Blessed John XXIII priests near center of Neyland Stadium prayer debate

Father Donahue leads ministerial council’s invocation program as Father Andre delivers game message

By Bill Brewer

PRAYER TEAM Father Charles Donahue (left) pastor of Blessed John XXIII Catholic Center on the UT campus and Father Rich Andre (right), associate pastor at John XXIII, are shown with Dr. Ruth Queen Smith, parish pastoral associate, and her service dog, Lola. Photo by Dan McWilliams

As Father Charles Donahue settled into his two-year stint this summer as chair of the ministers council on the University of Tennessee campus, he thought the independent, multi-denominational group would be assisting the university with routine student orientations, workshops and counseling sessions.

Leave it to the Freedom From Religion Foundation to shake things up.

Just more than a month into the new school year, Father Donahue found himself uncomfortably close to a constitutional clash between UT and the Wisconsin-based group that bills itself as the nation’s largest association of atheists, agnostics and skeptics.

The foundation filed a complaint with UT challenging the nonsectarian invocations that members of the ministers council deliver before each football game at Neyland Stadium.

The foundation claimed traditional prayers given before games were exclusive and violated a 1997 U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in the Chaudhuri v. State of Tennessee case that struck down sectarian prayers at public universities.

UT quickly responded last month that prayers given by ministers with the campus council are always nonsectarian and inclusive.

UT said it would continue the prayers and the foundation responded that it would not file suit at this time.

The foundation recently waged a similar campaign with the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and that school agreed to discontinue invocations before its games.

As UT-Knoxville officials weighed the Freedom From Religion Foundation demand, with the threat of a lawsuit hanging over the school, Father Donahue and the council’s other 29 ministers found themselves in a position to influence the outcome of a matter that strikes at the heart of their mission.

Father Donahue said secular alliances that fight prayer in public places are a growing movement on campuses across the country, but the Catholic Church and its priests at schools like UT have a duty to represent faith and defend it where needed.

“It shouldn’t be this difficult, but it is,” Father Donahue said. “There are some who want to stop prayer and won’t rest until they do.”

Members of the campus ministers council have been working with UT for several years in delivering invocations before home games and guidelines have been established so that each pre-game prayer isn’t affiliated with or restricted to a particular religious group.

“The university is creating a space for there to be public prayer offered by trusted ministers who have a stake in the university. Each one of us that gives the invocation at the invitation of the athletics director agrees to offer nonsectarian prayer,” Father Donahue said.

He is sensitive to those who argue the finer points of public prayer and the best practices of inclusivity, but he points to the larger battle to keep a place for prayer  in the public square, noting that “questions and honest debates that involve religious identity and the role of faith help prepare us all for the world.”

“I think it is more important that we’re praying than who we’re praying to. I would die for Jesus Christ. We’re offering these prayers to the one true God and we’re doing this in such a way that will allow anyone at the game to feel included,” Father Donahue said.

He pointed out that ministers in the campus council have discussed the nonsectarian issue at length and agree that they are going to be “inclusive and authentic” and will not act against their consciences.

“What can we call God inclusively? Almighty Creator, Divine Providence. This is not a Christian versus non-Christian issue,” he said. “It’s been nonsectarian for years. We’re not favoring one religion over another.”

As the dust-up settled between the Freedom From Religion Foundation and UT, Blessed John XXIII associate pastor Father Rich Andre delivered the pre-game invocation at the next home football game with Akron on Sept. 22. And for at least one game, the opening prayer was anything but routine.

Father Donahue is impressed by UT’s willingness to accommodate faith in students’ lives. He said it is a welcome attitude compared to other campuses in California and Minnesota where he has served with the Paulist Fathers.

“This university goes out of its way to make sure students have the space to pursue their religious aspirations if they choose to while remaining secular without favoring anyone. Nothing is diminished or promoted,” he said.

When he first learned he would be giving the invocation at the UT-Akron game, Father Andre assumed there would be passing interest in the game and the prayer would be routine. “Of course, as things turned out, the invocation was huge deal,” he said.

But he wasn’t too concerned about all the pre-game publicity and the attention that would likely be paid to the pre-game prayer.

“Frankly, I’m quite comfortable leading interfaith prayers. The Paulist Fathers have always been at the forefront of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. As a seminarian, I learned to pray in hospitals with Pentecostals, Unitarians, Jews, and agnostics, among others,” he said.

He pointed out that many of the national dialogues in this country between various Christian denominations and other faith traditions (Anglican-Catholic, Orthodox-Catholic, Lutheran-Catholic, Sikh-Catholic, etc.) are hosted at St. Paul’s College, which is the Paulist seminary in Washington, D.C.

Father Andre said it only took him a few minutes to write the invocation for the football game. He noted that UT’s policies are consistent with the standards for interfaith prayer.

“I was offering a personal prayer over the loudspeakers, but I was not speaking on anyone else’s behalf. The only thing that could possibly offend someone was that I acknowledged the existence of a higher power,” he said.

While he was amply prepared to draft an appropriate invocation, it was the potential media queries involved in the first prayer following the UT-Freedom From Religion Foundation confrontation that caused him the most concern.

“The task that took me the most time was drafting some information about the Paulists’ commitment to interreligious dialogue, just in case anyone in the media had questions for me,” Father Andre said.

Father Andre delivered the invocation without a hitch and UT is moving forward with its plans for the remaining home games this season.

Kally Elliott of the Presbyterian Church is scheduled to deliver the prayer at the next home game, against Alabama. UT alumni president Jennifer Stanley will follow her for the Troy game. Brent Harriman of Reformed Fellowship and Deborah Oleshansky of the Jewish Center will complete the season at the Missouri and Kentucky games.

Father Donahue said it will be up to UT officials to determine the pre-game prayer policy going forward. But the campus ministers council is looking forward to next season and seasons beyond.

“None of us work for the university, but we are resources for the students, faculty and administration,” Father Donahue said.

Father Andre is putting the prayer controversy and his role in perspective.

“I’ve been told that the crowd cheered louder than usual at the end of the prayer, but I don’t think that had anything to do with me,” he said. “People were just happy that the tradition surrounding the invocation continues.”


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