‘Ambitious’ capital campaign to shape Church’s future in Fort Collins and beyond

Moira Cullings

During his first year of theology in the seminary, Father Rocco Porter was gifted with a special task during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Denver for World Youth Day.

“I held his prayer book all the way through the Mass,” he said. “It was an extraordinary experience just to be that close to him, to be in the same place with him, but then to be standing right in front of him for the majority of the Mass.”

The 1993 Cherry Creek Mass celebrated by the now-saint was unlike anything Father Porter had ever witnessed, especially since he looked up to Pope John Paul II so much.

Father Rocco Porter is the pastor at St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Collins, which, through the Ram Catholic ministry, seeks to nurture the faith of college students at CSU. (Photo by Joshua Paul Photography)

“I knew at that point that whole experience was going to shape my priesthood,” he said.

What the young seminarian didn’t know at the time was the influence the pope’s visit would have on his future assignment as a priest.

An ‘undeniable presence’

Father Porter is the pastor of St. John XXIII in Fort Collins, where many of the Catholics involved in the parish are students at Colorado State University.

Equipped with FOCUS missionaries and a campus ministry called Ram Catholic, St. John has been successful at nurturing the faith of young adults at CSU. But parish staff members haven’t shaken the message Pope John Paul II left for the Catholic Church during his visit to Denver, and it’s prompted them to desire more.

“Twenty-six years later, as the Catholic faithful we look at all the crises inside the Church worldwide, and we have to wonder, what did this pope know?” said Luke Hecker, Capital Campaign Manager at St. John.

“How prophetic that he could see the Church would be in such turmoil as he was planting the seeds of the New Evangelization in Denver, Colorado.”

To participate more deeply in that movement, the team at St. John created the “Undeniable Presence” capital campaign — a five-year project that will shape the future of countless CSU students.

“This is a very, very ambitious capital campaign,” said Hecker.

It’s so ambitious that when Father Porter first presented it to the Archdiocese of Denver, “they pretty much laughed at me and said, ‘This is great. Do you think you’re going to be able to do this?’” said Father Porter.

“I said, ‘No, I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this at all. I think God can.’”

This renderings portrays what the exterior of the brand-new St. John XXIII church building will look like once the project is finished. (Photo provided)

The $31 million project accounts for a new church, Newman center, parish hall and parking structure — a campus situated on the western edge of CSU.

This is largely possible because of Tom Gleason, a Fort Collins Catholic who donated several acres of land to the parish in the 1960s. Initially, the parish planned on selling some of that land in order to use the funds to buy a gas station lot that was out of business.

Although they were able to purchase the lot as part of the project, they were also able to keep the land by entering into a 99-year lease agreement with Blackbird Investments, a Catholic developer that has also agreed to include Catholic student housing on the campus property.

“I thought at first it was a scam,” said Father Porter.

But it wasn’t, and because of the parish’s partnership with Blackbird, the balance left over for St. John is only $8.6 million.

“Only God could take a $31 million project and bring in a benevolent Catholic developer and commit $22.4 million before we ever got a shovel in the ground,” said Hecker. “I think it’s miraculous.

“What we are recognizing is that truly, this project is part of the prophecy of St. John Paul the Great and his pilgrimage to Colorado in 1993 for World Youth Day.”

For Adam Hermanson, architect for the project, the beauty of the new church will serve as a key part of the late pope’s mission.

“Embodying the permanence of the faith, lifting our eyes to heaven, drawing us into the intimacy of the Eucharist, and forming us for mission — this new church will be a tremendous launch pad for the new evangelization,” said Hermanson.

According to Hermanson, it’s the details in the construction that will draw students in to practice and share their faith.

This rendering portrays what the interior of the brand-new St. John XXIII church building will look like. (Photo provided)

“The large stained-glass window extending high above the altar will serve as a beacon to the neighborhood, visible far across the university campus,” he said.

“Parishioners, students, clergy and campus ministry staff will utilize the Newman Center with its coffee shop, meeting rooms and active gathering spaces.”

Ultimately, the design, particularly of the interior of the church, “will be focused on the altar, the tabernacle and the baldachin that marks the center of the sacred space,” said Hermanson.

A worthy mission

The fruits of Ram Catholic are never as evident for Father Porter as when he walks out of the church and onto CSU’s campus.

“The students who are part of campus ministry are happy, joyful and excited,” he said. “Then you walk on campus and you realize there’s so many more students who don’t know Jesus Christ.

