surprised in the best of ways on a daily basis in terms of what goes on here,” Schenden said. “First, the campus ministry itself. You look down the hallway and you have me and our Protestant chaplain and Rabbi Rachel [Gartner] and Imam [Yahya] Hendi and we just brought on our Hindu chaplain, and we’ve got an Orthodox chaplain. This is so much a part of what a Jesuit institute of higher learning is about in terms of the diversity.”
Schenden has the original proposal written by John Carroll for the Georgetown Academy hanging on his office wall, which he said echoes the ideas of the university being open to all religions. “I’m not just Catholic chaplain to Catholic community but to the entire campus,” Schenden said. “It’s this notion that we are all walking this faith journey together, in very unique ways, but together.”
Schenden added that he is impressed by the students with whom he has interacted so far on campus.
“It’s not just a quest for intellectual knowledge, but there is also a spiritual hunger that goes,” Schenden said. “This is a place where that kind of searching and that kind of conversation can occur.”
Born and raised in Detroit, Schenden studied at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Schenden said that at that point, he was not interested in entering the priesthood.
“I had no idea what I wanted to be, it was something that unfolded over the course of my 20s,” Schenden said.
After graduating with a degree in English, Schenden moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked in the financial office of the transportation research board for the National Academy of Science.
Schenden said that when he became interested in joining the priesthood, he was especially interested in the Jesuit order.
“Jesuits are the really intellectual ones,” Schenden said. “They are also just regular people: down to earth, funny, doing something they are called to do.”
After preaching at the neighboring Holy Trinity parish for five years, Schenden spent a year in the Philippines completing his final stage of Jesuit formation. In the Philippines, he faced separatists, insurrections, an earthquake and a super-typhoon, but said was inspired by the community he was a part of.
“What stands out most is the resilience of the people, incredible people, in the midst of real adversity,” Schenden said. “Just this notion of ‘We will rise from this.’ That’s a faith-filled experience, to be able to say we will rise from such supreme tragedy.”
O’Brien said Schenden’s enthusiasm to engage with students will benefit the campus ministry.
“We are delighted to have Fr. Schenden with us. He brings much enthusiasm to the position, and is able to engage young people where they are at,” O’Brien said. “He is an excellent preacher and very approachable and down to earth. He also brings a deep commitment to social justice, which was only solidified during the last year he spent in the Philippines.”
Schenden said the responses of the Georgetown community to challenges in the past few months, such as the death of Andrea Jaime (NHS ’17), have been characterized by a similar strength and sense of community he experienced in the Philippines.
“I’ll never forget the prayer vigil that night that came together on such short notice, how powerful that was for me and for everybody there,” Schenden said. “We come together in classrooms and football games, but we come together in the midst of our struggles, in the midst of our sufferings, in the midst of mourning.”
Schenden said that while he is beginning to feel more at home at Georgetown, he is still adjusting to this new experience.
“The challenge is, I’m a freshman here, too. … Becoming part of a new community with its own distinct culture is challenging. I’m learning new stuff every day,” he said.
One of the first students to welcome Schenden to Georgetown was Knights of Columbus Grand Knight Chris Cannataro (MSB ’15), who worked with Schenden as a liaison between the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Chaplaincy.
“Fr. Schenden is a very prayerful man, someone who has a passion for his faith and who also has a passion for watching students grow,” Cannataro said. “Additionally he’s a good guy to talk to, he’s very down to earth and he has a great sense of humor.”
Schenden emphasized his sincere wish to engage with as many members of the Georgetown community as possible. “The door is always open, I keep the door open,” Schenden said. “Reach out, I’m around, stop by.”