Father Peter Abdella: ‘Bringing Learning Into Focus With One’s Faith’
by Stefani Manowski
January 24, 2017

Editor’s note: This profile was first published in December, 2012, to mark the 25th anniversary of Paulist Fr. Peter Abdella’s ordination.

From the priests who taught him in high school to the Jesuits in college and the Paulist Fathers who would one day become his brothers, Paulist Fr. Peter Abdella has had an abundance of priestly role models, and is now celebrating 25 years of the priesthood himself.

The grandson of Syrian immigrants, Fr. Abdella was born in Parkersburg, W.Va., and attended St. Francis Xavier’s parish school. His mother was a homemaker and later a cab dispatcher, and his father ran a sports parlor and eatery.

It was during this time that Fr. Abdella’s cousin began teaching him about chemistry. “He was five years older than I was, and would teach me the basics, little chemistry lessons,” he said. “I really enjoyed it.”

Fr. Abdella graduated from Parkersburg Catholic High School in 1966, and went on to attend Wheeling College, now called Wheeling Jesuit University. He majored in chemistry, a “natural outgrowth” of all those early chemistry lessons, and then picked up a second major, philosophy.

Existentialism was a popular mode of thought in the late 1960s, and was taught at Wheeling.

“I became fascinated by philosophy, so I decided to double major,” Father Abdella recalled.

After graduating from Wheeling in 1970, Father Abdella headed to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois (near Chicago) to pursue his master’s and doctoral degrees in biochemistry, with his goal being to teach in a small college or university.

Two degrees and five years later, Father Abdella traveled throughout Europe for the better part of a year before returning to the U.S. in 1977 to begin a post-doctoral fellowship at The Ohio State University. It was at the university’s St. Thomas More Newman Center where Father Abdella would first encounter the Paulists who led the Catholic campus ministry there.

“The Paulists there were an impressive bunch,” he said. “They were down-to-earth, human, and approachable. And they were very good preachers.”

Slowly but surely, Father Abdella “began to see myself as actually doing what they did, leading the life they seemed to live. It was something that didn’t seem believable for me before.”

Discussions about his interest in Paulist priesthood with the young woman he was dating at the time led to her ultimate question: “What are you afraid of, that you will like it?”

“I had been avoiding it,” said Father Abdella. “I was afraid I might actually enjoy the life of a priest, the life of a Paulist priest, and her probing question pushed me to consider it seriously.”

Father Abdella entered the Paulist novitiate at Mount Paul in Oak Ridge, N.J., in 1979, and describes it as a “wonderful year.”

“It was a chance to think about the direction of my life, and to learn more about the Paulists in depth and in detail,” he said, noting that his novitiate experience included spending time at the Paulist parish in Greensboro, NC, at the Catholic Worker Houses in New York City, and in classes on psychological development and pastoral leadership at Loyola of Chicago’s Institute for Pastoral Ministry. “I got to explore a variety of Paulist apostolates. It was a full year of learning about myself.”

Father Abdella’s priestly formation and education was completed in Washington, D.C., where he earned a master’s degree in theology from Catholic University. He was ordained in 1985 at the Paulist mother church, the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan.

After ordination, Father Abdella spent 13 years as a campus minister at the University of California at San Diego, including a two-year study leave. After the Paulists withdrew from San Diego in 1998, Father Abdella stayed to complete a master’s degree in genetic counseling at the University of California at Irvine,while living in a parish rectory for nearly two years. During this time, he was a Visiting Scholar in Pastoral Counseling and Education in Genetics at UCSD’s Medical School. He continues to work pastorally with families and individuals affected by genetic disorders.

Paulist Fr. Peter Abdella with students at the University Catholic Center at UCLA.
Paulist Fr. Peter Abdella with students at the University Catholic Center at UCLA.

In 2000, Father Abdella became associate pastor and the director of campus ministry at Newman Hall/Holy Spirit Parish at the University of California at Berkeley, before moving to his current post as director of the University Catholic Center at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2005.

Father Abdella’s passion for campus ministry comes directly from his “own faith’s being an elusive thing” as a young man and his being in the new and non-Catholic environment of a public university as a graduate student.

“I was enthusiastic about my faith one minute, reserved and puzzled the next, and questioning nearly all the time,” he said. “There were campus ministers at that time of my life who held on to me and let me flail about, do soul-searching and self-discovery in a setting where it was safe to do so. I like giving that safe space to other people.”

“There is excitement in academic enterprise, bringing learning into focus with one’s faith,” Father Abdella continued. “It is a special time for the students as they put together the pieces of their lives and seek answers to ‘the God question.’ ”

It is in helping others along the journey to God that Fr. Abdella finds fulfillment.

“It charges me up and continues to inspire me to bring the best I can to their search,” he said. “It is important to honor that questioning, that search. The Paulists have given me the liberty to do this, so I have been exceedingly blessed in my priesthood.”