By Jeff Miller
Special to The Texas Catholic
Two lives immersed in the Catholic faith — one whose life journey has led to becoming a bishop, the other about to be further shaped following college graduation in a few weeks – were recognized when SMU’s Catholic Campus Ministry celebrated its 90th anniversary with a dinner held at the Bush Institute on campus on Saturday, April 23. Bishop Greg Kelly provided opening remarks and the blessing.
Bishop Michael Duca — now leading the Diocese of Baton Rouge, La. — served as the campus ministry’s chaplain from 1985 through 1994 and was honored as this year’s winner of the Servant Leader Award. In the weeks before he was summoned to Rome 28 years ago to spend two years studying canon law, he started the process that led to the construction of the ministry’s now-27-year-old center at the corner of University Boulevard and Airline Road.
“I just see (the award) as representing not just myself but all those campus ministers that have served over those 90 years,” said Bishop Duca, who doubled as the Diocese of Dallas’ vocations director during part of his time on campus.
Leanne Dang is a senior majoring in applied mathematics and statistics and this year’s recipient of the ministry’s Student Servant Leader Award. Dang, from St. Louis, chose to attend SMU in great measure because of the presence of the Catholic student ministry; she and her parents visited the ministry house during her first campus visit when she was a high school junior. Dang quickly established herself as a leader among SMU’s Catholic students.
“The Catholic Center here has been a really integral part of my college experience that kept me really grounded in my relationship with God and in my faith,” Dang said. “It gave me the opportunity to look back and see all the blessings I’ve had.”
A growing ministry
The university was 21 years old when a group of Catholics formally organized in 1932 to further serve their faith needs. Today, about 160 students typically attend the 5 p.m. Sunday Mass at Perkins Chapel with 60-70 then heading to the Catholic center for “Sunday supper.” The three-story house features rooms for small and large groups to gather on any day plus the second-story chapel that hosts Masses and Eucharistic Adorations each weekday.
College ministries can resemble a parish in many ways, but Beverly Mendoza — the ministry’s director of development and organizer of the anniversary celebration — pointed out the primary difference.
“The thing that’s always fascinating to me — and I’ve been here eight years — is we get an absolute new audience every four years,” Mendoza said. “So, we have to stay on our toes and reaching students where they are because the world’s changing and changing fast.”
Father Wade Bass became the ministry’s director and chaplain in July 2020 and said his mission is particularly rewarding because of the vulnerability of the students.
“When you’re 18, you’re kind of on your own for the first time,” said Father Bass, who arrived following two years as parochial vicar at St. Monica’s. “College culture presents all sorts of things to us as substitutes for God which are very dangerous. And to be able to go in and offer students a path forward, where Christ and love of neighbor and virtue is actually … it’s not just positive, it’s life-saving. Soul-saving. It’s crucial.”
Bishop Duca, a Dallas native, must find room for the award among those for being named Bishop Lynch High School’s alumnus of the year in 2008, the school’s legacy award winner in 2018 and the University of Dallas’ distinguished alum in 2013.
Ordained in 1978, he recalled that, since not all of the students who frequented SMU’s center were Catholic, some referred to him as “Mike.”
“I think by the time I left most everybody was calling me ‘Father,’” he said.
Bishop Duca said his SMU experience was greatly influenced by the book “The New School Management by Wandering Around.”
“The idea was get out of your office, and go see what’s going on,” he said. “I called it ‘Ministry by Wandering Around.’ I would run into students who wanted to talk.”
Dang’s involvement at SMU has also included the “Readers 2 Leaders” program providing one-on-one reading help to elementary school students and membership in the Mustang Heroes service group. She spent her sophomore year as one of 28 students approved to live in SMU’s Service House, where, she said, “It was nice to have a community of pretty motivated and service-oriented people there.”
The Student Servant Award is usually given to a senior. And with Dang being a senior, Father Bass said the selection committee didn’t confer long.
“We all just looked at each other and said her name,” he said. “First and foremost, her life is built on the sacraments and prayer. But then she goes out and she doesn’t just kind of park herself at the Catholic center, which, she’s very present there. She just gently witnesses to the Gospel by serving and witnessing with her life. She grounds her life in Christ, and she walks the walk.”
Dang is scheduled to begin working for Capital One in Plano as a business analyst in August.
“I would like to go to grad school at some point, but I want to get some work experience,” she said
And she’s already planning to have something to say at the 100th anniversary celebration of SMU’s Catholic Campus Ministry in 2032.