Rev. John J. Holliday, C.M., is quick to name one of his favorite parts of his job as University Chaplain at St. John’s.
“It is working with young people,” said Fr. Holliday, who arrived on the Queens, NY, campus in August 2017, after spending his priesthood as pastor of several parishes in Emmitsburg, MD, and Philadelphia, PA.
“In parishes, the people who are 18 to 24 years old are either away at college or they are not going to church anymore, so you do not see many young adults,” he observed. “But here, we are surrounded by young people—we are in the middle of all of their energy, and they are at a transitional point in their personal and spiritual lives. They are full of excitement and optimism about beginning their careers and going out to change the world. That attitude is very contagious.”
As part of the University’s Campus Ministry staff, Fr. Holliday has devoted much of his first year as chaplain to listening. “I really appreciate what the students have to say, the questions they are asking, and the experiences they choose to share with me. I am trying to learn from them, as well.”
He was also surprised and delighted to discover that his position involves collaborating with many other members of the University community, including faculty, administrators, staff, alumni, and donors. “I see a lot of people who work at St. John’s who really care about the students and view them as if they are their own children,” said Fr. Holliday, whose office is based at St. Thomas More Church.
One of his main goals, he said, is to encourage students not to take their spirituality and their relationship to it for granted. “They should also ask questions and know that Campus Ministry can help them figure things out instead of trying to do it on their own, the way I did.”
Born and raised in Wilmington, DE, Fr. Holliday said he grew up in the Catholic faith, attended Catholic schools, and considered becoming a priest when he was a teenager. But he “fell away from the Church” when he turned 18 and spent nearly 20 years managing restaurants and movie theaters. The death of his father at only 58 years old caused Fr. Holliday to reevaluate his life, and he soon returned to practicing his Catholic faith at his local parish, the Cathedral of St. Peter in Wilmington.
Several years later, he rekindled his interest in joining the priesthood and found his way to the Vincentian community after realizing he wanted to work primarily in service to the poor and marginalized. At 40, he was accepted into the formation program of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission and was sent to St. John’s to study philosophy. He graduated in 2000, and at 47, he was ordained into the Vincentian priesthood.
“I think it just turned out that God thought I would make a better priest at 47 instead of at 27,” Fr. Holliday said.
“I came back to the church and changed my life at a relatively late age. I hope that helps people to realize that things are not necessarily over when you enter the later stages of life.”
In fact, Fr. Holliday’s life is busier than ever as University Chaplain. He has spent his first year attending as many campus events as he can fit into his schedule—athletic competitions, lectures, presentations, fundraisers, and music and theater productions—in his efforts to immerse himself in the culture of St. John’s.
His first day as University Chaplain, which took place just after his arrival at St. John’s, was spent greeting new and returning students, and their families, as part of the annual Move-In Weekend festivities.
He is also involved in the University’s numerous service programs and immersion experiences. Most recently, Fr. Holliday accompanied 12 students to Washington, DC, to take part in the 46th Annual March for Life. Last spring, he journeyed with students and Campus Ministry staff to Lourdes, France, to help the elderly, sick, and injured along their pilgrimage to the city’s healing waters as part of the Lourdes Pilgrimage Plunge.
Noting this was his first trip to Lourdes, Fr. Holliday said, “It was a great experience, being there with young people from the University who had some spiritual hunger and wanted to give of themselves in service to those who needed help.”
Additionally, Fr. Holliday has helped lead four Midnight Run service activities, leaving St. John’s late in the evening to go into Manhattan to share sandwiches, beverages, clothing, and toiletry products with homeless people.
“We always try to instill in the volunteers from the campus the importance of talking to the people we are serving; to not just give things away, but to get to know them a little bit,” Fr. Holliday said.
Fr. Holliday is clearly relishing his role as University Chaplain. “Because of my previous work as a pastor, I look at this as being a pastor as well, only in a much larger community than a church parish. I am always available for anybody who wants to stop by the office or who walks into St. Thomas More Church and wants to talk.”
“I look forward,” he added, “to being a part of the Campus Ministry team here at St. John’s University for a long time.”