ATLANTA, Ga. — The Georgia Tech campus here will mark the end of an era in May when Mario Di Lella, OFM, retires from the ecumenical campus ministry team after almost 38 years.
Mario’s retirement to St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla., also signals the end of Franciscan ministry at Georgia Tech. Franciscans have been on campus for about 60 years, according to Mario, and when he leaves on May 5, will be replaced by a priest from the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Before the Franciscans assumed the ministry, it was conducted by the Marist Fathers, according to Mario.
“The time is right,” smiled Mario, who at 81 years old, is looking forward to a new ministry in Florida, rather than retirement. “I’m not retiring, retiring,” he emphasized, “I’m retiring to something else.”
He added: “It’s about that time for them to get someone younger here. It’s been a beautiful ministry.”
The friar, loved for his quick wit and excellent rapport with young people, has been the only Catholic priest on Georgia Tech’s rich campus ministry program, a ministry he never considered to be work, but rather, a joy.
Decades of Joy
In an announcement read at all the April 6 Masses, Mario described how much he has enjoyed his ministry.
“Thomas Edison, the genius inventor, once said: ‘I never did a day’s work in my life, it was all fun.’ In all humility and candor, I can truly say after 55 years of priesthood, I have never worked a day in my life.”
Provincial Minister John O’Connor, OFM, who received a copy of the announcement by e-mail, said that Mario was highly respected, adding that “he did good work in his ministry.”
When HNP Today caught up with him recently by phone, Mario said he was leaving the campus with mixed emotions. “It’ll be a big change, going from my work with young kids to the older people in St. Petersburg.”
But being flexible has helped Mario adapt to the youthful and changing campus environment for almost four decades. “I live in the heart of the campus, in the midst of fraternities and sororities. They don’t go to bed here until 3 a.m.,” he laughed.
What will he do in St. Petersburg? “I’ll do weekend work and give talks and retreats –whatever they do at St. Petersburg,” he laughed.
What will he miss the most about his campus ministry? “The kids; they are the greatest people in the whole world. They’re young, alive and well, vibrant and interested.”
The students, he said, are not only interested in their engineering and technical studies, but also in expanding their faith lives. “Their faith life is more intense. They’re very serious about both their studies and their faith.”
Mario doesn’t say this without proof. Attendance of only students — no faculty or staff — at the four weekend Masses ranges from 300-400. “People don’t believe it when I tell them about the attendance.”
He urged the students to be open to a different ministry style when the new priest starts arrives on May 11.
Transition for both Mario and Students
“I told the kids that when the new priest comes, don’t see Fr. Mario in him; it’s going to be different. Accept him for who and what he is, and don’t compare.”
Mario, who was born in Paterson, N.J., will soon drive his PT Cruiser down to Florida, packed with all his belongings. “Everything I have will fit,” he smiled. “I’m a poor friar. I have a computer, printer, shoes, clothes and that’s it.”
He further laughed, “I’m like Pope John the 23rd. He went to the Vatican with his stuff packed in cardboard boxes.”
Before he leaves, however, he wanted to thank his Franciscan brothers. “I extend my gratitude to the several Franciscan Provincials and archbishops of Atlanta for permitting me to minister to this portion of the Lord’s vineyard for these many wonderful years. I thank all my kids, who, over the years have been such an inspiration to me.”
“And thank you, God. God is good all the time. This is the greatest ministry in the whole world.”
—Wendy Healy, a freelance writer based in Connccticut, is an occasional contributor to HNP Today.