- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2000

Hundreds of George Mason University students, faculty and alumni yesterday bid farewell to the university's most popular Catholic chaplain, the Rev. Bob Cilinski, who is leaving the school after 14 years to head his own parish.

The 500 members of his flock who attended yesterday's final Mass was a far cry from the 15 persons, three of whom were his parents and brother, who gathered at Father Cilinski's first Mass 14 years ago, when he first came to the university in Fairfax.

Father Cilinski, affectionately known around campus as Father Bob, leaves behind a strong following of the Catholic faith on campus. Of the estimated 24,000 students who attend George Mason, 35 percent are Catholic and more than 1,000 belong to the school's Catholic Campus Ministry.

Father Cilinski will leave George Mason Wednesday to become pastor at the 18,000-member All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, the largest Catholic parish in Virginia.

"There's a sadness of letting go, but there's this new challenging assignment," Father Cilinski said last week as he stood in the chapel he helped build.

"I'm not going alone. God's already there, and I hope He uses me as an instrument of His love," he added. "But it's difficult to leave. I love this university and I love the students and working with everyone. That I will greatly miss."

The same can be said for the members of his ever-growing flock, hundreds of whom filed into the university's Johnson Center yesterday, Father Cilinski's 47th birthday.

Some worshippers had to stand along the walls of the crowded all-purpose room where the morning Mass was held. Standing up was a small price to pay to see off a man they called their mentor and friend.

"Father Bob is not only a priest and a confessor, he's also a friend who is always there when you need him," said former student John Tuttle, of the District.

In a written statement last week, university President Alan Merten wrote, "It is hard to envision any member of the community or any campus minister having a greater impact on an institution or an individual. Father Bob was the kind of person that you wanted to be near when things were going really bad or when things were going really good. We will miss him."

Father Cilinski came to George Mason in June 1986. His first Mass was held in a classroom.

"There were 12 students who showed up, and I thought that was the perfect number to begin with," Father Cilinski said.

Father Cilinski began reaching out to the students, showing up at home basketball games and at fraternity parties, although he'd leave shortly after the party began. Dressed in shorts and T-shirt, he played intramural football and basketball with the students. Then he would dress up for concerts at the university's Center for the Arts.

In the meantime, Father Cilinski taught the students about faith and God's love.

"You don't beat people over the head to teach them about the word of God," he said. "You've got to meet them where they are and offer an invitation to a deepening of themselves."

From there, his flock began to grow by the hundreds. In fact, by the end of his first year at George Mason, about 320 students attended Mass every Sunday in the campus lecture hall.

"It's then that I realized that there was a need for a chapel," Father Cilinski said. "There was a need for a quiet place where people could pray and be still."

Father Cilinski's prayers were answered in December 1990, when, at his request, the Archdiocese of Arlington agreed to build a $1.6 million Catholic church at the edge of campus on Roberts Road. Father Cilinski raised $800,000 and the diocese took care of the other half.

Named St. Robert Bellarmine Chapel, the church, which seats 579, opened its doors to students, faculty and local residents in December 1994, making it the only chapel at George Mason.

Over the years, Father Cilinski put his students first, helping with their studies and counseling those who needed advice. He was the first one there when students needed help.

"It's what Father Bob did for the students, his encouragement and his work that makes him special," said former student Pranas Ciziunas, of Falls Church. "He was there 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Father Cilinski also was beside them through the good times. He has performed more than 300 marriages and 80 baptisms during his stay.

"This is my family," he said, as he looked out of the chapel toward the campus.

It's the students that Father Cilinski said he will miss the most when he moves 30 minutes away to his new home in Manassas. But he is excited about his new assignment.

"After 14 years, I've given everything I have to give," he said. "Change is good, too. I've shared my gifts. Now it's time for me to broaden my experiences with little children and the elderly. But the students will always be part of my family."

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