Fr. Joseph Rossi leads Loyola's most talked-about weekly gathering, the Hopkins Court Mass.
It’s late on a cold Sunday night at Loyola University Maryland, and with most of its students apparently ensconced in the warmth of their dorm rooms or library carrels, the North Baltimore campus seems as dark and still as the inside of an empty cathedral.
Inside the small lounge of one freshman dorm, though, a celebration is coming to life.
Young men and women steam in by the dozen, faces illuminated by glowing candles. The strains of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” thrum off the walls. And a priest in collar and dark jeans takes his place at a makeshift altar up front.
“Guys, we’re starting with a classic rock song, and it deals with the theme of hope,” the Rev. Joseph Rossi, 69, tells the nearly 200 people now filling the incense-filled space. “Listen to the line, ‘I believe in Kingdom Come.’ That’s what’s giving them hope. That’s what their faith is holding onto."
And the most talked-about weekly gathering on campus, the Hopkins Court Mass, has begun.
Loyola, founded by the fathers of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, as Loyola College in Maryland 168 years ago, offers four Masses on its 99-acre campus every Sunday, including a formal Blessed Sacrament liturgy in the Alumni Memorial Chapel at 11 a.m. and another at 6 p.m.
But in an era in which attendance in the Catholic Church remains in decline, particularly among young adults, the 10 p.m. Mass Rossi celebrates draws more than 150 a week, at least the equivalent of its more conventional counterparts. And it generates a buzz on campus that other activities can’t touch.
Some say it’s that the service spotlights rock and pop music, YouTube videos, internet memes or film clips alongside the core elements of a traditional Mass. To others, it’s that students work with Rossi to devise, promote and carry out each one, generating a rare sense of ownership.
And many regulars cite the lack of formality, the location outside the confines of church buildings, and the sense of community that develops among those who attend.
Julia Scapp, a junior from New York who was raised Catholic, has been attending the Hopkins Court Mass regularly since her freshman year.
The 21-year-old says her commitment to the faith had been flagging — “I wasn’t feeling a connection to my home church,” she says — but the 10 o’clock Mass has brought it back to life.
“Even though the readings and the Gospels were the same ones, the way Father Rossi connected them to things that matter to me gave me a new outlook on church,” she says. “It was suddenly so relevant, so relatable. It meant a complete 180 for me.”
Scapp is one of two dozen students who not only attend but also volunteer hours each week making the Mass happen, suggesting songs and videos tied to liturgical themes, doing readings and distributing Communion, carrying out tech responsibilities and breaking down the setup afterward.
The Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, president and CEO of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, says the phenomenon of Sunday-night Mass (sometimes referred to as “last-chance Mass”) at colleges is not new. College students eager to get up for Sunday morning Mass, after all, are a rare breed, and for many a nighttime service can provide a chance to gather thoughts after a weekend away or prepare for the coming week.
But he has never heard of such a Mass with so much student involvement, a factor he says makes Loyola’s unique.
“When you’re talking about something that’s almost entirely student-run, where students are doing the readings or the music, or just deciding who’s going to do what, you have personal ownership of the experience, and that’s fantastic,” Holtschneider says. “Because they take ownership of it, they show up.”
Rossi, a professor of theology and a cheerful sort who shepherds the process on his own time, considers himself more conduit than conductor.
“One of the real strengths of the Mass is that we utilize the creativity of the students,” he says. “It’s not just me imposing a traditional Mass. It’s the students and I contemporizing a very traditional Catholic liturgical service, the Eucharistic celebration or Mass, for the needs of those who are between the ages of 18 and 22.”
Rossi wasn’t always as clear how it all should come together.
He was a resident priest living in an apartment in Hopkins Court, a dorm for freshmen, when he heard a tentative knock on his door one Sunday evening in 2005.
“There’s that desire to have more fun, to be more personally engaged, even to rebel. This Mass answers that as well.”
