Journal Archive > 2001 > September

Father David O'Leary

Father David O’Leary has published a primer on Catholic belief.
© by Mark Morelli

Ministering to the spiritual lives of students

Students have questions. Father David O’Leary has gathered answers.

O’Leary, the university’s Roman Catholic chaplain, has published a “primer” on Catholic belief, inspired by the many questions about faith and observance he’s been asked over the years. As attendance grows at campus Masses and at Catholic Center activities, it appears the book is filling a need.

“The numbers [of students participating in religious activity] are way up,” says O’Leary.

The volume, Roman Catholic Beliefs and Prayers: A Handbook for Those on a Spiritual Journey (The Catholic Center at Tufts University, 1999), is the first of three publication projects that O’Leary has tackled recently. His other works address more theologically complex topics such as end-of-life issues and economic justice. Yet, as a full-time chaplain, his day-to-day focus is on the often-evolving spiritual life of students.

“Students are looking to make faith decisions on their own,” said O’Leary. “They’re no longer in the family they grew up in.” Examining matters of faith—and seeking information—are part of the process of “searching out answers to the big questions,” he said.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of helping students take a deeper, more sophisticated look at the Catholicism of their childhood. “If you grew up Catholic, you may have misconceptions,” O’Leary said. “In every other part of your life you grow up; students forget that it’s the same with religion, too.”

For anyone with questions or misconceptions about the Roman Catholic faith, O’Leary’s book provides a starting point. The book offers an explanation of the central beliefs and practices of the church, written with an eye toward the uninitiated; a section on the rights and responsibilities of Catholics within the church; a play-by-play description of the celebration of the Mass; a section on Roman Catholicism and voting and the text of several prayers.

The book originated as a spiral-bound volume O’Leary first put together in 1998. It became very popular among students, but “when other parishes started calling for the books, I knew I had something there.” He switched over to a bound format and published the book through the Catholic Center at Tufts. All proceeds from the book, which sells for $12.50, go toward the Catholic Center.

Publication of the book comes at a time of increased interest in faith and worship on campus. “All of the chaplains are finding that experience,” O’Leary said. Close to 300 people have been attending the 10 p.m. Sunday Masses at Goddard Chapel.

Participation is also up at the Catholic Center, located in a former Knights of Columbus hall on Winthrop Street across from Sacred Heart Church. The center offers weekly scripture discussions, monthly dinners and student outreach and social justice activities. During finals, the building is kept open all night as study space.

O’Leary is one of only two full-time chaplains assigned by the Archdiocese of Boston to an area college; the other is at Harvard. “Tufts is held in very high regard by the Archdiocese of Boston,” O’Leary said. “The archdiocese sees the future leaders of the world as being right here.”

Before coming to Tufts in 1998, O’Leary served in parishes in the Boston area and as a professor of moral theology and spirituality at Saint Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. He was a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve, teaching at the academy in Denver and at Air Force University in Alabama.

In addition to his duties as chaplain, O’Leary is a lecturer in comparative religion at Tufts. One of his upcoming publications, “Seeking the Path of God’s Justice: An Analysis of the Justice of the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on the Economy,” is based on material for a class he teaches at Tufts.

His other project is the publication of his dissertation at Oxford University, which examines the question of whether it is morally acceptable to withhold food and water from a person in a persistent vegetative state. He concludes that in accordance with church teachings, such a move can indeed be permissible under some conditions.

“The Roman Catholic Church has always said that you do not have to use extreme measures to preserve life,” O’Leary said. “In other words, you don’t have to be hooked up to every machine under the sun; you don’t have to push the envelope. In extreme situations, a case could be made that in a persistent vegetative state, food and water should be considered extreme means.”

It’s important to understand the difference between “letting die”—which would be a “foreseen but unintended consequence” of withdrawing life support—and “killing,” O’Leary said. While letting die could be sanctioned by the church under certain circumstances, killing—which would include euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide—is morally incompatible with church teachings, O’Leary said.

There is much misinformation on the subject, O’Leary added. Most believe that Catholics must use any available technology to prolong life, but this is not so, he said. In one of the earliest public end-of-life debates—the landmark 1973 case of Karen Anne Quinlan—the church backed the family’s right to remove their daughter from a respirator.

O’Leary’s doctorate is in the field of medical ethics, and he currently serves on the ethics panel at the New England Medical Center, an affiliated hospital of Tufts School of Medicine. He is intrigued by the many ethical questions raised by recent scientific advances, such as genetic engineering. He’s quick to point out that science and religion are indeed compatible.

“I do not see science as the enemy, by no means,” he said. “Religion and science can work together.”