Since January, students have spotted Associate Chaplain Father Athanasius on campus. In his conspicuous white robes, working in Brody or talking with students on the Beach, he quickly caught students’ attention.
Athanasius is the chaplain assigned to the Saints Philip and James Catholic Church and University Parish. He works with the Hopkins Catholic community to organize events on campus.
Athanasius has also developed a strong social media presence. One video of him rapping has garnered over 50,000 views on Facebook. His Twitter account features a clip of him juggling a soccer ball in front of Levering Hall.
“As people have put it, it’s almost impossible to miss me wherever I go,” he said.
Before he was called Father Athanasius, he went by Robert and grew up on Long Island in New York. He attended Providence College and like many students, he started off without knowing exactly what he wanted to do.
In college, Athanasius took a class, Ancient and Medieval Theories of Happiness, which inspired him to become a priest.
“It was really through that semester that I started to question the big topics of life,” he said. “If I could tie together the virtues of love and sacrifice and I could live in a way that is a radical witness to the teachings of Jesus, then I would love to do that.”
He completed his theology degree in Washington, D.C., and after taking his vows became ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church. He explained how he received his new name, Athanasius.
“I submitted three names that they could pick from,” he said. “But if I pick three really common names that everyone else is going to pick, then I probably wouldn’t get them. So Athanasius was the one I wanted the most and it’s the one I ended up taking.”
His parents were originally apprehensive about his career choice.
“Initially, it was difficult [for my parents to see] their only child living a
celibate life as a priest,” he said. “But over time, they became very supportive. They love hearing about the different encounters I have, my ministry, and the different things I preach or teach about.”
Athanasius explained why he chose to work on a college campus.
“I’ve always loved working with young people. I love the college-aged,” he said. “I think I have an energy and enthusiasm for young people, so that’s why I desire to be a chaplain.”
Athanasius thinks the Hopkins community is friendly, and many students defy the common stereotype of being too hardworking.
“I definitely see that the students work, and I think they do pay a lot of attention to their studies, but I think a deeper and fuller assessment of the students here is that they’re just seeking to excel in whatever they do,” he said. “They just want to do well. They want to be good people.”
Athanasius wears a white robe because he is part of the Dominican Friars, a Catholic order. His eye-catching robe has caught the attention of many students.
“I was walking to Gilman, and there was a student paralleling me, and she had her phone out,” Athanasius said. “So I turned and I smiled and I said, ‘Are you Snapchatting me?’ And she said, ‘Maybe?’”
Athanasius appreciates being able to encourage and help students during their stressful times.
“I remember I was walking to class on campus, and a student came up to me and said, ‘I really need to talk to a priest about some questions I had,’” he said. “She had been going to Catholic mass, but she had not been brought up Catholic… I was able to give her some advice and ended with a prayer.”
He related how he got interested in rapping when he first joined the Dominican Order.
“In your first year as a Novice, you’re in a lot of silence. I got kind of bored, honestly,” he said. “I was noticing that a lot of words rhyme. So I started to write down words that rhyme.”
Athanasius gave an example of a rap he came up with.
“College students, a lot of the times can struggle with what’s called boredom. And so there’s a deeper rap I wrote,” he said. “It goes: ‘Bored by the void of interior noise, we kill for the thrill of a wearier choice. Moved up to lose of material joys, but we never knew enough of the true love we always avoid.’”
Athanasius explained that he lives a monastic life with a community of priests next to the church.
“We wear a monastic habit, we chant the psalms back and forth for morning and evening prayers,” he said. “I’ve taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for the rest of my life, which means that I will never actually be married, I will have no possessions that I own to my name and that I will have a superior who directs me.”
Athanasius spoke about his attitude toward talking with students of different religions.
“There has not been any kind of conflict or opposition to any of the work that I’m doing, I think primarily because I am willing to meet where the student is at,” he said. “[I do not] think that it is my responsibility to change somebody’s life around a single instance or meeting.”
Senior Akshay Alaghatta found Athanasius to be a welcoming presence on campus.
“I thought he was an incredibly positive and interesting guy with a different way of looking at the world than what I was accustomed to,” he said. “He encourages me to reach outside of my bubble to others.”
Falyn Weiss, a sophomore, was more apprehensive about his presence on campus.
“Though I believe that Hopkins should of course fund religious programs (as long as they give no preference to one religion over the other), I do believe that religion should have a particular place — the Interfaith center (or Hillel, etc.),” Weiss wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
She then elaborated on the importance of having designated spaces.
“It makes me uncomfortable whenever I walk into Brody and there is a priest hanging out with students. People should be coming to him — he shouldn’t be seeking out students.”
Senior Alexandra Capellini emphasized that Athanasius was not on campus only to proselytize.
“I think it’s easy to get lost in the daily grind at Hopkins. Father makes a priority of getting to know students’ stories on an individual basis,” she said. “You don’t have to talk about faith exclusively. He is genuinely interested in how our days are going and reminds us that there’s someone on campus who cares about our well-being. That means a lot here.”