Most church-goers usually don’t pay attention to the priests that celebrate mass on Sundays. But this year, parishioners will notice a familiar face has returned to Saint Peter’s University and St. Aedan’s parish.
Father Andrew Downing, of the Society of Jesus (S.J.), was hired by Saint Peter’s in the summer of 2018. Previously, he had been at Saint Peter’s for 10 weeks in the spring semester of last year.
“I was doing part of my tertianship program,” said Downing. “Tertianship is the last stage of Jesuit formation, after a Jesuit is ordained but before a Jesuit makes final vows to recommit himself to the vocation of a Jesuit.”
Father Downing was involved with Campus Ministry during his time at the university, often celebrating community mass, and was a regular priest at St. Aedan’s parish, the university’s church.
Downing, 44, first thought about entering the priesthood towards the end of his high school years, but did not apply to become a Jesuit until his senior year of college. He entered into the priesthood in the summer after his graduation from college.
Upon completion of his tertianship, Downing was preparing for the process of changing assignments. He had been teaching theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, and was always pondering the possibility that he could be reassigned to Saint Peter’s.
Downing is no stranger to moving around. He lived in Villanova, Penn., from age 13 until college. Before that, he lived eight years in California after previously living in Australia and South Africa.
Father Downing returns as one of the youngest Jesuits at the university, and has brought a jolt of energy to the Catholic community, especially for the Knights of Columbus council.
“His return means a great many things for the council,” said Christopher Czyzewski, the Grand Knight of the council and a junior at the university. “It is a wonderful thing that we have Father Andy back at the Saint Peter’s community.”
David Simon, a senior at Saint Peter’s University and the council’s chancellor, was studying abroad in Japan when Downing was first at Saint Peter’s. Having a newer, younger Jesuit voice has already helped him so far in readjusting to life on campus this year.
“In a community where I have often felt that the priests are a bit distant from the wider university community, I think it is fantastic that Father Andy has already become a visible and involved member of the university as a whole,” said Simon.
Along with his familiar assignments in campus ministry and the local parish, Downing was given the title of University Jesuit Associate, a position which is new for Saint Peter’s.
“It is a position that was created for Jesuits, as the name might indicate, but not to be specifically in one area of the university,” he said.
Next spring, Downing will return as a professor in the theology department. He has already become involved in the Knights of Columbus.
A supporter of the university’s Catholic fraternity, Downing joined the Knight of Columbus council in the middle of September, and could potentially become their chaplain. From Sept. 28-30, he accompanied the council’s officers to New Haven, Conn. where the Knights of Columbus headquarters is located, and where they hold their College Convention every year.
Despite all the good feelings surrounding the campus with the start of a new year, the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church is still relevant news. Downing is aware of the negativity that surrounds fellow clergy around the world.
“What’s happening in the church today is sad, depressing in ways, shameful and it leads to a lot of reactions,” said Downing. “It’s been the subject of discussion; every week we’ve been praying for the victims and survivors of sexual abuse in the church.”
Besides the scandals of sexual abuse in the church, the need for more priests is another pressing issue within the Catholic church.
“There are always efforts to recruit more men for the priesthood and to help those discerning a vocation to see whether God may be calling them to ordained ministry as priests,” said Downing in an email.
While acknowledging the past mistakes of the church, the Catholic community at SPU is looking toward the future. And Czyzewski is excited for what the year has in store for the council with Father Downing in the fold.
“I think that he will do a wonderful job bringing the theological and philosophical Christ to the men and women of Saint Peter’s,” said Czyzewski. “Father Andy is almost a Christ-like figure for the Campus Ministry department, being able to help in any capacity. I also think that he is going to nurture and nourish people back to Christ.”
With Downing’s presence both at the altar and throughout the campus, Simon is beyond impressed with the positivity that Downing has brought to the university.
“He has been a consistent and visible member of the university community and is a constant source of Christ's truth both by his word and actions,” said Simon. “Father Andy is also doing a great job of being a visible sign of our university's commitment to Catholic principles, something I feel that has been underrepresented for a long time.”
Other than the usual community mass at St. Peter’s Chapel and the St. Aedan’s parish masses, the university has little to no Catholic-themed events. Campus Ministry leads events that are more interfaith due to the diversity of the campus. Knights of Columbus is a Catholic organization, but had not been given acknowledgement by Student Activities as a university organization until this year’s involvement fair.
Jesuit priests tend to move around between assignments, but Downing is not really focused on how long his term will be at the university.
“I’m not seeking tenure,” he said. “So there’s not something that will keep me here forever but at the same time maybe I will stay a long time.”