Community in Christ

The muffled tap of felt-bottomed pieces on a chessboard. Queen to king’s rook 3. Knight’s pawn captures pawn. And then a mistake. An unnoticed piece slides diagonally to take the queen, and one of the players quips with a grin, “You Protestants — always forgetting about the bishops.”

Sure, it sounds like the punchline to a joke (“A Reformed pastor and a Catholic priest… ”), but it’s straight out of one of the good-natured weekly chess matches between Father Nicholas Monco, O.P., the new priest who’s known around campus as “Father Nick,” and Rev. Dr. Trygve Johnson, the college’s Hinga-Boersma Dean of the Chapel and minister of the Reformed Church of America (RCA). Enjoying friendly games marked by no small amount of laughter, they are modeling to students what unity in Christ looks like — and showing them that, in Johnson’s words, “conflict doesn’t have to be contentious, and differences don’t have to mean divisions of friendship.”

Fr. Nick arrived at Hope in August, when he was hired as the chaplain of the Saint Benedict Institute, an outreach of St. Francis de Sales Parish that serves Hope’s Catholic students, who make up 19 percent of the student body. The parish is one of Campus Ministries’ six covenant partners — local congregations that have agreed to provide spiritual care for Hope students. It’s within the framework of this covenant partnership that Fr. Nick has been invited to minister on campus.

The addition of Fr. Nick reflects the college’s increasing overall diversity. Roman Catholics now comprise the largest of the several Christian denominations at Hope, with students from the RCA, the college’s founding denomination, representing about 10 percent.

While remaining committed to its historic affiliation with the RCA, Hope is equally committed to providing both a welcoming, supportive environment and a rich opportunity for students to explore their Christian faith in a thriving ecumenical community in which many voices are in conversation.

“The Christian family has a large circumference, and we’re trying to pay attention to the center that calls all Christians together,” Johnson said. “The center is the Triune God. Followers of Jesus come to the center from different parts of the circumference, but we come together because we confess Christ as Lord and we confess that the Trinity is one God in three. I do that self-consciously from my own tradition just as others do from theirs.”

Fr. Nick is grateful to be at Hope, which he calls a “rare college” where the faith commitment is structurally built in. He remembers what it was like to attend a secular university, where it felt as if being a Christian was like “sneaking in a Trojan horse.” He isn’t trying to sneak around Hope College, though, and a good thing, too: With his white habit, its robes down to his ankles, and a long rosary at his side, he sticks out at Hope like a Muggle at Hogwarts.

Perhaps because of his conspicuity, Fr. Nick is something of a visible encouragement — if not a rallying point — for Hope’s Catholic students. “I think he kind of normalized Catholicism a little more,” said Alejandra Gomez, a senior from Rochester, Michigan.

Fr. Nick celebrates Mass at 5 p.m. on Sundays in Winants Auditorium and at noon every weekday in Harvey Chapel. Daily Mass lasts about 25 minutes, and Harvey Chapel in the Bultman Student Center is otherwise available to the entire campus for individual or group prayer. Fr. Nick also provides the sacrament of confession throughout the week and Eucharistic adoration in Schoon Chapel in Graves Hall on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m.

“Eucharist is food for the soul,” Fr. Nick said. “It allows Catholic students to encounter Christ in that sacramental way.”

For senior Jonathan Bading, it’s no surprise that the Catholic community is being built up around the Eucharist. Bading is a music performance major from Chantilly, Virginia, who serves on the leadership board of the Hope Catholics student group. “You can’t have a strong Catholic community without being connected to the Mass,” he said. “We often speak about the Mass and the celebration of the Eucharist as the source and summit of the faith, so when you have a community removed from that central element, it’s very difficult to be in communion with each other.”

“At its most basic,” said Father Nick, “my goal is to provide a regular sacramental presence and be someone students can talk to to develop their faith.”

Gomez is one of several students who meets regularly with Fr. Nick. “He’s very willing to listen without making judgments and always makes sure I’m comfortable to say what I want to say,” she said.

“I’m very happy to have someone who can relate to students, someone who’s younger and energetic and lively,” said Catherine Coddington, a senior from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and treasurer of Hope Catholics.

Although he’s relatively young (Fr. Nick is 34 years old and was ordained a Dominican priest in 2013), he has plenty of academic, spiritual and practical experience under his cincture. Fr. Nick received master’s degrees in theology and divinity from the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri, where he also earned a Certificate in Thomistic Studies.

Before coming to Hope, Fr. Nick taught theology at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois, for four years. That experience with students has helped him build relationships and provide spiritual care at Hope College.

“He knows the age group very well,” Bading said. “I think he understands young adults, our strengths and our weaknesses. He’s a very personable man, the type you can talk to about anything.”

When he’s not meeting with students or fulfilling the role of a priest, Fr. Nick can be found swimming at the Dow, playing chess, participating in “caffeinated evangelization” at a downtown coffee shop, or driving to and from Grand Rapids, where he lives with two other Dominican priests on the grounds of Aquinas College.

Hope College is a bit of a drive, but it’s worth it. “I’ve been very moved by how welcoming people have been,” Fr. Nick said. “From the administration trying to accommodate our needs to campus ministers, faculty and students, everyone has been very nice, welcoming and friendly.”

“I want to promote a college where as many Christians as possible can link arms and talk to each other,” Johnson said. “I would love to see continued conversation and collaboration to promote Christ. I want the Saint Benedict Institute to feel like it’s flourishing, and I want Nick to feel his pastoral and priestly identity is bearing fruit. I want students to grow. I want real friendship and partnership together.”

In that sense, at least, ecumenism at Hope looks a little bit like two friends laughing together from the opposite ends of a chessboard. After all, they’re both playing the same game.