After transitioning from a teaching career to the priesthood, then moving among parishes within the Diocese of Harrisburg, the Rev. Michael Rothan has learned to plan his life incrementally, creating objectives for each phase.
As Rothan joins Bucknell as chaplain for the Catholic community, he's set a clear — and student-centered — goal for his work on campus.
"I want to create an environment, and mechanisms within that environment, to inform students of the truths of their faith and help them grow spiritually," Rothan said. "I'm here for faculty and staff, too, but students are the priority."
Rothan, who attended the seminary at age 27 after teaching middle-school biology, notes that his previous assignments at parishes throughout central Pennsylvania always involved work with young adults and youth ministry. However, living in Newman House — the hub for Catholic life on campus — has been an adjustment for the self-proclaimed "forced extrovert."
In order to ensure that he's available to students, Rothan has moved his office from his personal quarters to the house's public area and tells students, "If I'm here and the door is open, you're welcome to come in."
"Parents can see what their kids are hearing at Mass, and students who don't go to Mass can at least see a video," he explained. "My messages are specifically crafted for students, hopefully to serve as springboards for discussion."
Rothan added that a previous assignment at St. Benedict the Abbot parish in Lebanon, Pa., which served a Spanish-speaking congregation, required him to spend up to seven hours each week translating his homilies. More recently, he undertook a different type of spiritual challenge, spending the greater part of a six-month sabbatical living in a small outbuilding near an isolated cabin he co-owns with his brother in rural Perry County, Pa. The only source of power was a generator.
"I would go two or three weeks without seeing another person," said Rothan, who spent mornings praying, exercising and reading, and afternoons working on the property. "Sometimes the priesthood stresses less the spiritual and more the administrative. This was a chance to write and study and get out of the machine."
He added that the experience helped him shift his internal focus. "I came back worrying less about things beyond my control and focusing on the important things."
Rothan, who holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, enjoys discussing the intersections of faith and science. "Some people think those two things are diametrically opposed," he said. "But they complement each other very well."
The topic was especially relevant when he served as pastor at St. Joan of Arc parish in Hershey, Pa., which is home to the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. "A lot of my parishioners were doctors and scientists who wanted to discuss topics like bioethics," Rothan said.
As he joins Chaplains & Religious Life at Bucknell, working with the University chaplain, the chaplain for the Jewish community and the chaplain for the Muslim community, Rothan hopes to help Catholic students see beyond stereotypes of a "stale, Gothic church" and instead forge a personal relationship with God that "goes with them wherever they go."
"I want students to have a safe place, where they feel loved and respected, but also teach them the truths of their faith," he said.