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Year for Priests: Campus minister clicks with college students

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

By David Eck

DAYTON DEANERY — While most priests tend to minister to a congregation of all ages from all walks of life, Father Edward Burns works primarily with a unique group of Catholics: college students.

And it’s obvious he enjoys it.

The director of Catholic Campus Ministry at Wright State University since 2006, Father Burns is as comfortable working in his office in jeans and a button-down shirt as he is celebrating the wedding Masses of Wright State graduates.

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Father Edward Burns, campus minister at Wright State University since 2006, works out of the upper floor of a small building just off the campus. (CT/David Eck)

“My role is to be the Catholic presence on campus, the Catholic outreach to the university community,” he said. “It’s a much more focused ministry.”

It’s also ministry that works through classes, grades, studying and the everyday challenges of college life, which means plenty of late nights.

At first glance the campus ministry building just off the edge of the Wright State University campus in Fairborn looks more like a barn than a chapel. Inside chairs and an altar are set up with office areas on the second level. The building dates to 1972, when students built it as a temporary structure. The archdiocese owns the building and the ground on which it sits.

The campus ministry is like a small parish buzzing with activity. More than 140 people attend the two Masses Father Burns celebrates each weekend. He also offers the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and has the occasional baptism.

In addition, he’s the advisor to the Newman Catholic Student Association at Wright State, the official Catholic organization serving the university community. The association plans activities throughout the year, including an annual mission trip to a boy’s orphanage in Mandeville, Jamaica, run by the Sisters of Mercy.

Being active in campus ministry provides students with the opportunity to explore leadership roles so they will be more productive when they become active in parishes as adults.

“Working with college students is always a unique experience,” Father Burns said. “They’re beginning to understand their faith as adults. It’s exciting to share that with them.”

Students say the 37-year-old priest, who enjoys steak, likes the color green and whose favorite rock group is U2, clicks with them.

“He’s in the right place at the right time,” said Lauren Faller, a Wright State graduate student who has been active with campus ministry since 2004. “He understands college life, so he’s really able to connect with this community.”

He relates to them and can help them through their experiences, she said.

“We have a very unique congregation,” she said. “Not just anybody is able to connect with 20 year olds.”

Father Burns enjoys sharing the “God” moments in students’ lives, such as when he is asked to celebrate their wedding Masses. Last August he celebrated the wedding of Faller and her husband, Derick.

“He remembers what it’s like to be where we are and shares his experiences,” Faller said. “When you can find someone working with the age group they’re supposed to be working with, good things happen.”

Father Burns grew up in what is now West Chester Township and attended St. John Parish and St. Gabriel Consolidated School. After graduating from then-Lakota High School, he earned a bachelor’s degree in communication and theatre arts from Heidelberg College in Tiffin.

Though Father Burns “had a good impression of the priesthood,” he expected that he would end up marrying and starting a family. In his sophomore year at Heidelberg, Franciscan Sister Margaret Slowick, the campus minister, first brought up the idea of priesthood.

After graduating from Heidelberg and a year of graduate school at the University of Cincinnati in 1996, Father Burns again became active at his boyhood parish, where he continued to discern a call to the priesthood. Fathers James Meade, then-pastor at St. John in West Chester, and the late Father Raymond Favret, associate pastor, encouraged his vocation.

“(Father) Meade and (Father) Favret were such wonderful examples of priesthood,” Father Burns said. “If Father Ray hadn’t been around, it just wouldn’t have happened. It was just his encouragement. I guess he saw something in me, and he just did everything he could to nurture that. It was his friendship, really.”

Father Burns became active in Christ Renews His Parish (CHRP) at St. John, started in the Lay Pastoral Ministry Program at the Athenaeum of Ohio and soon decided to enter the seminary. He served his internship at St. Ann Parish in Hamilton under Father Dennis Dettenwanger, pastor, and was ordained in 2004.

“I was so lucky,” Father Burns said. “I had several great priest mentors.”

He served as parochial vicar at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Anderson Township and taught religion part-time at McNicholas High School. He also was chaplain of the school’s football team.

In 2006, he was assigned to Wright State, an assignment for which he is grateful.

“I got a position doing something I was hoping to do in my priesthood,” Father Burns said. “So much of my ministry is the informal discussions that happen. That’s just building the relationships and discussing what it is to be church.”

David Eck can be reached at deck@catholiccincinnati.org.

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