August 19, 2019
When the University of Tennessee Volunteers are playing in Knoxville, Paulist Fr. Bob O’Donnell is almost always in the stands.
He often wears a bright orange jacket (the signature school color), sits in the front row, and high-fives the athletes running onto the field or court.
And whether he’s in the bleachers, in the library, or wearing his priestly vestments (of many hues that are not orange) at St. John XXIII University Parish on campus, students often run to him as a confessor, to help organize an event, or with questions.
He feels a special call to be available to those who aren’t in the center of the church circles.
“You’ve got wonderful students who serve mostly (in church) gathering community up here, praying in the chapel, meeting during the week,” he says. “That’s wonderful and needed. But others who are on the campus and doing things — they are involved with a fraternity a sorority or a team and don’t have a lot of time to spend around church other than maybe one event and Sunday. It might bear more fruit later on in their lives. As opposed to sending forth marginal alienated Catholics, I might send forth slightly practicing positive Catholics. And that makes a difference.”
Fr. Bob learned about the Paulists when he was in seventh grade. He was the only child of a working-class family in the predominantly Catholic and Polish-American community of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He was always interested in the faith and following Jesus. A teacher from the School Sisters of Notre Dame told him about the Paulist Information Center in New York and his ears perked up.
In high school, his curiosity about — and understanding of — Catholic outreach deepened. Fr. Bob was influenced by a debate team coach who took him and other students to the Catholic Worker where they saw the legendary social activist Dorothy Day.
Experiences like this pulled him toward a life of ministry. He looked up the Paulists in an encyclopedia and subscribed to the “Catholic World” magazine then published by the Paulist Fathers. Fr. Bob loved science, and saw Paulist founder Servant of God Isaac Hecker as ahead of his time.
“He writes about evolution for example and says, ‘Well, yes, we grant (that) God gave human beings a soul but the body can evolve from lower forms of life’–which would be a standard 20th century Catholic answer,” Fr. Bob says.
Fr. Bob also liked Fr. Hecker’s take on Catholicism and democracy: “He would have said ‘They go well together.’”
At the end of high school, as Fr. Bob says, he “took the plunge” and applied to be a Paulist Father. In the Paulist seminary, he earned a masters in theology. He was ordained in 1974.
His main work through his tenure has been campus ministry.
Just like his dedication to the Tennessee Vols, Fr. Bob has ministered to athletes and students at the University of Connecticut; Macalester College; University of Minnesota; University of California, Berkeley; and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After ordination, Fr. Bob earned a master’s degree in American history, as well as a doctorate in religious studies at Catholic University of America. The doctorate studies, he says, had “some theology in it but a lot of sociology, anthropology of religion, more examining religion as it is, a historical perspective.”
He says that the Paulists have influenced him to be compassionate in all situations, ”whatever your view about what they think or what they’ve done or how they approach you.”
Jennifer Szweda Jordan is a writer and audio producer based in Pittsburgh.