By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — As a student at St. Ambrose University, Father Thom Hennen was busy in and out of the classroom. In addition to taking history and philosophy courses, he acted in plays, served as a resident hall advisor, helped out with Masses and sang in the choir. He also worked in a variety of on-campus jobs, including stints as a security guard, coffee barista and a history department assistant.
He considered St. Ambrose to be a place where he could grow as a whole person — intellectually and spiritually. Now, as university chaplain, he hopes to encourage students to see St. Ambrose as more than a place to get a degree; rather, it is a place where they can grow as a whole person.
Fr. Hennen, 39, assumed his role July 1, succeeding Father Chuck Adam who had been involved at St. Ambrose for more than 20 years. Fr. Hennen admitted being a little apprehensive about trying to fill Fr. Adam’s shoes. “I know a lot of people were sad to see him go. … He put his heart and soul into this ministry and he helped a lot of people.”
But Fr. Adam gave Fr. Hennen some “comforting” advice, asking him not to worry about filling anyone’s shoes but his own. “I need to be the best Fr. Hennen that I can be.” He is thankful for the warm welcome he has received so far.
As he adjusts to his new role, Fr. Hennen said, “I’ll be listening, learning, seeing what’s happening here and reacquainting myself with the culture of the place. When following someone (like Fr. Adam), you need to get the pulse of a place and that takes some time.”
Twice-monthly meetings with the university’s president, Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, have helped Fr. Hennen gain confidence in the new role.
While Fr. Hennen doesn’t plan to make any major changes to campus ministry, he would like to promote the sacrament of reconciliation and emphasize the healing that students can experience through God’s grace. He plans to add additional confession times to make it easier for students to do so. “When I was a student, that was something I needed. I think it’s important on any campus.”
During his undergraduate years at St. Ambrose, Fr. Hennen experienced life as both a lay student and a seminarian. SAU had a seminary program when Fr. Hennen entered campus as a freshman in 1996. He “gave it a shot” for a year, but dropped out and lived a “normal college life” his sophomore and junior year. He dated and considered a career in secondary education. By the time his senior year began, he was confident in his calling and reentered the seminary program.
He graduated from St. Ambrose in 2000 and then went to major seminary at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Davenport in 2004.
As Fr. Hennen looks back on his experience at St. Ambrose, he believes he can draw from that experience in a way that allows him to understand, to some extent, what students are going through.
Additionally, he has worked as director of Vocations for the Diocese of Davenport since 2011. He retains that role on a part-time basis with assistance from Father Jeffry Belger, associate director. Fr. Hennen also taught religion at Assumption High School in Davenport from 2014-2017. Working with teenagers and young adults in these roles has provided him additional perspective.
“I’m not coming in wide-eyed and unaware of the challenges 21st century college life presents,” he said.
He knows that newfound freedom has the potential to tempt students in a variety of ways, just as it did when Fr. Hennen was in school. “None of that has gone away,” he said. Students may become involved with drugs, drink excessively, participate in unhealthy sexual behaviors or simply fall away from their faith. Within this context, campus ministry must be careful not to portray itself as an entity whose sole purpose is to lecture students on all the things they should be saying “no” to in college, Fr. Hennen said. “It’s about inviting them into something more complete and beautiful. It’s saying ‘yes’ to Mass, prayer, reconciliation and growing in knowledge of their faith.”
He hopes that campus ministry at St. Ambrose can help students make the most of their college experience and graduate as empowered, well-rounded, faithful adults. “The goal is to get them to fall in love with Jesus and the church and live a life that radically reflects that,” he said.