It may seem out of the ordinary for a religious chaplain on a secular university campus to be awarded an honorary degree. But there is nothing ordinary about Father Gary Braun, a Roman Catholic priest who has spent more than a quarter of a century at Washington University in St. Louis ministering not just to Catholics, but to generations of students of all faiths, as well as faculty, staff and community members. Braun received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from the university on May 19, 2017.
Father Gary is described as the “heart and soul” of religious life at Washington University, and has been since 1991, when then-Archbishop John L. May appointed him director of the Catholic Student Center (CSC).
When Father Gary arrived, weekly Mass at the center on Forsyth Boulevard was sparsely attended; fewer than 40 students were active with the CSC, and the staff consisted of one assistant and a part-time maintenance worker.
Today, the CSC is one of the largest faith organizations on the Washington University campus, with a staff of 15 that ministers to more than 1,200 students.
Father Gary has built a community of hospitality, ready to help anyone in need at any hour of the day or night, not only Catholic students but students of all faiths or no faith.
“There is no one like Father Gary,” said Robert L. Virgil, dean emeritus of Olin Business School. “He is magnetic. He has cultivated an environment that is welcoming of all persons regardless of their faith and values. He is warm, real, down to earth, nonjudgmental, fun. He is a celebrated preacher and homilist. Father Gary is the center of religious life on the campus.”
The CSC that Father Gary has built over the past 26 years is not just a place for students to attend Mass on Sunday. It also offers retreats, Bible studies, service projects and trips, and scholars programs for students who wish to examine their academic studies in light of their faith.
Father Gary also helped build the Interfaith Campus Ministries Association, an ecumenical group that promotes a vibrant religious culture on campus. Since 1994, he has also been director of all Catholic campus ministries throughout the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Father Gary seeks out students where they are: in the residence halls and classrooms, in the student centers, at sporting events and other large gatherings, as well as on social media.
Key to his outreach is building relationships and encouraging active participation no matter what a student believes. He has created a culture, evident by his staff’s interactions as well, that focuses on communication — one-on-one, student-to-student, face-to-face.
“Father Gary is the most impressive campus minister I have known,” said Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth. “He knows and understands college students, their hopes and their worries. He works with them and thinks about them night and day.”
He has also been known to visit university staff members’ families in the hospital and counsel those with terminal illnesses. He has participated in funerals of all faiths, and is open and warm about his own faith.
And then there is his preaching, for which he is well known. On any given Sunday, it is not uncommon to see people of all ages from throughout St. Louis in the pews. They keep coming back, mainly because of Father Gary’s homilies, which Dr. Danforth has described as “masterpieces, clear and well-reasoned.”
Father Gary is determined to make Sunday Mass the best hour of the week for those who attend his services. His goal is to seek words and concepts that elevate, not tear down.
His preaching has not gone unrecognized. In 2000, he received the Great Preacher Award from the Aquinas Institute of Theology, and in 2004, he was invited to preach at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He represented the St. Louis Archdiocese and the state of Missouri at the cathedral’s “Missouri Day.”
His homilies have even caught the attention of The New York Times, which included him in a multimedia project that captured faith leaders around the country talking to their communities following the divisive 2016 election.
A native of St. Louis, Father Gary was ordained a priest in 1977, and then served at four area parishes prior to coming to Washington University. He completed his undergraduate education at Cardinal Glennon College before studying theology at Kenrick Seminary.