Reception kicks off Professor of Theological Studies at Colorado State University

Father Don Willette donated $1 million toward endowment for new professorship

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By Peter Droege

An overflow crowd of more than 150 people gathered in the Lory Center at Colorado State University March 31 to celebrate the launch of the endowment for the Father Don Willette Professor of Theological Studies, fulfilling years of effort by the beloved retired priest who dedicated much of his years of service to campus ministry in northern Colorado.  

“Father Willette always made himself available to celebrate Mass for players and coaches when game schedules didn’t allow us to attend at a local parish,” explained Sonny Lubick, famed coach of the CSU Rams football team who attended the celebration. “It is great to be here to see his vision fulfilled for a full-time professor who can engage students on the impact of spirituality and religion on our nation and world.” 

Father Rocco Porter, pastor of St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Collins, offered the opening prayer at the celebration. The parish is just off the campus and has launched a campaign to dramatically expand its church and student center, as well as to partner on a student housing complex.  

This program will be a great fit with our vision of engaging students and people in the greater community around the history, philosophy, and social impact of the Catholic Church,” Father Porter told the Denver Catholic. “People involved in campus ministry recognize the impact of having a professor dedicated to theological studies and it is amazing to see that being realized through the hard work and determination of Father Willette.”  

Dr. Ben Withers, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at CSU, who is not Catholic, told those gathered for the reception that he was honored to work with Father Willette in creating the program.   

“We live in unsettled times and it is important for universities to offer ways for students to engage around important issues on both an academic and personal level,” explained Dr. Withers. “We are in the process of searching for the right professor who will help guide this program – we are hoping to find a younger version of Father Willette,” he joked. 

More than 150 people gathered in the Lory Center at Colorado State University March 30 to celebrate the launch of the endowment for the Father Don Willette Professor of Theological Studies. (Photos provided)

Father Willette, who spoke at the reception, was at St. Thomas Seminary in Denver in the 1960s when he was moved to enroll in the Air Force and served in the Vietnam War, earning multiple decorations for valor. After discharge, he returned to the seminary and was ordained in 1984 while continuing to serve in the reserves, eventually retiring as a Colonel. 

Through careful stewardship of his retirement funds, and “a little bit of luck” in real estate, Father Willette was able to provide $1 million towards the $1.5 million endowment for the professorship. A number of his friends and former parishioners who attended the reception also made donations to the endowment.  

“Providence rules,” Father Willette told those gathered for the reception. “My dream was to create a program where people of all faiths will have a safe space to explore their relationship with God and one another – I am grateful to Archbishop Aquila and everyone at CSU for their support that helped make this program possible.” 

Denise Pfnister, who worked with Father Willette when he was pastor of St. Louis Church in Louisville, attended the reception with her extended family. “Our pastors dedicate their lives in service to us, and all of them plant seeds of hope and renewal, but few have the chance to be there to reap the harvest of their ministry,” she explained. “Father Willette walks in faith and places all his hopes and dreams with God and it is wonderful to be here today to be with him as he sees the fulfillment of his vision for this program.”  

For more information on the program, visit https://source.colostate.edu/heavenly-gift-local-priest-creates-new-faculty-position-at-csu/ 

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash