Students at Florida State University last week noticed someone new hanging out on one of the benches scattered around campus.
A sidewalk sign next to the bench read: “Catholic priest available. Need confession? Have questions? Want to talk?”
The Rev. Tim Holeda hopes that many people will want to sit and talk to him. But even if it’s just one person, it’s worth it for this fisher of men, and women, who is hearing open-air confessions on the Tallahassee campus on Fridays during Lent.
He’s on their turf now.
The university’s Catholic Student Union announced his new “gig” on its Facebook page last week: “Ya boy Fr. Tim is out on Landis today! Stop by and say hi! He will be doing confessions and just chattin up the college folk.”
On his first day, Holeda, who is the group’s chaplain, received a warm welcome from students who already know him. But he’s not just there for Catholics.
“My real goal, I want to try to be out there for people who aren’t Catholic or who have questions, or Catholics who haven’t been to confession in a while,” Holeda said. “It’s kind of like fishing, you know?”
He got a hit of national exposure last week when the website ChurchPOP - a kind of Christian Buzzfeed - declared his effort a “simple and innovative way to reach college students with the faith.”
Commenters praised the idea: “What a brilliant idea! This is bringing Christ and the Church closer to the people.”
“This is a tremendous idea! Recently, Pope Francis told priests to ‘get out of the rectory and go search for the sheep.’”
Even if people don’t sit down for a chat or confession, at least they see him, Holeda said.
“I feel like on campus and in our world in general there’s not a whole lot that points to or reminds us of God,” he said.
Maybe, he hopes, people who see him might think about going to church. Maybe his presence alone will inspire someone “to be more self-reflective,” he said.
The 35-year-old priest knows this flock well. He graduated from FSU in 2004 with a political science degree and became Catholic after getting involved with the school’s Catholic Student Union.
He moved back to the area last summer, joining the staff at the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Tallahassee, where is parochial vicar.
Holeda had been brainstorming ideas for ways to reach out to students in more personal ways. A friend, the Rev. Justin Paskert, a campus chaplain at the University of South Florida, had been doing on-campus confessions for a while. Holeda decided to give it a go, too.
He knows students want to talk, and he has found that young people he works with have a longing to get past the trivial. They’re asking hard questions about defining what a good life is and how to find happiness.
Even though he has taken confessions on the road, he doesn’t want students to think of this as entertainment. He might be sitting on a bench in a busy part of the campus, but he is still a priest, there to bear witness and offer forgiveness, comfort and, if necessary, admonishments, he said. He is careful to keep conversations quiet enough to preserve privacy; the buzz of campus also provides cover.
Holeda had planned to only be on the bench during Lent, but he’s already thinking about making this a permanent appearance. The only possible change? The hot Florida weather could move his bench time to the cooler mornings. He’s not interested in sweating a confession out of anyone.