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Knott priest stresses supporting students in faith journeys

| Monday, January 20, 2020

When Fr. Dennis Strach found out he would be moving into Knott Hall at the beginning of last semester, he did not know what to expect. The last time he lived in a dorm, Strach was a student himself, and he wasn’t sure how he would approach serving as both a resource and a friend to his students. However, Strach feels the men of Knott quickly and readily accepted him into their community.

“It’s been short but it seems like in many ways I’ve known them for a while or the welcome has been such that I’ve been moved by their openness and their willingness to let me accompany them in their time at Notre Dame and in their faith journeys especially,” Strach said.

When Strach asked what Knott’s “thing” is, the rector, Pat Kincaid, said the community is rather spiritual. Though he was skeptical at first, Strach said he has found that to be true.

“[They ask] good questions trying to find the meat of their faiths, like ‘I don’t want to go to Mass and just have that be like a box to check or something I’m expected to do,’” Strach said. “Why do we go, what is that? How do you pray? Do you just talk to yourself? What is it? Good questions, not doubting their faith but wanting to try to get something out of it and be in relationship with Christ.”

One of the benefits of having a priest in residence, Strach said, is being able to see religion in a context other than Mass or in the classroom.

“I think to be able to see you as a normal person sort of lends itself to a deeper relationship,” Strach said. “I find that in those moments or the informal gatherings … we realize that we’re on the same journey. We’re in different places, we might have taken different paths, maybe you’re called to the same path, I don’t know but living alongside your students or being able to be an active part of their lives and build an actual relationship with them outside of just Mass or something lends itself to that. … It helps put some flesh on the bones of that statement that we try to like walk alongside our students, not just in your academic endeavors but really just in your normal life. I’m blessed to be in that role.”

Strach also serves as the associate director of vocations for the U.S. province of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, and he focuses on high school students who are interested in the priesthood. Strach compared his goals to marketing but with a twist.

“You’re not selling a product or recruiting, but rather what you’re selling is the authenticity of your own life and the fact that I’m actually happy and if I could choose anything else, I would choose this again. There’s a lot of people that would,” Strach said.

One of the challenges and aims in Strach’s role as both a vocations director and a priest in residence is to break down the stereotypes and misconceptions about life as a priest.

“You’re always trying to help people kind of create the space to think about your gifts and talents,” Strach said. “But I think [the role] any priest or brother really plays is probably just the witness of their life, like a married couple: if you’re happy, people say like, whatever you guys got, I want to do that … authentic joy and integrity in your vocation leads people to ask some good questions, but also want what you want.”

Accompaniment, or supporting and listening to people on their faith journeys, is a big part of both of Strach’s roles. 

“The role of a vocations director is really just to kind of create some structure such that people have the space and kind of resources, accompaniment to think about this vocation, have someone to work with to ask their questions and line them up with where they need to be,” Strach said.

Strach stressed that priests in residents should be seen as a resource for all students, no matter their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

“Hopefully through the witness of so many people on campus and, again, steady presence and being around enough that they know of our care for them, whether it’s explicit conversation or just being at their game or being at their play or their concert … for those people that there might be some barriers to to our communicating or seeing me as a resource, hopefully those will break down,” he said.

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