Walking the short trek from the lodge to the Sacred Heart of Mary Chapel on the Marymount Campus, one thing becomes clear: everyone knows Father Tom Yehl. He waves and shares a friendly hello to all he passes and greets nearly everyone by name.
In his three years with the university he has quickly become a vital presence on campus. And now he is being recognized for his service. The Arlington Diocesan Office of Youth, Campus and Adult Ministries is awarding Father Tom the Ex Corde Award for Sharing the Heart of Christ with University Students.
The Ex Corde (“from the heart”) Award is given to “someone who has demonstrated exemplary service or support to College Campus Ministry, giving their time, their energy, indeed, even a piece of their very own heart in order to share with university students the love of Christ.”
“Father Tom has been steadfast in his dedication to the Catholic identity of Marymount,” said Dr. Irma Becerra, Ph.D, President of Marymount University. “He gives his time and energy to be an available and positive presence in the lives of students. He gives so generously from his heart to make the love of Christ known to all in his presence, actions, and words.”
Father Tom grew up in the northern Virginia area, attending Catholic high school at Paul VI and then studying at the College of William and Mary. He had never thought about going into the ministry until he was a junior in college. It was on a campus ministry retreat that he met a priest who got him to start thinking about priesthood.
The connection he made with the priest on that retreat reflects how Father Tom approaches students. He tries to make a personal connection with each interaction.
“When I express concern or interest in their life I hope they kind of know that it is one way in which God is trying to reach out,” Father Tom said.
He aims to meet students where they are whether he encounters them in the dining hall or at a sporting event. One of the great things about being the chaplain, he says, is that he gets invited to a lot of places.
“It’s all about being present and finding out what’s going on and listening,” Father Tom said. “Sometimes I get invited to pray but other times it’s just being there and asking “how are you doing what’s going on in your life?” By showing interest in them I feel like I am inviting them in.
As part of his job he gets to meet people and be with them in every possible part of their life, whether a baptism of a former student’s child or a funeral for a father of a member of the Board of Visitors, Father Tom is there.
A lot of what he shares in his homilies is based on his own personal reflections from his own life and he aims to use his own experience to connect with students.
“I feel like as much as I may be older and different than them, a lot of the things that I face are not so far from the things that they face: temptation and stress and weariness and feeling overwhelmed by the world,” he said. “I think it’s my job at a college to propose the beauty and the goodness of God first and foremost. I’m not afraid to talk about sin. I’m not afraid to mention challenges and some of the hot topics, but I always try to surround that with the remembrance that our God has made us for good. And if we miss the mark, God calls us back.”
He also serves as a confidential resource for students seeking counsel.
“I often find my job is not about finding them a solution or solving their problem but just reflecting back to them what I am hearing,” he said. “To be present with someone and walk with them doesn’t require me to have every scripture of text on the tip of my tongue, but just to show some care and compassion.”
In living out the Catholic legacy of the university, his role is to carry on the tradition of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (RSHM), under whom the school was founded. The mission of the RSHM is “to know and love God, to make God known and loved, to proclaim that Jesus Christ has come that all may have life.”
Father Tom seeks to live out this mission in his role as chaplain and through his work with Campus Ministry.
“What we do for Campus Ministry is for everybody,” Father Tom said.” Everybody’s invited all the time to everything and we have lots of people who come who are not Catholic, but we want to share great things and share faith and share some of the joys of this life. There are people in Campus Ministry who care. And it’s nice to be cared for.”
He encourages his students to extend a personal invitation to Campus Ministry events to make a meaningful connection with another. He sees this as an extension of the RSHM missionary vocations and legacy of teaching nursing and education.
“It’s passing on the desire to love and the desire to heal,” Father Tom said. “And I think we need to find ways to capture that. How do we pass on that care for the human person? Because we talk a lot about service and what the sisters were about: service that changed hearts and lives.”
Another motto of the RSHM comes from John 10:10: “That all may have life and have it to the full.”
“At the heart of it, that means to know Christ,” Father Tom said. “We have to believe that we can contribute to enriching every person’s life. Not because of who they are but because of who we are and whose we are. Because our hearts have been changed because we have been loved and we know that we cannot live happily in this life unless we are loving others and that we are sharing and passing it on and inviting others to join.”