Father Larry Rice, CSP, is the new chaplain at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, where he is responsible for the Catholic Campus Ministry, as well as coordinating an interfaith team of associate chaplains who serve the Rensselaer community. (Mike Matvey photo)
Father Larry Rice, CSP, is the new chaplain at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, where he is responsible for the Catholic Campus Ministry, as well as coordinating an interfaith team of associate chaplains who serve the Rensselaer community. (Mike Matvey photo)
Father Larry Rice, CSP, is the new chaplain at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, where he is responsible for the Catholic Campus Ministry, as well as coordinating an interfaith team of associate chaplains who serve the Rensselaer community. Father Rice was director of Vocations for the Paulist Fathers from 2013-16 and as first consultor, from 2010-14, served as the director of St. Mary’s on the Lake, the Paulist summer retreat on Lake George. Father Rice is highly skilled in the field of communications including radio, television, multimedia and internet projects. Father Rice, who has his own website, podcast and YouTube channel, talked with editor Mike Matvey about how he came to his religious vocation, his plans at RPI and his love of “Star Trek” in the latest installment of Catholic Voices.

TE: What was your upbringing like?
FR
:  I grew up in Westchester County in White Plains, and I was there from first grade until my first year of high school and that was a great place. Up until the sixth grade, I was at a Catholic elementary school in White Plains, Our Lady of Sorrows. And at that point, I moved to the public school for junior high school and loved that. And then my dad got transferred by IBM to central Pennsylvania, so the family moved to Mechanicsburg, Pa., which is on the west shore across the river from Harrisburg. I was there through high school and then went to Penn State for my undergraduate degree. My degree was actually a pre-seminary degree because they had one. I started in computer science and when I figured out I was headed for the seminary, I switched to the College of Liberal Arts. The degree says “General Arts and Sciences Liberal Studies” but it was heavy concentrations of philosophy and sociology and beyond that I could take anything I wanted.

TE: Would you describe your family as religious when you were growing up?
FR: 
 I would describe my family as typical American Catholic; Mass every Sunday, grace before dinner, not particularly pious, but serious about our faith.

TE: What was your first ­religious memory?
FR:
  I think my first religious memory was probably my First Communion in second grade. Although my coming to understand my religious vocation was much later in life. That was not until when I was in college.

TE: How did that come about?
FR:
  I can tell you from my time as vocations director for the Paulist Fathers that my story is not at all typical. I was very involved with the Catholic student group on campus when I was there and working on a computer science degree and very happy with that and satisfied with my life. And then one day walking across campus, it was just literally a bolt out of the blue with this realization that I am supposed to be a priest and I can either move toward that or not, but that’s what I was created for and that is what I should do.

TE: How did you accept that this was what you were supposed to be doing with your life?
FR:  
It immediately felt true. That is about the best I can tell you. It was just undeniable. In my experience as vocations director, for most people it is something that kind of comes and goes, that they thought about and pushed it away and it comes back. It just didn’t work that way for me at all.

TE: What drew you to the Paulist Fathers?
FR:
  I realized I was headed for religious life when I was a sophomore in college, so I had plenty of time to do some research and engage in discernment and figure out what my options were. So part of that research — and that was even back before the internet was available — at the chapel at Penn State, there were all of these posters from all these various religious orders. And I just pulled off a bunch of business reply postcards and sent them in and looked at the materials that they sent. I really liked what the Paulists sent me. Their packet was different from everybody else’s. I liked the very American spirit and character of the community so that seemed like that was going to be a good fit for me.

TE: What was the process like of becoming a Paulist Father?
FR:
  One of the things that I have always appreciated about the Paulists is that there is a great deal of respect and appreciation for the movement of the Holy Spirit in an individual person’s life, and connecting that to the movement of the Spirit in the larger community and the larger Church. So as a result, the Paulists pay very careful attention to the gifts, talents and interests of each one of our members. And that doesn’t mean that everybody gets to do their own thing, but if there is something going on with you, they will let you go after it. You can see that throughout all of our history with people like Father Bud Kieser, who founded Paulist Pictures in Los Angeles and did TV and motion pictures. You can see that in Father Ricky Manalo today, who is one of the most prominent liturgical music composers and presenters. For me, it was a very strong interest in communications. I was the first one to bring a computer to the Paulist Fathers Novitiate, and to give you an idea of how long ago that was, it was an Osborne 1 computer. I sold those when I was in college to pay for some of my college expenses. The Osborne 1 was the first truly portable computer in the same sense that if you had six cinder blocks, and strapped them together with a handle, you would have portable cinder blocks. But I brought a computer with me to our novitiate and everybody looked at me like, “What is that for?” And my best response was, “In five to 10 years, you are all going to figure out what that’s for.” And we did. But even then, I can remember in our novitiate out in the woods of New Jersey, I set up my computer and it had a little 1200 baud modem on it and I got 50 feet of phone cable and ran it from the phone room down the hall into where I had this computer setup. I was using computer bulletin board systems even then to communicate with people. That was always part of my interest. After I was ordained, I did a year at our parish in northern Manhattan and then I went to work for Paulist Communications and Paulist Media Works in Washington, D.C. I have always been interested in communications and, in particular, using computers and digital technology for communications. And today that is of particular importance when we are trying to reach young adults because social media is that last tool that we have to reach them.

TE: Did you use social media a lot when you were the vocations director?
FR:
  Absolutely. Part of it is just being present on social media both personally and for the Paulist Fathers; to make sure that people understand who the Paulists are and what we do, to make sure that our branding is clear. But also using those tools the way any business would use them. So we would buy Google AdWords, so that when people search Google for particular terms having to do with religious vocations, our website would come up. We have to use those tools to reach people because everyone else is using them.

