The Collegian
Saturday, December 09, 2023

Catholic chaplain offers a fresh, yet radical image

Acting Chaplain Kate O'Dwyer Randall considers herself to be in the mold of the new face of the Roman Catholic Church — a mold that is moving away from the traditional seams and toward a different understanding of the world through a greater exposure to diversity. O'Dwyer Randall could definitely be described as non-traditional, she said.

As one of only two Roman Catholic women who serve as chaplain to a university, she comes from a very socially active church and even has a few tattoos, O'Dwyer Randall said.

"Some people would say that your body is a temple of God and ask why you would get a tattoo," she said. "And I say that is exactly why you get one."

Both of her parents came from Ireland, where getting a tattoo is seen as a way of honoring the body and marking passages. She got different tattoos to mark the important moments of her life: her 30th birthday, when her brother passed away and when she passed the seminary. The tattoos are all various symbols, except for the one on her left shoulder, which is the word wisdom.

O'Dwyer Randall said she saw tattoos as one example of how different cultures could view things in different ways, but it was still important to understand and honor a culture's belief and traditions. It is this type of understanding that should also apply to the many different religions that the world has to offer, she said.

"I am very clear that my own tradition is Christianity," O'Dwyer Randall said. "That is what I believe, but my Christianity does not make me unavailable. It makes me more available.

"I believe that my job is not to convert anyone to religion. My job is to radically love people and to help them. I believe that is what my Christianity is about as well."

As the acting chaplain, O'Dwyer Randall's job is to be available to all students, faculty and alumni for spiritual direction, grief counseling or just to talk. She also oversees the Office of the Chaplaincy and all of the religious organizations on campus, including the 16 campus ministries, she said.

Through talking with students, O'Dwyer Randall has found that most students do not want to talk about religion, but many do want to discuss spirituality. This is something she said she could understand because even she believes organized religion requires some explaining.

"Organized religion is kind of as gifted as it is troubled," she said. "It has often hurt people because it has become exclusive, and it says you don't belong because you are this or your life is too messy. I don't think that is of God or that there is that kind of judgment from God.

"Churches used to be really healthy because they were about community, and I think we have gotten away from that a little, but hopefully we can get back to that."

At the same time, O'Dwyer Randall said she believed the different traditions of the religions were still very important, and she encouraged any student who wanted a real church experience to search for one off campus.

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On campus, the chaplaincy can be a sanctuary where there is no judgment and they can function on grace and grace alone — a place where the chaplaincy staff can help students understand morality and justice, and where they can help to educate a scholar's mind, heart and spirit in an attempt to make him or her a whole person, she said.

"Religion and life of the spirit is so relevant and is the most relevant thing, but getting someone to speak your language around it is not always easy," O'Dwyer Randall said.

She said she believed today's religion requires someone who will talk from real life experiences without leaving any of the grittiness out. People who have met O'Dwyer Randall have said she fits that profile.

"Kate is an incredible person," said Raymond Goodlett, the Every Nation campus minister. "I would say if anyone knows Kate that the first thing they would say about her is that she is very genuine. If you don't trust Kate, it is because you don't know Kate."

Jacob Sahms, interim associate chaplain said, "Kate is a good listener, she has a lot of compassion for other people, and I think that Kate is not afraid to ask the hard questions."

Goodlett added that the overall impression O'Dwyer Randall gives off is that she is not afraid to disagree with a person. She will gently confront an issue even if she does not need to, Goodlett said.

During her sermons, O'Dwyer Randall will often offer direction for the questions that she asks, but she leaves it to the individual to find his or her own answers, Sahms said.

Goodlett said he thought O'Dwyer Randall was needed on Richmond's campus. Not only has there been a transition of leadership throughout the campus, but there has been an overall desire to increase diversity and understanding, he said.

Creating an inter-religious community where students can openly discuss their spiritually is something that O'Dwyer Randall thought the Office of the Chaplaincy was devoted to, she said.

The 16 campus ministries include groups for Baptists, Buddhists, Episcopals, Hindu/Sikh/Jains, Jews, Methodists, Muslims, Lutherans, Orthodox, Presbyterians, Protestants and Roman Catholics. There is also a Unitarian Universalism group that is currently going through the procedures to become an official campus ministry, said Jennifer Landis-Santos, inter-religious community and justice coordinator.

"The chaplaincy is really great," Goodlett said. "They welcome us as partners in meeting the spiritual needs of students here."

The chaplaincy also provides some of the ministers with offices, computers and phones, which is something not many chaplaincies do at other schools, said Carolyn Ogrosky, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship campus minister. The chaplaincy also offers money to the ministries for programs and for accommodating students, Goodlett said.

"Kate is an amazing, amazing chaplain," said Archana Bhatt, Hindu/Sikh/Jain campus minister. "She is very compassionate in terms of hearing and understanding our needs."

The campus ministers meet with O'Dwyer Randall and other members of the chaplaincy per every month to discuss what is going on in each of their groups and what is happening in the chaplaincy. During these meetings, they try to be a model for the community and demonstrate what inter-religious dialogue looks like, so that each minister can take these ideas back to their groups, Landis-Santos said.

"Kate is the kind of person that can bring to the same table people that are just incredibly diverse, whether it is political, ethnical, religious, gender or socioeconomic," Goodlett said. "Kate is one those people that can keep them at that table."

O'Dwyer Randall said the best sign that religious life on campus was healthy was the fact that the campus ministries are "busting at the seams." Not only do they have their own events and programs on campus, but they also participate in each other's events and the chaplaincy-sponsored events.

"I think she has a good understanding of the big picture here," Sahms said. "She is trying to make the chaplaincy a place where people can come to mourn, ask questions and celebrate."

The job has been a humbling experience for her, she said.

"It is not an easy job," O'Dwyer Randall said. "I really do feel you have to be called for it. You really have to keep your own stuff out of here and let God live through you"

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