Sunday, October 01, 2006

Room Blessings for Everyone!

While doing the rounds of Catholic Washington, I found myself at one point on the campus of the Catholic University of America. It was the first time I actually got to look around CU and, regrettably, time didn't allow as much exploring as I would've liked.

But here's a fun story from today's WashPost on someone who does more than his fair share of cris-crossing the place: a campus chaplain for whom this time of year is room blessing season.

Sounds like block collection, just more fun and without the money.
Every September, Father Bob makes the rounds, teasing, badgering, laughing and blessing his way through Catholic University's student housing. In almost every room he says a quick prayer with the students, sprinkles holy water and tapes up a paper crucifix and small yellow sign over the door that says: "Peace to all who enter here. This Room has been Blessed."

Most important: He gets in the door and lets them know he's there.

The beginning of freshman year is the time some student-life officials worry about most; about one in five freshmen at a four-year school doesn't make it to sophomore year. Some flunk out, but some just walk away, said Gwendolyn Dungy of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. Studies suggest that giving new students a connection, a sense of home, is crucial.

"If you can't help to do that by October," Schlageter said, "you risk losing them."

He and the 20-some other members of the campus ministry have more than 6,000 souls to take care of, 859 of them freshmen -- the most ever at Catholic -- and t hey don't want to shut them out. He studies photo directories, trying to memorize names and faces.

"Father Bob is the real mascot of the school," said junior Drew Napoli. "Everyone loves him. . . . You can't help but smile when he's around."

He grabs kids by the collar, taunting them, or snatches a do-rag off a student to wrap around his own large head. (That photo zipped from cellphone to cellphone last week.)...

He's reverent when he talks about his work now, as a Franciscan friar living on campus. He loves the students. "It's a privilege. It's beautiful, just beautiful, to be part of their lives, because the four years in college are incredible moments of growth," he said. "They come in teenagers and they leave adults."

"It's like the microwave of life," he added. "They get done real quick."

By now, he's just about seen it all, from the poignant (the freshman who told him afterward, "I feel God's presence here in a deeper way" ) to the weird (the mug that said, "Cardinal Ratzinger: Putting the smack down on heresy.")

Once, he went into a room that had been decorated by its female occupants entirely in leopard print, even the light switch. "We're praying," he said, hands clasped, retelling it. "The phone rings. Everyone ignores it. All of sudden the answering machine goes, 'Rrrrrrrrrrrr,' " he said, purring and trying to make his gruff voice sound silky. " 'You have reached the cheetah lounge.' "

He never knows just what he'll find. About 8 p.m. one night last week, he handed tape to Napoli, prayer cards to senior Kelli McErlean and paper crosses to a campus minister. "This is the ninth time we've blessed the rooms in this building," he said as they went in and then laughed. "You hope, some year, it'll take."

They started on the fifth floor of Spellman Hall, his voice booming off the cinder block as he swept into rooms, stepping over dirty socks and architecture projects, suggesting prayers if the students didn't offer their own. "That you have a good year, and a happy year," he said.

"Lord, hear our prayer," they echoed.

"And for your mother and father, who miss you terrible."

He rubbed a broad thumb in the sign of the cross on a 17-year-old's forehead, looked in her eyes and said, "If you need us and don't find us, we'll be heartbroken."