Catholic campus ministry played an integral part in Father John Paul Kern’s faith journey and he hopes to provide the same experience for college students today.
Father Kern, a Dominican priest who resides at the St. Louis Bertrand Church friary in Old Louisville, joined the Catholic campus ministry staff at the University of Louisville last month as the full-time chaplain. The university resumes for the fall term Aug. 17.
His involvement with campus ministry began when he was an undergraduate student at Penn State. He began attending Mass, became involved in the RCIA program and eventually became Catholic there.
“I came to realize that God loved me very much and I wanted to grow closer to him,” Father Kern explained in an interview last week. “The community (at Penn State) was really wonderful and welcomed me warmly into the church and helped me grow immensely as a young Catholic. That was a huge personal journey.”
He continued his involvement in campus ministry as a grad student at Penn State. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2005 and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in 2009. Prior to becoming a Dominican, he worked for the government as a nuclear reactor inspector for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
During this time, he began to contemplate what God was calling him to do beyond his work in nuclear engineering. He took part in a number of lay missionary experiences and pilgrimages, including World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011. Through these experiences, he said, he found he loved serving and ministering to others. And, he thought about the priesthood more and more.
“When I was doing lay missionary activities, I loved it. I thought if only I could do this professionally, then this would be the life,” he said. “In finding the Dominicans, it was a completion and fulfillment of something that I had come to love — sharing the Gospel with people.”
He entered the Dominicans in 2012. While in formation, Father Kern continued his involvement with Catholic campus ministry at Dartmouth College and at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he worked with college students. He was ordained in 2019.
A college student’s natural inclination to search and ask questions is one Father Kern finds relatable.
“I have that desire for truth. I asked a lot of questions. That is an important thing. I really do want to encourage students to continue to ask questions, to ask the big questions,” he said. “I also want them to realize what faith has given them, to give a higher perspective to everything they are studying and learning, to understand who they are in God’s love and what life is for.”
Father Kern joins a team of Catholic campus ministers already in place at U of L: Deacon Andy and Joan Heinsohn, a husband-wife team; Elaine Slusser, secretary; and four missionaries from FOCUS, an outreach program for college students.
“I plan to work very closely with the four FOCUS missionaries. They are very good at reaching out to students on campus. They will certainly be present as well in the Interfaith Center and give some talks in the evenings, with retreats, and come to Mass and pray with the community,” he said.
The Catholic campus ministry team at U of L shares a space in the campus’s Interfaith Center with four other faith traditions. Father Kern will celebrate daily Mass in the center. Opportunities for confession and to pray in adoration will also be available each day.
An integral part of the ministry to college students will be time spent in community, Father Kern said. He and Deacon Heinsohn will be available each day and some evenings to simply offer a presence to students who want to chat or ask advice. A community meal will be offered on Sunday evenings. Regular gatherings to share about one’s faith, enjoy pizza or engage in an impromptu game of volleyball will take place during the week.
Father Kern also plans to work closely with Holy Name Church, situated just southwest of U of L’s Belknap Campus. He will celebrate Mass there on Sunday evenings at 9:30 p.m. and host other services throughout the school year.
Father Kern’s passion to accompany Catholic college students guides how he views his role as a chaplain for Catholic campus ministry, he said.
“Students in college are at a point in life where they are doing a lot of searching, especially searching for what will make them happy in life. At the same time, Jesus Christ is searching for them. If they open their hearts to him, they will find true joy,” he said. “In Catholic campus ministry, I hope to facilitate this encounter with Jesus Christ and to support them in coming to know him and finding what they are searching for.”
It’s crucial, he said, for the Catholic Church to reach out to young Catholics at this pivotal moment in their lives.
He intends to closely follow the university’s and local health officials’ guidelines regarding safety procedures in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students interested in learning more about Catholic campus ministry at U of L can visit uoflcatholic.org.