Fr. Mario Di Lella, OFM

Fr. Mario Di Lella, OFMI suspected something when twice the number of singers and musicians started setting up for Mass and some of the people arriving were not students. But, all pretense of an ordinary Sunday Mass vanished when Fr. Kevin Hargaden, a 1994 Georgia Tech graduate, showed up with the General Vicar of the Archdiocese of Atlanta to concelebrate. After 38 years, this was to be my last Mass as Catholic campus minister for the students at Georgia Tech University located in Midtown Atlanta.

In my homily, I repeated to the students (and faculty members and graduates who came) my constant message: “Guys and girls, we are all in this together. Our call in the Church is to spread the message of God’s unconditional and tremendous love for everyone regardless of who and what they are. Know and believe the mind-boggling truth that we are the People of God. The Lord whom priests, deacons and religious serve is the same Lord you students, alumni and professors serve. Don’t let anyone take away your place in this most important ministry. We are all a chosen race, a royal priesthood. You have been faithful. Keep up the good work!”

After the Mass, more than 300 gathered for a grand buffet lunch, courtesy of one of our former “campus parishioners,” the winning football head coach George O’Leary, of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (1995-2000). I was especially proud that Fr. Hargaden was there. He is one of 24 men from our Catholic campus ministry who are now priests in several different dioceses. Four of those priests and two permanent deacons presently serve in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

People from the Archdiocese often asked me: “What are you doing in your ministry that there are so many vocations coming from an engineering school?”

My answer? “I really had nothing to do with it.” I pray daily for vocations, but I never invited anyone directly to study for the priesthood. The Holy Spirit inspired these men. At the Catholic Center at Georgia Tech we, always encouraged students to take advantage of the opportunities there to engage in communal and solitary prayer. Prayer was the power behind it all. Our ministry was also very serious about following the Lord’s mandate that we show our love for Jesus by serving his people.

My Franciscan journey began at St. Bonaventure Church in Paterson, N.J., our family’s parish. Inspired by the friars who worked there, I entered the Franciscans of Holy Name Province when I was 17. By the grace of God, I was ordained to the priesthood in 1953 at age 26.

My first assignment was to a very small parish in Moultrie, Ga. — the church could seat only 90 people. There was no friary there, so I slept on a pew in the church until a parish handyman divided the sacristy in two, making me a small but comfortable room.

In 1959, I entered the U.S. Air Force as a chaplain. Among my several tours of duty, my favorite and most exciting tour was Goose Bay, in Labrador. In this Arctic region, I ministered to the personnel stationed at the radar sites on the coast of eastern Canada. I traveled mostly by helicopter or by fixed-wing aircraft that landed on snow, ice and water depending on the season. When the Catholic airmen at the sites learned I was coming to their site they would notify the nearby Catholic native people by two-way radio that a priest was on the way. These villagers would then come by dog sled to transport me to their villages that were several miles from the radar site.

In a rundown unheated hut, I would celebrate Mass for them, bless their marriages and baptize and confirm their children. I had special permission from the bishop of the area to administer these sacraments. The grateful people said that my visit was the first by a priest in at least five years. It was wonderful to make several other visits as well.

In January 1964, after five years on active duty, I left the Air Force but continued serving in the Reserve. (I served active and reserve duty, for more than 26 years.)

My first civilian assignment was in Denver, Col., as a member of our “mission band,” to conduct missions and retreats for parishes and religious groups in the western United States, after only seven months on the mission band, in August 1964, I was assigned to Thomasville, Ga., as guardian and pastor of St. Augustine Church where, in 1967, our small parish was able to raise enough funds to build a new church, friary and parish hall.

I completed my six-year tour of duty as guardian and pastor in 1970. I was now ready for another assignment. I accepted, with some reluctance, the appointment as Catholic campus minister at Georgia Tech. I was not sure I could reach young people who, in those days, were so often depicted in the media as materialistic, rebellious and self-centered.

In my first years on campus, I felt lost. The Catholic Center was a tiny house. There was no room large enough to celebrate our four weekend Masses. As a result, for 15 years I carried two suitcases of vestments and vessels to our weekend Masses in various campus locations. Because of this traveling from place to place for our liturgies, we became known as the “Roamin’ Catholic Church” on campus.

In time, we were able to form a community with some regulars who became a core group, but we did not accomplish too much. “Nothing is going on,” I said. “Let’s do something.” And we did! I am not sure if a keg of beer and free pizza are endorsed religious incentives, but our small community began to grow by leaps and bounds. Truly, the real reason for our enormous growth was the Holy Spirit’s inspiration flowing out of our growing sense of Christian community and our love, friendship and concern for one another. We ministered to everyone regardless of their affiliation or lack thereof.

In 1985, aided by funds from the Archdiocese of Atlanta and $100,000 from our Catholic campus community, we were able to build and furnish our beautiful new Catholic Center, where the students conduct 11 ministries from lectors to extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, to outreach to the needy in our surrounding community. As the saying goes: “Build it and they will come.” With the help of God and the good will and generosity of so many people, we built it. And the students came!

On May 5, 2008, at 81 and (by the grace of God) 55 years a priest, I turned the ministry over to Fr. Timothy Hepburn, a young priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and retired to St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla.

I am still open to whatever the Holy Spirit and my superiors want me to do. Even now at 84, I volunteer to help in the different parishes in our area and also conduct a small Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, a branch of the main campus in Tampa. Meanwhile, I continue praying, making my daily Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament and taking long walks in the Florida sunshine.

God is Good!

— This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of The Anthonian magazine, a quarterly publication of St. Anthony’s Guild.