“YHWH is a tricky YHWH,” proclaimed Father John Nepil, mimicking the gravelly voice of his 90-year-old spiritual director. As my eyes dart around the room to gauge my fellow Bernardians’ (St. Thomas Bernardi Campus students) response, I notice Fernando rolled over in his seat giggling like a child while Lisa is laughing so hard tears are welling up in her eyes. Like dominoes falling, the room proceeds to burst into laughter, shattering the deafening silence we had grown accustomed to while on silent retreat. Father John’s novel description of the Lord and peculiar delivery is the perfect archetype of a man who uses humor and engrossing storytelling to bring his students closer to Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the person laughing the hardest is not one of the students, but Father Austin Litke ’04, a Dominican priest and fellow Catholic Studies Rome Program chaplain. While Father John won over our hearts with his jokes and imitations, Father Austin brought our community together through a musical ability that would make the popular Catholic pop singer Chris Tomlin blush. If there was ever a voice made to chant “Through Him, with Him, and in Him…” during the final doxology at Mass it is Father Austin’s rich tenor. Whether watching Father Austin sing “Come My Way” in New York City’s Grand Central Station on YouTube, or hearing him twang out some bluegrass down the hall in the community room, all study came to a halt at the sound of his voice.
Although he does not display the comedic zeal of Father John or Father Austin’s natural sense of rhythm, Father Evan Koop ’12 MDiv may have been our group’s most beloved chaplain. He was known for his saintly empathy and profound theological knowledge. We could not help but wonder if his line for spiritual direction was similar to Saint John Vianney, the great pastor, confessor and homilist and the namesake of his minor seminary. We took to heart spiritual nuggets from his homilies, such as “there is a resistance in our hearts to letting us be served” and “Jesus lives in our weaknesses.” Father Evan challenged the status quo of our personal faith lives and broadened our view of the Lord. If someone were to ask any of my Bernardi semester friends what time well spent looked like in Rome, they would say having a conversation with Father Evan over a nice glass of cabernet.
Before Rome, my experience with priests was distant and rarely personal. They were men of utility in my life – a way to hear a message about the Catholic faith and to receive the Blessed Sacrament. This was until I met the three Catholic Studies semester Bernardi chaplains. I was immediately drawn to their energy and enthusiasm but, more importantly, they seemed to possess a genuine interest in each of the students. This was evident when, after Mass on Wednesday evenings, the priests would stay to jam on the guitar, tell jokes and share stories about the pranks they would play on each other during their days in minor seminary. Spending time with the three chaplains outside of a church setting made me realize the great depth these men possessed, and how each of them had many interests, passions and life experiences like my own. As I reflect on my time in Rome, now almost two years ago, I realize just how blessed I was to have not one, but three campus chaplains. Father John, Father Austin and Father Evan’s witness to the faith and zeal for life served as the cornerstone of a vibrant Bernardi Campus culture. I figured I’d make a few friends while in Rome. I never imagined three of them would be priests. YHWH sure is a tricky YHWH.