“There’s sadness and isolation. Everyone’s walking around with headphones on and nobody’s saying ‘hello’ to anyone. There’s a lack of joy,” said Father Porter. “We need to change the culture of our campuses. They’re missing out on a joy that God wants them to have and they don’t even know it.”

Creating a greater Catholic presence has the potential to change the hearts of young people from all walks of life.

“Those students need to see the church,” said Father Porter, “and they need to see a building that’s going to inspire them to want to go inside and meet the Lord.”

According to Father Porter, there’s around 6,000 to 8,000 Catholics at CSU, and Ram Catholic is able to reach around 1,500 of them. This campaign will help the parish extend its opportunities to grow in faith to many more.

St. John hopes to have all pledges in by June or July of this year, to break ground in early 2020 and complete the whole construction project by the beginning of the school year in 2021.

The capital campaign project will finance a new church building, parish hall and Newman center. This renderings portrays what the piazza of the brand-new St. John XXIII church building will look like. (Photo provided)

The parish’s staff remains in awe of the campaign’s continued success, especially at this time in the Church’s history.

“I thought this last crisis was going to hurt the ministry,” said Father Porter. “[But] it’s bringing students to the ministry. I think people are seeing the tremendous battle.

“I think they took that as this isn’t a time to abandon the Church — this is a time to take over the Church, renew the Church, be in this battle and help God purify the Church.”

This project is a testament to that desire.

“The Catholic Church has reason for hope again,” said Father Porter. “I really think that God is probably using this project, and he’ll continue to use others, to really build up his Church again because the Church is in such disarray right now.

“It’s going through some very dark times. I think it gives something for Catholics to get behind and to rebuild God’s Church to what it needs to be.”

COMING UP: The shock of forgiveness

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Every so often, the media will pick up a story that serves as a potent reminder of what it means to be a Christian. That’s because living as a Christian in today’s post-Christian society is an unusual way of living, contrary to what the rest of society might say about it. It is not “outdated.” It is not “irrelevant.” It is radical, countercultural and, to some, even incomprehensible.

On Oct. 2, the trial of Amber Guyger came to a close. Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, was charged with the murder of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old man who lived in the same apartment complex as Guyger. On Sept. 6, 2018, she walked into Jean’s apartment, thinking it was hers, saw Jean sitting there on the couch, and after giving verbal commands, shot him twice, killing him. It was an absolute tragedy and played into the ongoing national conversation about police behavior toward people of color (Guyger is white; Jean is black).

What I want to focus on is a particular moment that came at the end of Guyger’s trial, after she had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Jean’s younger brother Brandt took to the witness stand to address his brother’s killer directly. He wasn’t planning on saying anything during the trial but changed his mind at the last minute. A prompting of the Holy Spirit? I think yes, based on what happened next.

“I hope you go to God with all the guilt, all the bad things you may have done in the past,” Brandt told Guyger. “If you are truly sorry … I forgive you. If you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.” He continued, “I’m not going to say I hope you die … I personally want the best for you … I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want … and the best would be: give your life to Christ. Giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do.”

But it didn’t stop there. Brandt was bold enough to ask the judge if he had permission to give Guyger a hug. He was granted it, and they embraced for over a minute, Guyger weeping into Brandt’s shoulder, just as some of us might do were we to be embraced by Christ.

Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean hugs former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger after delivering his impact statement to her in Dallas, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Guyger has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her black neighbor in his apartment, which she said she mistook for her own unit one floor below. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

Brandt has every reason to hate Guyger. This woman gunned down his innocent brother who had his whole life ahead of him and was given a lighter sentence than what she originally faced. Those in the courtroom and watching on TV wouldn’t have been shocked to hear Brandt tell Guyger that he hopes she rots in hell. No, the shock from those in the courtroom – and subsequently, the rest of the nation – came when Brandt did the exact opposite.

With those words and the simple act of embracing his brother’s killer, Brandt gave the world an incredible witness to the forgiveness Christ calls us to live as Christians. Of course, you can count on the bickering voices of social media and pundits to take this powerful moment and exploit it for their own agenda, but that’s because many of them don’t understand. It is not normal in our culture to forgive. It is also not easy. And that’s what makes witnessing something like this so shocking. It was not supposed to happen, but it did. It defied every expectation. Make no mistake about it: Brandt was living his call to be more like Christ in that moment. And it is exactly this moment – this shocking moment – that we are able to get a glimpse of what it is to be a Christian.

Following Jesus does make for quite a shock. And it is that shock that we are called to bring to the rest of the world, just as Brandt Jean did.