By Janice Colvin

Photography by Ed Pfueller

At a recent Sunday night Mass at St. Vincent’s Chapel, the congregation of students sang the Gloria, “and the roof almost came off the chapel,” says Rev. Jude DeAngelo, O.F.M. Conv., University chaplain and director of Campus Ministry. “You could just see all of our students singing together with one voice and praising God.”

Just a few days later, a few minutes before noon, a young woman entered the pre-Mass hush of Caldwell Chapel. Sunlight spilled through the jeweled colors of the stained glass windows. Candles flickered. She selected a pew, and waited in silent prayer. A handful of others entered and sat with hands folded. Mass began. Music filled the chapel like a light veil of incense. Looking out at the worshipers, the celebrant delivered a simple message — go forth and live your faith.

Two different liturgies, yet both with the same purpose. From the time Catholic University was founded in 1887 until today, liturgy — words and music together as a form of worship to praise God — has been an integral part of student life.

For Catholics, attending Mass is a sacred obligation, but at a Catholic institution of higher education, it is so much more, says Rev. Michael Witczak, professor of liturgical studies in the School of Theology and Religious Studies. “Celebrating Mass is part of an overarching goal of what education here is all about,” he says. “The Eucharist is the single most important thing that we do, ritually, as Catholics. It’s where we discover everything important about who we are in our relationship to God and who God is in relationship to us.”

During the academic year, Masses can be found in all the sacred spaces on campus — small daily ones at Caldwell Chapel or at Mary, Mirror of Justice Chapel at the Columbus School of Law, intimate weekly Masses at The House or in Flather residence hall, larger ones on Sundays at St. Vincent’s Chapel, and finally those of an even larger scale with thousands in attendance — the University-wide Masses of the Holy Spirit, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Baccalaureate — held at the adjacent Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The fact that the University offers so many opportunities in so many places to celebrate Mass is important to this community of young people, Father Witczak says. “By reminding students that even residence halls can be sacred places, we say that God is not just in the main chapels, but everywhere, even where we live. We hear the Scriptures read and we receive Christ in communion, then we share peace with one another and go forth to try to shape the world by the vision of the Eucharist that we’ve celebrated. I think that’s the key building block in any sort of Catholic approach to life, including the life of the school.”

Bringing the liturgy close to the students has a real lasting effect, says Timothy McEvoy, a 2013 graduate and a former Gibbons Hall student resident minister. He participated regularly at campus liturgies as an altar server and an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. “At CUA, we have some of the most beautiful liturgies,” he says. “The Church says we’re the most beautiful Church when we are praising God together at Mass.”

He notes that CUA was where he started attending liturgies beyond Sunday Mass. “Not only that, but this is where I learned why we pray the way we pray, how these things have developed,” he continues. “The first thing that struck me is how the liturgies are able to unite our community and lift us all towards praising God. It is a way to just connect us all.”

Gretchen Wade, a senior biology major and resident minister in Magner Hall during the 2012–2013 academic year, agrees. “It’s really great that the Masses are fully student led — choir, eucharistic ministers, lectors, and sacristans,” she says. “It shows that the campus community is actively engaged in both the Mass as it is occurring and in the way that one can share their gifts and talents to the campus community as a whole.”

Wade has served as a hospitality minister and an extraordinary minister since freshman year, and has sung for the Wednesday night Praise and Worship adoration in Caldwell Chapel. She says, “I just wish I could bottle up the CUA Mass experience and take it with me wherever I go. The fervor for the sacraments that I have gained an appreciation for is something that I will continue post graduation.”


The beauty and power of the liturgy comes from many elements flowing seamlessly into one — the result of much hard work and skillful and thoughtful preparation by many people. And that preparation — the prayers, the readings, the music, even down to who the readers and extraordinary ministers are — usually starts with the Office of Campus Ministry.

Aided by a group of faculty, administrators, student volunteers, and interns, David Pennington (B.A. 2007) until recently served as the University’s associate campus minister for liturgy and worship and played a key role in planning the University’s liturgies.

“When I planned liturgy, I looked at two things,” he says. “First, what the Church is giving us. The Church gives readings and prayers for the day, and I liked to use those because they are given for a reason. They fit into the larger context for the week or season. But I also looked at what is not prescribed, and that’s the group of people who are gathering to celebrate the liturgy. That group of people comes from different backgrounds and experiences, and those who gather might be coming together for something specific. We can make the liturgy speak to those particular needs,” for example, the Mass of Thanksgiving for Pope Francis or for the victims of Superstorm Sandy, and more routine needs such as exam week.

Pennington, who left CUA in July 2013 to accept a position as pastoral associate for liturgy at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., says his understanding and love of liturgy, extending back to his childhood when he was an altar server and music minister, allowed him to become a natural “matchmaker,” matching tasks and needs with those who could fulfill them.

