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Franciscan Faces
Friar Nurtures Catholic Student Life at California Campus Parish

The University of California Santa Barbara offers a relaxed West Coast vibe: nearly endless sunshine, nearby beaches and mountains, and a student life known for a hippie and surfing legacy. But it’s different for faithful Catholic students.

For Catholic students who are part of the St. Mark’s University Parish, college life is more akin to first-century Rome. Those who live the Catholic faith not only lack support but regularly encounter hostility from the campus culture.

That’s the view of their pastor, Fr. Ryan Thornton, OFM, a 40-year-old scholar/priest imbued with a wide breadth of history determined to promote a Catholic niche in a highly secular academic environment. He’s found in three years at the Santa Barbara campus ministry that sometimes the hostility is subtle, such as students coping with encountering anti-Catholic perspectives in the classroom.

Other times the hostility is more apparent. “It’s as overt as a statue going through your window,” says the priest.

He notes one incident, which took place after the parish sponsored a meal for the homeless. Someone in a rage of anti-Catholic hostility threw a religious statue into the chapel’s glass window. The perp is still at large.

“That’s what happens when you do good,” says Fr. Ryan.

The Franciscan comes to the task of campus ministry with an academic background well-equipped for a

defense of the Church combined with a pastoral sense to accompany the 300 active Catholic students and 350 more families from the wider community. They are a few fish in a large ocean, as the Santa Barbara campus, a part of the massive state university system, enrolls some 26,000 students.

Fr. Ryan comes equipped with a sense of the culture they encounter. Born and raised in Southern California, Fr. Ryan studied philosophy and classics at Harvard before entering the Franciscans. He has ministered in a number of roles through the years, including as a hospital chaplain in Guatemala and, before entering the Franciscan community, as an English teacher in Ukraine. He was parochial vicar at Sts. Simon and Jude in Huntington Beach and earned a doctorate in economics in Paris and a licentiate in Rome.

With that academic background, Fr. Ryan uses his knowledge of history and the Franciscan life to battle with an aggressively secular college life. He is joined by the Catholic students, for whom he expressed admiration.

“They choose to be Catholic. They are making a radical choice,” he says about the active Catholic students on campus.

St. Mark’s provides regular Eucharistic Adoration, Mass in English and Spanish, Scripture study and reflection, as well as seminars on Church history and spiritual development.


Students hunger for a deeper intellectual foundation for their faith beyond what they may have learned in Catholic high school or parish religious education.

The primary goal is evangelization, with that responsibility resting largely with the students. They provide leadership on the parish council. And they are the ones who offer invitations to their fellow students to campus ministry events, often informally in after-class discussions or at campus social gatherings.

Leading a university parish can have the same kind of headaches pastors routinely encounter. For one example, the university church needs a new roof and Fr. Ryan is trying to finance the renovation. St. Mark’s operates largely like any other parish, reliant on its steady parishioners while embracing the busy college life of a large secular university.

The challenges remain unique. Yet life on a secular campus offers wide opportunities to spread the Gospel, says Fr. Ryan. He believes his background as an academic and youngish priest is a plus.

At 40, he is of a different generation yet close enough in age to remember what it’s like to be a college student. He offers students both an understanding of their cultural background and the scholastic wherewithal to engage their faith.

The challenges are great, but Fr. Ryan says he wouldn’t have it any other way, even after encountering the occasional statue thrown through the church window.

“For me, this is the perfect situation,” he says about his ministry at the university parish.

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