A great many St. John’s University special events begin with an invocation, which is a welcoming prayer—often given by a priest or a religious person—that asks God for a special blessing upon the gathering.
As the new Executive Vice President for Mission, Rev. Aidan R. Rooney, C.M., M.Div., M.Th. ’78NDC, would like that to change.
“You will start to see lay people doing invocations at events,” Fr. Rooney said. “It’s about how we express our Catholicity and religious nature.”
Inclusivity is at the top of his agenda, and Fr. Rooney will work with students, faculty, staff, and administrators. “All members of our community, should be engaged with the mission,” he said, “and engagement is built on belonging.”
Fr. Rooney, a member of the Congregation of the Mission, also known as the Vincentians, for more than 40 years, has served the community’s Eastern Province in a variety of roles, both in the US and abroad. Most recently, he was Vice President for Mission Integration at Niagara University, helping their community more deeply understand and take responsibility for the University’s Catholic and Vincentian mission. He hopes to do likewise at St. John’s.
Returning to the theme prayer, Fr. Rooney observed that, in the desire to be inclusive “People tend to neuter prayer,” he explained. “They take their own faith out of it for fear of offending someone.”
Noting that a large percentage of participants at these events are not Catholic, Fr. Rooney remarked that is essential to use language that speaks to everyone. “What kind of address should we use for God that people can share, draw them in—and then, at the end, claim their faith?”
Fr. Rooney stressed that when ending an invocation, he typically says, “We ask this of you, each in the manner in which we have received in faith, and I, in the name of my Lord, Jesus Christ.”
He added, “I’m not speaking for you. I’m praying for you in the way I pray. I’m inviting you, in that moment, to pray in your way.”
The son of an Irish father and a British mother, Fr. Rooney was born on Staten Island, NY, eventually attending the St. John’s campus there. At first he attended Cornell University and recalled it didn’t suit him. After returning home, a high school friend attending St. John’s encouraged Fr. Rooney to join him there.
“It wasn’t about the mission or anything. It was just up the street,” he laughed.
Majoring in English, Fr. Rooney found a home in the theater department and became intimately involved in stage and lighting design, eventually working after graduation as technical director for Educational Theatre program the at New York University.
At. St. John’s, Fr. Rooney met the late Rev. Thomas Krafinski, C.M., who was Campus Minister for the Staten Island campus. Fr. Krafinski painted scenery for their theater productions in his spare time.
“He knew I was interested in music, and he got myself and a few other guys who were into music—but not so much into church—to play for masses. They would host gatherings and retreats for students. I got to know him and other Vincentians in a way you wouldn’t if you were just simply taking classes on campus.”
It was at this time that the idea of a vocation to the priesthood, which Fr. Rooney entertained in high school, came into deeper focus. Toward the end of his time at St. John’s, he entered into a serious discernment about the priesthood.
“But I wanted to know I could make a career in the theater, and then say ‘no’ to that,” he said. “To say, ‘I could do this, but I’m choosing not to,’ and choose what I really want to do.”
After over a year working as technical director, Fr. Rooney realized he was called to the priesthood and entered the seminary. “I was fascinated by graduate theology. I found my place in community life.”
Ordained in 1984, Fr. Rooney was assigned to Campus Ministry at Niagara University and taught Religious Studies there. From there, his path becomes circuitous. He found himself immersed in various disciplines that pulled him to one assignment after another. In addition to his love of theology and philosophy, he rediscovered a love of mathematics, engineering, statistics, computers, and the nascent internet.
He began studies for a doctoral degree in educational psychology. “I found I was able to communicate with young people really well and build their trust.”
Fascinated by statistics, he became the consultant to graduate students in the University at Buffalo’s Quantitative Analysis Lab, helping them organize their research and complete their dissertations. He also began teaching graduate statistics at Niagara.
Fr. Rooney was tapped to serve as Director of Continuing Formation and Graduate Studies for the Eastern Province because his superiors noted how much he enjoyed engaging with and helping students. At the same time, he was asked to serve as Associate Pastor, and eventually Pastor, at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Germantown, PA.
“I like to say ‘yes’ to new things.”
A firm believer in bringing new ideas to fruition and seeing a job through, Fr. Rooney accepted roles as Executive Director of the Vincentian Center for Youth and Young Adults in Princeton, NJ, and as Coordinator of Famvin.org, the Vincentian Family website. He also served in the Congregation’s international mission in El Alto, Bolivia.
A desire to emulate the life and work of St. Vincent de Paul brought Fr. Rooney to missionary life, where he stayed for nine years. “It was great,” he stressed. There, he and two other Vincentians were responsible for helping build health clinics, strengthen the educational system, and provide catechesis for 83 separate indigenous communities.
After returning to the US and his latest stint at Niagara, Fr. Rooney finds himself working at his alma mater for the first time—and is excited by the prospect. Noting that University President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., preferred a Vincentian priest to fill the vacancy for the Executive Vice President for Mission, Fr. Rooney accepted the position.
“I wanted to be sure he wanted me for this position, not just any Vincentian,” he said. “So here I am.”
Fr. Rooney called his first few months both a listening tour and a “credibility tour,” and is not shy about expressing the fact he believes there is a great deal of intellectual capital and untapped potential present in the people who already fill some of the major mission-related roles at St. John’s. He wants to “turn them loose” and do what they do best.
“This is why they were hired,” he said. “I trust them, and if something goes wrong, I will protect them.” He added, “I want to make it possible for them to do their jobs.”
Building credibility through listening and respectful dialogue is the first step for Fr. Rooney. “I have kind of an extroverted style and I will express who I am and what I think. My ‘yes’ to this job is because I believe there’s a tremendous amount of mission talent on this campus that needs to be freed up. My goal is integrated mission.”