“I got to know a lot of students and I found out what their gifts and talents were, and I would invite them to share those with us,” he said. “Someone would come up and say ‘I play the Irish harp, is there room for me?’ I would say, sure. We’ll figure a way to use your talent somehow.”

Father Jude adds, “David knew the resources and the documents on liturgy and the Mass, but you weren’t getting what he or his successor would favor when you enter into the liturgy, you are getting what the Church gives us as the Mass and Eucharist and what we are called to celebrate.”

Students’ involvement in the liturgy through sharing their unique gifts and talents “underscores the fullness of the Body of Christ,” Father Jude says, adding that this participation is essential to all liturgies at CUA. “Our students are alive in their faith,” he continues. “I think that because we are The Catholic University of America — it’s right there in the name — people are more apt to be proud of who they are as Catholic men and women. They are more apt to share their faith, more apt to volunteer and form their community of faith here. And I think that the liturgy spills over into their daily lives. And that’s what it’s supposed to do.”

While a small group can prepare for the liturgies on campus, planning for the large University Masses is more complex, with many parts needing coordination, says Frank Persico, vice president for university relations and chief of staff. These liturgies, like the President’s Inaugural, St. Thomas Aquinas, and others, are held at the Basilica to accommodate larger crowds, and they are planned by a specific committee. Hundreds of participants can be involved in any one, including concelebrating priests and bishops, faculty, administrators, students, alumni, parents, and guests. Other factors must be considered as well, such as where to put an entire orchestra and choir, along with the added requirements of electronic recording and broadcasting by the University’s broadcasting partner — EWTN Global Television Network — and the University’s own digital recording crew.

“There’s a lot that goes into these liturgies, and it gets a little crazy,” Persico says. “People just think they are going to Mass, but they don’t realize that there were weeks of planning that went in front of it.” Liturgies like the Mass of the Holy Spirit don’t take as long to plan these days, he adds, “because we’ve done it for so long. But we always have new faculty or administrators, so there are always rehearsals that must take place.”

However, if there is one thing to remember about liturgies at CUA, it would be “that we do a really fantastic job of them,” he adds. “All the elements — the celebrants, the music, the congregation, the venue — come together to produce a Mass that is majestic. The liturgies are unique because we don’t take them for granted.”


Liturgy is much more than the spoken word, says Father Jude. “The Church has always emphasized that the liturgy should be sung as much as possible and this is something that liturgists of CUA emphasize in their planning, as well.”

Two graduate students in the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music work with Campus Ministry to choose appropriate music for the liturgies planned by the office, and the music school faculty and student music groups play key roles bringing that music to the worship celebrations. Students also independently volunteer to participate in the music at various liturgies.

Kevin O’Brien (D.M.A. 2011), a lecturer in music, notes that planning music properly is key to the beauty of any liturgy; consequently, liturgical planning is an important part of the music school’s curriculum. “When planning a liturgy and what kind of music goes into it, we believe that there is a disposition, a mindset, the Church wishes to consider,” he says. The music in each liturgy should reflect what readings and other text the Church has set down for the day, and this changes from day to day, O’Brien adds.

Leo Nestor, Justine Bayard Ward Professor and director of the Institute of Sacred Music, agrees. In addition to using musical pieces set for the particular day, faculty — including Nestor — and students of the music school compose and perform original pieces for Masses on campus and at the Basilica.

“It is important to realize that music is not a part of, it is liturgy,” says Nestor. Certain elements of the Mass are musical in nature. “Take the psalms, the alleluia, the eucharistic acclamations — they are inherently musical forms and that is the mode in which they are proclaimed. The Mass exists to be sung. If all this is done well, the intrinsic beauty shines through.”

The beauty found in all liturgies, and especially the ones at CUA, is meant to be experienced, says O’Brien. “In a million ways, we show our students what it means to manifest goodness every day. We do not wish it to be a special occasion that people understand the manifestation of God is beautiful. This is very much at the heart of what our students do. They work hard every day to accomplish Godliness on earth.” 

Experiencing Christ

Ultimately, says McEvoy, it is what the students learn about experiencing Christ in a real, tangible way that matters most.

“I’ve learned over the past year, especially as a student minister, that the invitation to Mass, that invitation to be part of the faith community here on campus, is so much easier when liturgies to which you are inviting others are so beautiful and so exciting to attend,” he says. “Knowing that when we get to the church door, people will be there welcoming us with a smile. As we walk in, someone will say hi and we’ll sit down with friends, and know that there’s a community there backing us up and participating with us as well. And when we begin the liturgy, we know that everyone around us will be singing and offering themselves and coming together as one community, around the table.”