Duke Catholic Center

Duke University 037 Chapel Basement
P.O. Box 90974
North Carolina
Senior Pastor: 
Fr. Joseph Vetter
Roman Catholic
Praying with the Blue Devils

 It's 9:00 p.m. on February 14 and I'm sitting in a pew at the Duke University Chapel with my laptop open. Even though it's Valentine's Day, to my surprise the chapel is half full. Either these students are exceptionally devout or everyone came to Mass because they couldn't find dates. Either way, I'm impressed by the piety of these Blue Devils.

This Mass is run by the Duke Catholic Center. Duke's Chapel isn't only for Catholics, though; several denominations share the Duke Chapel every Sunday for their services. Ecumenically speaking, I think it's amazing that so many denominations worship under one roof, albeit at different times. It's rare. The chapel building itself dwarfs many city cathedrals, so I'm glad the university ministries are using the space wisely.

Students run all the music for the Mass and they do a great job, even though Gothic cathedrals don't offer the best acoustics. Fr. Joe Vetter, the center's director, works primarily with undergraduate students. I met with Fr. Joe a couple days before the Mass and was impressed by his openness to ideas and suggestions concerning campus ministry. Fr. John McDonagh runs the graduate school ministries and I'm always awed by his gift for hospitality. When the graduate students get together for dinners once a month, Fr. John is always working the room introducing people so nobody feels left out.

Graduate school is by nature extremely isolating and often rewards only "lone wolf" behavior. Our social lives often suffer from the amount of time we spend in the library and on dissertations, so I'm always grateful for Fr. John and his ability to make everyone feel welcome and connected. Fr. John has a great memory and always helps people start conversations. I've often heard him say, "Have you met Tyler? He's over at the Divinity School and he grew up in Alaska," just before meeting someone new.

But back to tonight's Mass. Brother Jorge (Deacon) preached about the tension of trust in the Christian life. He explained that on one hand we are supposed to put our trust in God alone, but as a matter of practicality we need to trust fellow students, our parents, and our teachers. Trusting in others can sometimes help us see things in another light, but can also let us down. Br. Jorge explained that he had to trust God to pick up his whole life and study to be a Dominican in America. He had to leave his family, friends, and community in Colombia and trust God first and foremost. He closed by urging the need to hold on to a trusting relationship with God over every obstacle. Overall it was a poignant and concise homily about the need to trust God.

We partook in the Eucharist, sang together and departed back into the Gothic wonderland that is the Duke University campus. One of my favorite parts about Mass is that Catholic priests make a great effort to shake everyone's hands on their way out. As small a thing as this may be, I think it does a very good job in breaking down the perceived divide between the clergy and the laity.

My experience in this parish is somewhat limited because I only started at Duke about six months ago. There are several things the Duke Catholic Center can do to innovate its ministry and better fulfill its mission. I've noticed that there is a strong divide on the campus between undergraduate and grad students. This is a very common thing on most college campuses, but I believe there are a lot of opportunities for grad students to help undergrads discern their majors and be mentors. I also think this can help grad students stay grounded in their insanely busy lives.

The Duke Catholic Center is already committed to social justice, but it has the power to expand its reach. The most formative experience I had in my undergraduate years in Seattle was tutoring high school and middle school students. The Duke Catholic Center already has avenues to help students tutor students in the Durham area. This could be one of the strongest points of their ministry. The reason my experience at Seattle U. had such a big impact on my life was that I met with a small group of three other students who were also tutoring and running after school programs in our neighborhood. So we weren't just doing social justice, but grounding it in our faith every week. We discussed little successes and big hardships of our faith, our service, and our lives. We saw true discipleship occur when we combined the best of small group ministry and service to the same community. The Duke Catholic Center already covers several of these aspects, but combining them would make the Center a powerful force for the Kingdom.

The Duke Catholic Center has a lot of really strong points, but it also has a lot of opportunities knocking to better serve the Church and God's children. I think the leadership is accepting of the creativity and innovation needed to serve the faithful in a culture that is quickly evolving and changing while remaining grounded to the teachings of the Church. They have to be doing something right if this many students show up on Valentine's day, right?


I remember Father Joe Vetter when he began his ministry at St. Michael's in Cary in the 70's!  He was always an engaging person.