Princeton’s Hidden Chaplains

May 23, 2023

Celebrating the unwitting ministry of the workaday heroes who brighten the days of overanxious Ivy Leaguers.

Kyle Berlin was recently recollecting the genesis of an idea: “Every student I knew was in some way or another anxious or depressed, and I’m not sure why. It still baffles me.”

This was five years ago, well before you-know-what, and at Princeton University, a rarefied realm of how could this be. Berlin, from Arroyo Grande, California, was the valedictorian of the class of 2018. He often met at 8 a.m., under a Korean dogwood tree on campus, with his chaplain, Matthew Weiner, the school’s associate dean of religious life, known to students as Dean Matt. They’d been batting around the question of compassion, and how to cultivate it in a high-powered setting, where the emphasis seemed always to be on matters of excellence, performance, efficiency, and survival. Institutions do not, as a matter of course, perpetuate kindness.

One morning, Weiner told Berlin about something that he’d noticed at lunch the day before. The woman responsible for swiping the diners’ meal cards had been smiling and chattering with students as they filed by, converting a glum procession into a buoyant parade. Dean Matt thought, She’s doing my job.

“That’s Catalina!” Berlin said. He’d known her since freshman year. “She’s a hidden chaplain,” he added. He named a couple of others. “Hidden chaplain”: this, then, would be the term they’d use for staff members (not professors!) who, in their regular encounters, brightened students’ days. This unwitting ministry combined elements of angelic supervision, parental nurturing, and what Berlin called “quietly glorious acts of caring.”