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: A time to reflect on death

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November is a month when the Church asks us to pray for the dead. After celebrating those in heaven on Nov. 1, we pray for all the faithful departed who await heaven while undergoing purgation on Nov. 2, All Souls Day. The Church encourages us to pray for the dead by granting special indulgences in November to assist the souls in purgatory. A plenary (or full) indulgence can be received November 1-8 and then a partial indulgence the rest of the month when we “devoutly visit a cemetery and at least mentally pray for the dead” or “devoutly recite lauds or vespers from the Office of the Dead or the prayer Requiem aeternam”: “Eternal rest grant unto him/her (them), O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him/her/them. May he/she/they rest in peace. Amen.”

November, therefore, provides an opportunity to reflect upon death. Even the readings at the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of Advent point us to the coming judgment and end of the world. We may not relish contemplating death but doing so constitutes an essential element of a life well lived, realizing that our life on earth will decide how we spend eternity. Socrates described philosophy as a preparation for death and the same has been made for monasticism.  “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily,” the great Patriarch of monks, St. Benedict, directed in his Rule (ch. 4). A French writer, Nicholas Diat, put this maxim to the test in his new book, A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life (Ignatius, 2019). Diat, known for his three interview books with Cardinal Robert Sarah, visited eight monasteries in France — Norbertines, Benedictines, Cistercians, and Carthusians — to talk to the monks about their experience of death.

He describes why he wrote the book: “The West has worked hard to bury death more deeply in the vaults of its history. Today, the liturgy of death no longer exists. Yet fear and anxiety have never been as strong. Men no longer know how to die. In this desolate world, I had the idea to take the path of the great monasteries in order to discover what the monks might have to teach us about death. Behind cloister walls, they pass their existence in prayer and reflection of the last things. I thought their testimonies could help people understand suffering, sickness, pain, and the final moments of life. They have known complicated deaths, quick deaths, simple deaths. They have confronted death more often, and more intimately, than most who live outside monastery walls” (13).

I found that Diat achieved his objective. Although the monks live very different lives, they still face similar human struggles, sometimes magnified by lack of distractions, including the dominance of technology in sickness and the last stages of life. The Benedictine Monastery of En-Calcat experienced many difficult deaths and the superior, Dom David, related how sedation can make it hard to die: “We no longer feel life. We no longer feel humanity. We no longer feel God approaching” (55). When death approaches more naturally (or should we say supernaturally), the monks can die the “most beautiful death.” Such was the death of Father Henri Rousselot, who died at 96: “His face in death was magnificent. He was supernaturally radiant. The monks had the impression that his features had been drawn by God. Everyone who entered this room was struck by his beauty. Each found the child that Father Henri had always been” (72).

Some monasteries experienced difficult deaths — young monks whose lives were cut short by cancer, or, in the case of the canon Brother Vincent, multiple sclerosis, sudden deaths, even in chapel, or cases of dementia or mental illness. It did seem, however, in my own assessment, that the more a monastery was withdrawn from the world and its cares the more peaceful the deaths of its monks. This was true especially of the Grand Chartreuse (see the film Into Great Silence), where the monks live like hermits in the silent seclusion of prayer. Here the monks, already anticipating heaven, seem to die miraculously by slipping away peacefully. “The beauty of Carthusian deaths, sweet and simple, seems to bear witness to the fact that the spiritual combat of the sons of Bruno is so powerful that, in the final hour, fears are abolished. In the last moments, the peace that dwells in them is so profound that the majority of them are not afraid to die alone. They have spent their lives in the silence of an austere cell that sees them leave this earth” (165).

The book does not treat simply the experience of monks, but a central question for us all: “No one knows how he will live his death. Will we be courageous, fearful, happy? Will we be cowards or heroes?” (114). It’s time to start preparing now!