Deep in the many-acred quad on a particularly blustery day, you could find me protesting the storm from within the depths of the Hesburgh Library. I had little desire to remove myself from the warmth that is the basement microfiche section, until I recalled to memory the interview I was supposed to conduct in Coleman-Morse, just 20 minutes in the future. With warm thoughts of Brett Perkins, Director of the RCIA Process under Campus Ministry, about my head, I quickly ran out to brave the storm.
Upon entering his office, I immediately was greeted with a kind smile and equally kind seat. I had the chance to ask Brett about his past and what led him to currently occupy the coveted Campus Ministry office. Brett grew up in a small town in Illinois called Cerro Gordo. Brett informed me that the town means “fat hill” in Spanish, not “fat pig” like I originally thought. I later reasoned that the original inhabitants, veterans of the Mexican-American War, probably did not name such a land flowing with hills and honey after swine. The German and Swiss inhabitants brought with them not pigs but their Protestant faith, establishing a town that would grow to about 1,500 people.
After all things Gordo were cleared up, I asked Brett where he went to school.
“The public school pulled our little district in, and my brother and I attended,” he said.
I next asked how he became the Director of RCIA at Notre Dame from such rural beginnings, and he replied, “There was no reason for me to go to Notre Dame and still be here today except from the Holy Spirit.”
What followed was an incredible story of Brett’s conversion that led him to embrace the Catholic faith from his Methodist upbringing, attend Notre Dame, and become involved with Campus Ministry. “There were four churches in Cerro Gordo, and none of them Catholic. My friend, Katie, was the only Catholic I knew in town,” he explained. “She attended Our Lady of Lourdes parish in the nearby city of Decatur. One day in study hall, Katie invited me to attend my first Mass with her the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 1995.”
Brett noted of this experience at Mass, “I was confused. I could tell that through its reverence and beauty the Mass was unique and special. This experience made me think, ‘What do Catholics believe?’ And also, ‘Well, what does it mean to be a Methodist?’”
Brett took a commercial break and pulled a book from his extensive personal collection to show me. It was called Rome Sweet Home by author Scott Hahn. “This book helped open my eyes to Scott’s journey of faith and through it I came to better understand what Catholic Christians believe,” he said.
“I was a junior in high school, set on going to the University of Illinois. Notre Dame was totally a fluke,” Brett told me. “I remember we were just finishing up a college trip to Northwestern in Chicago when the idea occurred to me to visit Notre Dame. I pulled out the map, found that South Bend was only a short drive away, and so we headed east! Only through the grace of God did I end up here.”
Brett told me about another grace that was poured forth on him at Notre Dame. He said, “Notre Dame’s freshman physical was where my cancer was discovered during the summer before my freshman year. I ended up having three courses of chemotherapy during that summer before I started college, with the last course of chemo being administered during the weekend of my Freshman Orientation. That was a crazy time, but God got me through it.”
From the original invitation to go to Mass with Katie and the events that followed, Brett decided that he was set on becoming Catholic his freshman year. “It was definitely on my mind, but not on my family’s,” which was devoutly Methodist, especially his mother. So he waited, delaying his entrance into RCIA.
“During summer break before sophomore year, my mother asked me, ‘What are you going to do this year?’ So among other groups or clubs I hoped to join, I slipped in that I was going to do RCIA, and hoped that she wouldn’t catch on or ask for more information. However, you can’t really slip much past my mom,” he said with a chuckle.
“Though initially opposed to the idea, my parents had a positive experience in learning about the Catholic faith; they realized that everything we had heard about Catholicism wasn’t so bad,” he continued. “I also assured my parents that I wasn’t turning my back on anything they had taught me about Christianity, and that I wasn’t abandoning anything they had given me when I was growing up.”
On April 3, 1999, Brett became Catholic at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame. He graduated in 2001 as a finance major with a theology minor and began a career in financial healthcare consulting. He then worked for one of the Big Five accounting firms in Chicago for the next three years.
In 2004, Brett got a phone call from Karen Kirner, his former choir director in Campus Ministry. She told Brett of a position opening for Catholic Peer Ministry as well as Protestant Student Ministry. “Once she and Tami Schmitz, my former RCIA director, pitched the idea, I knew I had to prayerfully consider this opportunity as well as reexamine how my gifts were currently being used in the business world,” Brett said.
Seeing that his gifts were not being used to their fullest potential in the business world, Brett decided to pursue his vocation in Campus Ministry instead, to work to identify the meeting point between his gifts and the world’s deepest needs. “You know how they say that if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life? Well, here I am saying it too, 12 years later,” he told me.
I asked Brett what he has been doing for these past 12 years that keeps him so enthusiastic about his work and play. For the first nine years, he worked in faith sharing ministry conducting retreats, weekly ministries, and other small group events. Just three years ago, he began directing the Sacramental Preparation area, which includes the RCIA and Short Course ministries, among others.
“To be able to prepare people for the Sacraments and accompany them on their journey of faith is simply incredible,” he said. “I have had the immensely fulfilling opportunity to oversee the full year-long RCIA process for those who are unbaptized or otherwise new to Christianity, and I was then able to develop a new track of Sacramental Preparation, the ‘Short Course,’ which serves as a shorter, semester-long process for folks who are already Christians but who now want to explore what makes us unique as Catholic Christians.”
When asked about the events he is currently working on, Brett disclosed, “This year, we launched an initial outreach ministry called ‘Christ for the Curious.’ It’s a five-week long fireside chat series open to everybody who wants to know more about the Life of Jesus Christ.”
Brett is also involved in the Master of Divinity program and Notre Dame Right to Life, as well as in the University Faculty for Life. He helps with presentations on faith for the admissions office, gives talks for various events on campus, and meets one-on-one with students in his free time.
It is apparent to all that Brett is filled with joy in all that he does, so I asked what in particular brings him such joy even on blustery days such as that particular Thursday.
“I love the initial proclamation of the Gospel. It is so beautiful to see the Holy Spirit at work, and to help others wake up to the reality of God active and at work in their lives. Sharing Jesus Christ with each person I encounter is a success,” Brett explained.
When Brett has free time outside of his office, he spends it with family (especially his new nephew, John Peter), other young adults who work at Notre Dame, and his Byzantine Catholic parish in Mishawaka. He enjoys making daily time for prayer, especially going to early morning Mass: “It’s a great way to start my day so that I can fill up my well and thus better share the spiritual life I’ve found with others.”
Indeed, Brett shared the spiritual life he found with others not only under the Dome but also at home in Cerro Gordo. In 2008, his younger brother, Chris, also graduated from Notre Dame, having become Catholic as a junior in 2007. The following year, in 2008, his parents also entered the Catholic Church.
“Sure, visiting campus and going to the Basilica influenced my conversion, but it all comes back to that one moment in study hall with Katie,” Brett reminded me. “It all comes back to the power of invitation … an invitation that led me to consider the Catholic faith, which then led me to consider Notre Dame for my education, where I was then able to discern where God was calling me.”
Tierney Vrdolyak is a sophomore studying the Program of Liberal Studies and theology and, in her free-spirited time, she enjoys playing a multitude of sports, singing, wearing patterned socks, and organizing competitive Just Dance tournaments in her humble abode, Breen-Phillips Hall. If you enjoy playing pick-up of any kind or chatting about the benefits of joining a local sock of the month club, contact Tierney at firstname.lastname@example.org.