Special to the Catholic Herald
Dcn. Thomas Weiss guided and pastorally cared for students in decades of work at the Newman Center at UW-River Falls before retiring in early 2019.
Just back from a months-long vacation in Florida, Dcn. Weiss hasn’t stayed away from the center. This time, he’s serving as a part-time volunteer, doing things such as pastoral advising, which includes care at a nursing home across town near St. Bridget Parish.
Observing Holy Week here in Wisconsin and at the center itself was in his blood, so the deacon hightailed it home for a bit before returning briefly to finish up his southern break. Summer brought not another vacation, but more pastoral ministry.
That love of his work is largely since there were many success stories; through the center, he saw the growth of faith, both in students and in community members of various ages.
His ministry includes joint efforts with St. Bridget, and also, of course, the constant challenge of reaching those who are not religious.
“We have tried to be open to all students, Catholics and non-Catholics, devout and not so devout. Our approach was to be available to all students, not just the ones who carry their ‘cool Catholic card,’ to quote a student who graduated about 10 years ago.
“We never asked their beliefs,” Weiss said. “When they showed up for religious events, they participated every week, as non-Catholic students came to Mass. They knew they should not take communion and so either they did not … or they approached with their arms crossed to receive a blessing. That they were there and participating helps to bring all of us closer to God.”
Weiss and students have taken many mission trips during spring break, some near the area he vacationed in while in Florida, and at least 25 percent of attendees were not devout or non-Catholic, Weiss said.
“Most of those came back with a much greater appreciation of our faith and how they were more grace-filled after those experiences,” he added. “I still keep in contact with most of the students over the past 20 years who have graduated … They remind me often of those mission trips and how much they enjoyed them… me too!
“I think our approach is one of a three-legged stool – ‘spiritual, social and service’ was the way to approach all kinds of … students that came to us. Some we drew in because of the faith, Catholic Bible studies, books and studies, classes on Catholicism, services in the chapel, prayer circles and many other things; others were more interested in the social activities and that drew them in, and others for the service projects. At the end, each of them came out closer to Christ and more able to be better Christians in life.”
Did it ever get discouraging with students who were basically unchurched?
“No, no, they were all questioning!” he said. “We have to meet the students where they are in their faith journey. Sometimes they are curious about these Catholics. So I tried to answer their questions. Fifteen or 16 years ago, I realized that many of these students do not know their faith very well, so I put together an outline of a semester long ‘course’ that I called Catholic 101,” Weiss said. “We have presented it many times and it has been excellent. About three years ago, we had an average of 30 attending for most of a semester, it was great! My theory was, and still is, we have to meet them where they are and go from there. Each is different, so we have to be different for them.”
There were also dozens of all-out successes, across a broad spectrum, when things came together with someone building their faith.
“Early on, we had one young lady walk in and ask what she could do. She was great her entire time with us, and she remains very active in her church at home,” Dcn. Weiss said. “There are dozens of these students, and many of them have asked me to do their weddings in their home parish. That is special too, because I know we have made a connection. We have one girl that was very active and prior to her wedding, she invited us to her parents’ home for the groom’s dinner.”
The woman showed them around the house, and as they were leaving her room, Weiss noticed she had taped near her door a saying he used all the time: “Be the face of Christ to everyone you meet.”
“Again you know something clicked there,” he said.
Another young person asked how to become a Catholic.
“We talked for a long time about her going through the program. She never did, mostly because her father is an ELCA minister with his own parish, but she graduated having been very active and very knowledgeable about the faith,” Dcn. Weiss said.
He attended Fr. Rich Rhinehart’s ordination last year and encountered a former Newman student who had not been very active as a Catholic.
“Turns out he listened, and now is in Rome studying for the priesthood for another diocese,” Weiss said.
It’s all a case of meeting students where they are at, he added. “Changing my approach worked only in softening the way I would approach students. Sometimes we get students that tell us what they had been told either by parents, friends or sometimes sisters or other deacons or priests, and sometimes early in my career at Newman, I would have bluntly corrected them,” Weiss elaborated. “Now, I just gently find out exactly what they were told and then try to get them to realize there were other ways to do things.”
And lastly, were there some really devout students who were that way from the get-go, and were these a joy, or a breath of fresh air?
“We did run into those, and most of the time they were easy to deal with,” Weiss said, adding the center had a student graduating this spring whose father was the campus minister at another public college in Minnesota and his mother was a religion teacher at a local Catholic high school.
“I had to be a bit cautious around him, because he was very well educated. He took over a number of my classes for the three months I was in the hospital in 2016 (with a bad leg problem). Great kid.”
Dcn. Weiss’ career saw his involvement with the center increase early and often. He started at the director of procurement at the university in November 1984.
A few days later, he walked into the chapel and met Missionary Oblate Fr. Pat Casey.
“Fr. Pat and I talked often, and I started to attend a few student events and help out around the place,” he said, adding that Fr. Bob Olson, another Missionary Oblate priest, was assigned a few years later, and his involvement escalated.
Then, in 1991, he recalled the longtime faculty adviser retired, and Dcn. Weiss was asked to take over … and even got busier, as he was then the “old guy” on the block. Weiss said he realized in 1998 that he was called to become a deacon, and after a transfer occurred in 2001 and another priest was assigned temporarily, that person needed a lot of assistance and Weiss found himself volunteering as director while he was technically chaplain.
Nine months later, he was offered the job as director of campus ministry on a halftime basis … sort of … with the understanding it would be a full-time job when students were there and about 10 percent time when they were not.