Sara Scalzo, Loyola’s director of student engagement
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A handful of students had tried to attend the college’s 6 p.m. Mass only to find it had been canceled. They asked whether Rossi would perform a “coffee-table” Mass in his apartment.
It went so smoothly they returned the next week, then several weeks more, and the word spread. The service outgrew his apartment and was moved to the lounge.
A circular configuration of tables was soon too small, so the group laid them end to end and brought in more chairs. Students brought in candles, which soon numbered in the hundreds, and hooked up TV screens and a sound system. And Rossi embraced their ideas, incorporating Jimi Hendrix music, “Batman” film clips, YouTube videos on current events.
Four years ago, Matthew Boland was a freshman looking for a Mass to attend when he spotted a “weird” poster on campus.
It featured the image of a gorilla, a word in Swahili, a splash of bright colors and the time and place for a Sunday night service.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I need to go,' " the 21-year-old junior recalls “I marked my calendar.”
At the Mass, Rossi retold the story of Harambe, a 17-year-old gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. A child left unattended by his parents had wandered into the primate’s enclosure, and after the gorilla picked the boy up, zoo officials euthanized him, a decision that spawned a million internet memes.
The priest’s homily touched on God’s protection of his creatures in dire circumstances.
“It was such an incredible spiritual and social experience,” Boland says. "I felt such a connection that it made me feel butterflies in my stomach."
He brought a friend, a non-Catholic, who later brought other friends. The flock expanded. Today Boland spends eight hours a week planning and overseeing the tech elements of each Mass.
“I used to hear what the next topic was going to be, and I’d think, ‘There’s no way Father [Rossi] can connect that to the Catholic faith,’ but he has always managed to pull it off,” Boland says.
Rossi isn’t always familiar with the artists the team suggests, but he studies them, seeking links between their art and the liturgical message for the week. He has spotlighted Imagine Dragons, Harry Styles, the 2018 overdose death of rapper Mac Miller, the Conor McGregor-Floyd MayweatherJr. fight, and even one of this year’s Super Bowl commercials.
However outside the box his subject matter, campus officials rave about Rossi’s approach.
“I think it speaks their language,” says Sara Scalzo, Loyola’s director of student engagement. “For our students who were raised Catholic, there’s that piece of wanting to respect tradition, but then I think about who I was when I went off to college. There’s that desire to have more fun, to be more personally engaged, even to rebel. This Mass answers that as well."
The Rev. Brian Linnane, the university president, says he’s never heard a complaint that the service is too unconventional, in part because even as he innovates, Rossi “does not make one deviation from the substance” of the Catholic Mass.
“I’ve been involved in higher education for 40 years, and people like me always want to understand the modes in which students learn,” he says. "Whether we’re teaching physics or the Mass, we ask the same questions: ‘Who’s the audience? What’s meaningful to them? What gets the point across?’ Father Rossi goes the extra mile in that regard.”
On that chilly February night, Rossi segues from U2 into a sequence of prayers, steps back as students read the Gospel and administer Communion, and speaks of the artist students have chosen to highlight, the British virtual band Gorillaz and their 2010 hit “On Melancholy Hill.”
All eyes fix on two wall-mounted TVs as Boland screens the video, a surrealistic affair that involves pirates, floating plastic, man-powered submarines and squirming jellyfish.
“Well, that should be self-explanatory!” Rossi exclaims, to laughter, as the video ends.
Then he cites a line from the song — “You are my medicine when you are close to me” — and explores its spiritual possibilities, the glow of candlelight playing across his face.
Some of the students hold hands. Others kneel to pray. The whole room seems absorbed in the moment.
“Guys, I don’t know who Gorillaz are talking to with that line," Rossi says, "but put ‘Lord’ in front of the sentence, and that’s a prayer with which to begin our days and end our days. It’s a perfect example of what Jesus meant by grace. They’re talking about the life of the soul. ”