The Catholic chaplaincy at Queen’s University Belfast responds to the Gospel daily, writes Martin O’Brien (March 2015)
It was a striking sight and a memorable start to Lent. A long line of fresh-faced, casually-clad students queued patiently to pack into the Catholic Chaplaincy building at Queen’s University Belfast on a raw February evening to attend Mass and receive ashes on Ash Wednesday.
The line stretched for 60 metres from the direction of the main university Lanyon Building down Elmwood Avenue to the chaplaincy.
It was almost seven o’clock and they were waiting for those attending the 6.15pm Mass to leave.
Similar lines had formed several times earlier in the day and afterwards they all streamed outside wearing the distinct mark of the cross in ash on their foreheads and I saw no one trying to self-erase it.
The 7.15pm Mass was the last of five, the first celebrated at 8.15am, yet 100 brave young souls turned up, recalls Queen’s chaplain, Fr Gary Toman (42), a native of Ballynahinch, Co. Down who has held the post for almost 12 years. Behind his folksy pastoral manner, Fr Gary is an academic high achiever himself, though you have to drag it out of him.
He holds Bachelor and Master’s degrees in science and scholastic philosophy from Queen’s and a Bachelor of Divinity and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from Maynooth. Next year he’s set to complete a PhD from Queen’s that examines the concept of dying with dignity which further equips him to address one of the hot button ethical issues of our time.
Today, the chapel is bursting at the seams and a far cry from the daily 12.15pm Mass when a congregation of about 25, mainly university staff and local parishioners usually includes around eight students. It’s all about Lent and ashes and the start of the now traditional three-day mission conducted by Fr John Harris OP and an impressive platoon of chaplaincy student volunteers welcoming a huge surge of students.
Here the ministry of welcome is practiced to perfection daily with a small group of students taking turns to watch out for new faces as well as greeting regulars.
“It’s about having a very friendly face, a smile and words of welcome for each individual,” says Conor Gallagher (20), a biochemistry student from Holy Family parish, Belfast who takes his turn at the door two nights a week from 6pm until 10pm.
More than 1,500 students turned up to attend Mass and receive ashes and Fr Gary points out that many other students who attend the Halls of Residence close to St Brigid’s Church on the Malone Road will have gone there.
It is by any standards an impressive demonstration of faith and the numbers could have been 2,000 or more – as in previous years – had the university not been closed for student Rag Day.
Such a turnout suggests that the church in this part of Ireland at any rate has a solid platform from which to grow.
It is evident these students attend Mass regularly. Without missalettes, they participated enthusiastically in the prayers and responses. Around a dozen spoken to at random by this writer said they attended Sunday Mass either in their home parishes or in the chaplaincy itself on Sundays.
Every Sunday throughout term time, the chapel is full or almost full for 8pm evening Mass and the place is alive throughout the week with a host of Facebook fuelled activities including prayer groups, St Vincent de Paul, Pro-Life, talks by visiting sisters and priests, and – all important – a fun social life.
Students and others from all sorts of backgrounds and in tricky personal situations or relationships come and are welcomed and respected “like unto Christ for a chat starting from where they are”.
Fr Gary adds one student spoke for many when he said “we don’t always agree with what you say but we need you to say it”.
He hears confessions after every Mass and says he tries his best “to hold up the Church’s teaching as a beacon and not as something with which to beat anyone”.
Fr Gary is heartened that about a dozen students have asked him about the priesthood in the past year and he is forming a group in which they can regularly discuss the priestly vocation informally.
Laura Whinnery (24), Dunmurry, a parish faith development worker and graduate in international politics is one of his team of graduate volunteers: “In the chaplaincy I saw for the first time young adults clearly passionate about their faith. It rubbed off on me. This is a place for growth and safety.”
Her colleague, Nathaniel Joseph McAuley (25), Glengormley, with a masters in creative writing is one of Ireland’s most promising young poets winning a coveted ACES award last year.
He says: “For me, the chaplaincy was and is a real hub. The Faith is everything. It provides meaning in an existential world. That sounds grandiose and dramatic but it is true.”
Laura Denley (22), south Devon, a graduate in pharmacology from Cardiff University now training to be doctor at Queen’s says: “I have been made so welcome here. The chaplaincy is central to my life and I am growing daily in my faith.”
The chaplaincy, a diocesan institution independent of the university and dependent on the generosity of the faithful is an impressive edifice.
In Fr Gary’s words: “Four storeys tall, six town houses wide and a block in depth.”
It was opened in 1972, the worst year of the Troubles under the leadership of Bishop William Philbin who had the vision to see the need for new extensive facilities to meet the requirements of a growing Catholic student population.
When I attended Queen’s in the mid-Seventies, the building was covered with protective hoardings which remained in place for years.
Forty years later, it is more vibrant than ever showcasing Catholicism in such a positive way that surveys show around a third of those who darken its door for lunch are from other Christian denominations, other religions or none.
The beautiful Corpus Christi Chapel is at the heart of the building but there are also spacious study facilities, a library, lounges, meeting rooms and a magnificent dance floor that has resounded to ceilis and other music down the decades.
It is evident Fr Gary is a devoted and much loved pastor.
Theology student Aine McKee (20) from Ballymena: “He is a fabulous priest. One could ask him about anything. He walks the corridors of the university library at 1am or 2am during exam times, asking students of all backgrounds if they are okay.”
But it has not been plain sailing for the chaplaincy in recent years. Two years ago, it faced a serious crisis.
“Only around 20 students were coming for lunch each day because of the credit crunch,” Fr Gary recalled.
As part-time student jobs dried up and everyone felt the pinch the culture of the campus changed. Students only attended compulsory classes and returned home when they could. Painful decisions had to be made. A commercial café was closed and a staff member accepted redundancy.
Fr Gary believes the crisis was resolved “in response to prayer” – his own (and those of others) which resulted in “an overwhelming sense of the Lord calling us on a particular pathway towards trust and hospitality”.
This resulted in the birth of a Trust Lunch in September 2013 with a small team of students preparing soup, sandwiches, tea and coffee.
Students were trusted to pay only what they felt they could afford, in keeping with St Paul’s instruction: “Make hospitality your special care” (Rom 12:13).
The Trust Lunch has proved to be an inspirational and successful initiative. On the first day, 100 students came and the numbers have remained at well over 100, climbing one day last year to an all-time peak of 200.
Fr Gary Toman says that their mission is summed up in St John Paul’s World Day of Prayer for Vocations in 1994 which called for “a Church for young people… which does not fear asking from young people the effort of a noble and authentic adventure, such as that of following the Gospel.”
The call for that adventure is being answered daily at the Queen’s Chaplaincy.