By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006
A couple of guys yelled, "Padre!" when they saw the Rev. Robert Schlageter barreling into the dorm in his black friar's robes cinched with rope.
"You getting your rooms blessed, you little pagans?" he hollered back.
Every September, Father Bob makes the rounds, teasing, badgering, laughing and blessing his way through Catholic University's student housing. In almost every room he says a quick prayer with the students, sprinkles holy water and tapes up a paper crucifix and small yellow sign over the door that says: "Peace to all who enter here. This Room has been Blessed."
Most important: He gets in the door and lets them know he's there.
The beginning of freshman year is the time some student-life officials worry about most; about one in five freshmen at a four-year school doesn't make it to sophomore year. Some flunk out, but some just walk away, said Gwendolyn Dungy of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. Studies suggest that giving new students a connection, a sense of home, is crucial.
"If you can't help to do that by October," Schlageter said, "you risk losing them."
He and the 20-some other members of the campus ministry have more than 6,000 souls to take care of, 859 of them freshmen -- the most ever at Catholic -- and t hey don't want to shut them out. He studies photo directories, trying to memorize names and faces.
"Father Bob is the real mascot of the school," said junior Drew Napoli. "Everyone loves him. . . . You can't help but smile when he's around."
He grabs kids by the collar, taunting them, or snatches a do-rag off a student to wrap around his own large head. (That photo zipped from cellphone to cellphone last week.)
Some call him the wired friar: He's always got his Treo somewhere in the folds of his black habit. He fires off text messages, checking in on a troubled freshman or making a sophomore giggle at a dull ceremony.
He started blessing rooms when he came to Catholic nine years ago; back then, it took him a week. Now it takes two weeks and a dozen people to get to the thousands who ask for a blessing. He doesn't go in if not invited, but at Spellman Hall last week, almost every door had a note on it: Please bless this room.
Maybe it's a sign of this generation of students' interest in spirituality. Or maybe it's Father Bob.
He never wants to force himself, or God, into anyone's life, he said: "I just keep opening doors."
Schlageter grew up with the tradition. He remembers that when he was a little boy in Buffalo, the priests would visit his family's house and leave a mark over the door after Epiphany, the end of the Christmas season. It was reassuring, he said, a reminder that God was close.
And he remembers what it's like to be lost. After seminary he studied in Rome, not knowing Italian, feeling completely alone.
He's reverent when he talks about his work now, as a Franciscan friar living on campus. He loves the students. "It's a privilege. It's beautiful, just beautiful, to be part of their lives, because the four years in college are incredible moments of growth," he said. "They come in teenagers and they leave adults."
"It's like the microwave of life," he added. "They get done real quick."
By now, he's just about seen it all, from the poignant (the freshman who told him afterward, "I feel God's presence here in a deeper way" ) to the weird (the mug that said, "Cardinal Ratzinger: Putting the smack down on heresy.")
Once, he went into a room that had been decorated by its female occupants entirely in leopard print, even the light switch. "We're praying," he said, hands clasped, retelling it. "The phone rings. Everyone ignores it. All of sudden the answering machine goes, 'Rrrrrrrrrrrr,' " he said, purring and trying to make his gruff voice sound silky. " 'You have reached the cheetah lounge.' "
He never knows just what he'll find. About 8 p.m. one night last week, he handed tape to Napoli, prayer cards to senior Kelli McErlean and paper crosses to a campus minister. "This is the ninth time we've blessed the rooms in this building," he said as they went in and then laughed. "You hope, some year, it'll take."
They started on the fifth floor of Spellman Hall, his voice booming off the cinder block as he swept into rooms, stepping over dirty socks and architecture projects, suggesting prayers if the students didn't offer their own. "That you have a good year, and a happy year," he said.
"Lord, hear our prayer," they echoed.
"And for your mother and father, who miss you terrible."
He rubbed a broad thumb in the sign of the cross on a 17-year-old's forehead, looked in her eyes and said, "If you need us and don't find us, we'll be heartbroken."
Some weren't sure what to pray for. "Not to fail chemistry?" one suggested. "That I get along with my roommate," another said.
One girl burst into tears. McErlean hugged her. Schlageter told her roommate as he left, "Take care of her, okay?" and made a note to remember to check on her.
That's why he has the Treo, so he can keep track of appointments, get e-mail and make calls.
On the fourth floor, all male, someone yelled, "Hide the contraband!" to laughter. Guys switched off the football game. In one room he grabbed a student's cellphone away and barked into it, enjoying the reaction on the other end: "He's gotta go. This is his priest!"
He knocked loudly on one door. "You guys want your room blessed?"
A pause. "Uhhhhh . . . " said Chris Carroll, looking out the peephole, startled to see a bearded friar. Schlageter pointed to the sign on the door requesting it.
"Pranksters!" Carroll said.
But when Father Bob and the others started to walk away, Carroll told them, a couple times, to come on in.
Carroll propped the prayer card up in his Frisbee and read along with his roommate. He didn't grow up with religion, Carroll said later. But the cross Father Bob put up is still there, with their Power Rangers posters.
"It says, 'I'm always with you,' or 'I'm always watching,' or something. It's kinnnnnd of weird," Carroll said. "But I'd feel worse taking it down. Like -- denying his presence."
He's glad he opened the door. "It felt kind of good afterward," Carroll said.
In a rowdy quad room nearby, one student said after the prayer, "Want to sign our tube?" and handed Schlageter a Sharpie and a poster mailer they'd labeled the "Booze Tube."
"Father Bob," he wrote alongside the other scrawls. "Your priest."
He laughed as he walked out, shaking his head. "What was that all about?"
He doesn't rat kids out; that's not the role of a priest, he said. "I'm going to fight my best to make 'em go a good way." Sometimes that means smiling at them despite the things they're doing, hoping to win their hearts and earn their trust.
Napoli ran from him during room blessings his first year, too drunk to receive a visiting priest. "I was a rough one freshman year," he said. "I was a bad kid. Then Father Bob found out my cellphone number and never stopped calling me."
In many rooms, Schlageter offered this quiet intention: "For the kid in this building, whoever he or she is, who needs our prayer the most."
Napoli said he's like Santa Claus, all jolly with a beard turning white. "At the same time, he's so serious -- a caring, loving seriousness. He's just -- wise. He knows you. You'll be like, 'You pinned me.' "
Last week in Spellman Hall, the dorm got louder as the hour got later -- music up, water pelting off shower tiles in the cavernous bathrooms, shouts echoing in the stairwells.
He gave one last hug, big arm around a smiling freshman, and headed out. On the dorm's cement patio, students were gathering for a Bible class led by Napoli. "Look at this!" Father Bob said, beaming at the size of the group that swarmed around him, laughing, as the door swung open.