The Jesuit vow of obedience has been a powerful force in the career of Vice President for Mission and Ministry Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J. (CAS ’88). After eight years as a member of Georgetown’s faculty, the same call to service that brought O’Brien to Georgetown will bring him to Santa Clara University as its new dean of the Jesuit School of Theology, starting in the 2016-17 school year.
From Litigation to Liturgy
Prior to joining the Jesuits in 1996, O’Brien obtained his bachelor’s in Government from Georgetown in 1988 and attended the University of Florida Levin College of Law from 1988 to 1991. From law school, he practiced corporate litigation in Florida until deciding to enter Fordham University in 1998 to obtain a master’s in philosophy.
“I went to law school with the hopes of getting involved with politics and government service, but in my mid 20s, I questioned whether politics was how I was meant to serve. So in my late20s I joined the Jesuits,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien was ordained in 2006, 10 years after joining the Jesuits. Two years later, he joined Georgetown as executive director of campus ministry after teaching at St. Joseph’s, a Catholic university in Philadelphia, and serving as an associate pastor for the Holy Trinity Church in Washington, D.C.
In his role as vice president for mission and ministry at Georgetown, which he has held since 2011, O’Brien has strived to emphasize social justice programs and foster partnerships between campus ministry and other organizations.
“My largest commitments have been with the Jesuit refugee service and issues on migration,” O’Brien said. “During the course of my time here, a former student Mike Meaney (SFS ’12) and I started a program, the Kino Border Immersion experience, that still exists as part of the Alternative Breaks Program. We’re now in our sixth year. We go with students to southern Arizona and meet with communities on both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border. That’s just one example of how I try to be rooted in the justice, as well as through my teaching.”
Under O’Brien’s leadership, the Office of Mission and Ministry has worked closely with the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service, along with other academic centers committed to interreligious understanding, and has increased the university’s resources for faculty and staff to better engage with Jesuit and Catholic traditions.
University President John J. DeGioia hailed O’Brien for his important influence on the community in his eight years at Georgetown.
“Kevin O’Brien has been a wonderful colleague now for several years and as vice president for mission and ministry. He has done so much to advance the Catholic and Jesuit identity of Georgetown,” DeGioia said.
Santa Clara University Provost Dr. Dennis Jacobs said O’Brien’s work at Georgetown makes him well-suited for his new position.
“As the Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Georgetown University, Fr. O’Brien has been very successful introducing students, faculty, staff, and alumni to Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuit philosophy of education. Fr. O’Brien’s gift and passion for Jesuit ministry has engendered strong financial support from benefactors and he brings a wealth of talent and experience to his new role,” Jacobs wrote in an email to The Hoya.
A Passion for Teaching
O’Brien’s role within Georgetown extends beyond his position as vice president for mission and ministry. O’Brien is also the Jesuit-in-residence for Copley Hall and teaches a theology course each semester, called “The Church and the 21st Century.”
“One way I characterize my ministry here is as one of presence. It’s in being available to people where they are — in the residence hall, at the play, at the game, at [O’Donovan Hall] — that’s where I come to know people, just by being present to people,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said his work, including his opportunities to teach, has also helped him to stay grounded.
“Education and social justice have defined a lot of what I’ve done. Universities can be a very rarefied atmosphere where it can be very easy to be disconnected from the problems of the real world,” O’Brien said. “In both my work in higher education and training as a Jesuit, I wanted to make sure I didn’t become too distracted with the privileges that come with higher education.”
Engaging with Campus Life
O’Brien has not only left his mark on campus ministry but also on many individual members of the Georgetown community, particularly students.
“His positive engagement with students, faculty and staff has been amazingly impactful. He has made a real difference in so many people’s lives,” DeGioia said.
Zahid Syed (COL ’16), former president of the Muslim Student Association, said O’Brien’s work has positively influenced the situation of the Muslim community at Georgetown.
“During the winter, Fr. O’Brien’s letter calling on all of us to denounce Islamophobia and not give into fear was especially notable. It made so many of us in the Georgetown Muslim community feel safe and secure,” Syed said.
Kathleen Osea (NHS ’16) highlighted O’Brien’s impressive and personal commitment to his students.
“He’s the vice president of mission and ministry and he always makes time for students. I’ve had friends who’ve invited him over for dinner, like to a university townhouse,” Osea said. “And at least on three occasions that I’ve been present for, he’s offered the 10 p.m. Copley Crypt Mass in honor of somebody’s relative who has passed away. In addition to all he does for this university, he really at the heart of it all truly cares about the university and the students.”
Jose Madrid (COL ’14) said O’Brien exemplifies Georgetown’s values.
“If I had to choose one person who represents all of Georgetown, I think Kevin O’Brien would be that one person. He personifies what all of us that graduate from Georgetown try to achieve, which is this fire for the world,” Madrid said.
Leaving the Hilltop, Looking Ahead
For O’Brien, his work at Georgetown is fueled by his love for and commitment to the school.
“I have great love for Georgetown. One of the reasons I became a Jesuit was because I went here. My years here, what I learned here and who I met here, both faculty and mentors and my friends, were formative to who I am,” O’Brien said. “My world opened up so dramatically when I came here. When I was asked to return here eight years ago, it was an easy mission to say yes to.”
O’Brien said his commitment to Georgetown stems from the importance the Jesuits place on fostering love within their community, seen through their three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
“Ultimately, all of the vows are done out of love, so I can better serve people. About the vow of obedience, in one sense I give up some independence, but I do that so I can be more free to serve, and it is love that motivates that call to service,” O’Brien said.
Although he chooses not to speculate on what the future might hold, he said he will approach Santa Clara as the start of the next stage of his life, which he is excited to begin.
“The cost of the vow of obedience is leaving the people and places I love very much. That’s the hardest thing. But God has always been faithful to me by sending people to me who filled my life in unimaginable ways. I could not have imagined the last eight years when I arrived,” O’Brien said. “In the same way, I know that however long I’ll be at Santa Clara, I can’t imagine what God has waiting for me there.”
While O’Brien looks forward to his new start at JST, he hopes that the work he’s begun at Georgetown continues to develop after his departure.
“When our students graduate, they say the Jesuit character at Georgetown is one of the things they’re most proud of,” O’Brien said. “It’s not about me; it’s about the tradition that’s bigger than any of us. I leave and I just trust that I’ve made this place just a little better during my time here.”
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