TE: How difficult is it to draw people to religious life?
FR:  
It is not hard at all, really it is not. God continues to call people and we have to, not just bring them into us, but we’ve got to go out to where they are. We have to participate in their culture and we have to indicate that we understand how they interact and how they communicate and what’s important to them. And then help them see how those things can be used for the service of the Gospel and the Church. Pope Francis talks about this all the time. We have to accompany people, not sit in our office and wait for them to knock on the door.

TE: What was your time like in Lake George as director of St. Mary’s on the Lake?
FR:
  I love the Adirondacks and the North Country. My family has been vacationing just across the border in Vermont in Lake Bomoseen for 45 years. I am very familiar with that part of the country. The opportunity to run the Paulist place on Lake George was just a great thing for me. It’s an amazing place to be during the summer and to see so many of our men come up there for vacations and the various people that are there for retreats, it was just delightful.

TE: How did you make your way to RPI?
FR:
  I was the director of the Catholic Center at the University of Texas in Austin and the bishop of Austin made the decision that he wanted his priests to staff the Catholic Center there. So after 118 years, the Paulist Fathers were informed that our services would no longer be required. That was difficult. That happened in January and within two months, the COVID pandemic hit. I found myself for about five months or so basically babysitting a big empty building and doing Mass in a chapel with no people in it awaiting my departure. Then in June of last year, we turned the place over to the diocese and I began a sabbatical. And a pandemic is not a great time for a sabbatical. So I spent most of it in Texas working on my own projects, doing some writing. In the course of that, I was invited by Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan in New York to become the new Catholic chaplain at Columbia University. I moved to New York, to our motherhouse in mid-December, with the idea that come January, I would start at Columbia. That didn’t happen because the Archdiocese of New York found that there were some pretty significant hurdles that they had not accounted for, including funding. After several weeks of delays and delays, finally Bishop (Edmund) Whalen in New York said this is not going to happen. At that point, a friend of mine who formerly worked for the Paulists and is now in the Archdiocese of Cleveland, told me that he had heard that they were still looking for a chaplain here at RPI. He said, “I think you would be a great fit, do you want me to connect you guys?” He put me in touch with the search committee from the Rensselaer Newman Foundation and I made some phone calls and talked them over, presented the possibility to my superior, the Paulist president (Father Eric Andrews, CSP) in New York, and he said, “Let’s check it out.” He and I came up here and I spent a day meeting people, looking the place over, talking to the various stakeholders and it seemed like a really good fit. So I moved here on May 19 and officially started June 1.

TE: What is your role as ­chaplain?
FR
:  When Father Ed Kacerguis retired, the Diocese of Albany was not able to replace him. RPI has been without a chaplain for two years. Part of my task right now is to basically rebuild the chaplain’s office and, of course, with the pandemic all through the last year and a half, there have been very few students on campus, the building’s been closed and there really hasn’t been any campus ministry program. We’ve had people that have been working with us on doing some online and remote things but in terms of the actual functioning chaplain’s office, that has not happened for two years. I am not just the Catholic campus minister, I am the university chaplain, which means that I have an office in the student union building in the chaplain’s office and I coordinate the religious life and events for the whole campus. I will be working with associate chaplains from various faiths who will be part of the team that we are putting together there. 

TE: Is there any overlap with the Diocese of Albany?
FR:
  There really is not at this point. The Diocese of Albany does not fund the campus ministry here; it is funded by the Rensselaer Newman Foundation. I am working for RPI and for Christ Sun of Justice Parish, but I am being paid by the Rensselaer Newman Foundation. It’s a complicated setup. At the same time, I have to have the a­pproval of (Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger) to function as a priest in his Diocese and that’s fine. But also for the last couple of months, I have been helping out at Our Lady of Victory as they have been awaiting the arrival of their new priest. I am helping out where I am able to as my schedule permits.

TE: Not to change subjects, but can you talk about your affinity for “Star Trek?”
FR:  I have always been a big fan, ever since I was a little kid. It is pretty clear that the values — what drives the drama on Star Trek — are things that really appeal to me and I find very much reflected in our Catholic faith: concern for justice, compassion, inclusion, diversity, integrity, leadership. Those are all things that are very strong values in Star Trek. So it is not surprising to me that I ended up in a hierarchical organization with a recognizable uniform and shared mission.

TE: What is your life ­philosophy?

FR:  I think that for me, it would be something that really connects me to the Paulist Fathers and our charisms and our founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker. And that is an attentiveness to the work of the Holy Spirit in every age and to be constantly sensitive to where the Spirit is moving us individually and as a Church. People often say that they think the Paulist Fathers are well grounded and in life with the people that we serve. We are not up on a pedestal. We are not different in that sense from the people that we serve and I think part of that is because the Paulists are good listeners and we have to be good listeners because our charism is very much about being attentive to what the Holy Spirit is doing in an individual that I am talking to, in a community that I am serving and in the whole Church. One of the things that Father Hecker said repeatedly and very clearly is that you cannot go wrong if you are really attentive to the Holy Spirit because it is the same Holy Spirit working in you as an individual as it is working in the whole Church. That is never going to lead you astray or into conflict with the Church because it is the same Holy Spirit. And particularly working in an Ecumenical and an Interfaith setting, I can be attentive to what God is accomplishing in people that are even outside of our faith tradition because the Holy Spirit is at work in all of them and everywhere.