Eric Sundrup, the cool, hip, yammering Jesuit, brings his sense of humor—and a certain joie de vivre—to his new role as pastor of Xavier University's Bellarmine Chapel
January 28, 2020 — The path back to Xavier University in Cincinnati was circuitous, if not predictable, for Eric Sundrup. From Cincinnati, it went to Detroit and Chicago, zig-zagged south to Peru, back up to California and east to New York before heading back home last July—like life, a little herky-jerky with moments of hilarity and laughter, interspersed with thoughtful reflection and some sadness along the way.
Now 16 years after graduating from Xavier, he’s a full-fledged Jesuit and the newly assigned pastor at Bellarmine Chapel on campus. It’s a bit ironic for Fr. Sundrup, a Cincinnati native who has memories of coming to Bellarmine to pray when he was a student studying to be a doctor or a teacher or a researcher. He wasn’t sure then, and he came to Bellarmine looking for answers. What he discovered was an undeniable pull to become a Jesuit instead and now at age 38, he’s responsible for ministering to a congregation of Xavier students and over 800 families who look to him for their spiritual guidance and community.
“Bellarmine Chapel was where I came to pray, and now, God save us all, I am apparently in charge of the place,” he says.
The new assignment is quite an about-face for a guy who is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the Jesuits into the era of social media through multiple online outlets, including a blogsite he co-founded called The Jesuit Post, pop culture essays he wrote for America magazine online, a weekly podcast called “Jesuitical,” and “Jesuit Autocomplete,” a series of humorous, fast-paced YouTube videos about top theological questions of the day.
They’ve proven to be a perfect outlet for Fr. Sundrup’s self-deprecating humor and instinct for jovial conversation—what he calls “yammering.”
But people often end up where they started, and Fr. Sundrup’s journey home 20 years after he first arrived at Xavier started the day he blurted out that he wanted to become a Jesuit. It was the end of his freshman year. He was on the sixth floor of Kuhlman Hall chatting with a friend about what they wanted to do with their lives. It was, he says, his aha! moment.
“I said, ‘I think I want to be a Jesuit’,” Fr. Sundrup says. “It was the first time I had ever uttered those words. I realized they had a lot of power because when they came out, they felt so right and so true in a way that things don’t often feel like that. It just spilled out, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I said it out loud. How do I reel it back in because now that I’ve said it, this person can talk to me about it.’ It felt right, and the fact it felt so right is the part that made me go, ‘Oh God, what’s happening’.”
Father Sundrup dropped his plans to become a doctor and focused on biology. After graduating cum laude in 2003, he entered the Society of Jesus. On the way to ordination in 2014, he lived in a variety of cities as part of his 10-year formation, including Detroit and Chicago for first studies.
In Peru, where he was sent to teach K-12 students, he was overwhelmed by the poverty and feels he “flat-out failed” even though the people were glad to have him. It was a powerful and humbling experience to just be there and not be perfect, he says. Back in Chicago, he taught at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School for two years, earned a Master of Divinity at Santa Clara University in California, and later went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to be an associate pastor for students at the University of Michigan.
Along the way, he helped launch The Jesuit Post in 2012 and by 2014 was named Editor in Chief. The site has been a success, drawing hundreds of thousands of page views a month by addressing issues of faith and culture for a younger audience. It was there that Fr. Sundrup developed his persona as the hip Jesuit priest who could talk the language of young millennials and professionals through his use of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. He delved into various topics like “the crazies” in a piece titled “Come At Me Bro!” as well as when to play Christmas music, pop music versus classical, and the lure of running barefoot. All with a theological twist, of course.
In 2016 he was sent to New York to be the associate editor and director of audience development for America Media, where he continued writing for both The Jesuit Post and America magazine. But he also jumped at the opportunity to create the video series, “Jesuit Autocomplete,” modeled after the Google search program. He shares the screen with fellow Jesuit Fr. Paddy Gilger, SJ, as they pose theological questions found on the Internet and answer them in an easy banter sprinkled with insight, humor and occasional antics like dropping the cue cards.
“We use it as a goofy avenue into what people are thinking about in relation to religion, faith, and social justice,” he says.
Before they could start taping season 2, however, Fr. Sundrup was reassigned from America to Cincinnati—part of a wave of six new Jesuits assigned to Xavier since 2018. It was an assignment he did not particularly desire—at least not initially.
“I joined the Jesuits so I didn’t have to work in a parish,” he jokes. “But when I got ordained, I worked as a parish priest in Michigan and loved it, and here I am having an absolute blast. My goal is to keep providing services for parishioners as they age, while continuing to be welcoming and open to all the different groups and their needs. I want to see more youth and young involvement in the parish.”
Happy to be home in Cincinnati, which has the added benefit of being close to family and old friends, Fr. Sundrup’s focus is on his new role at Bellarmine, where he has immersed himself in two major areas: Serving his congregation and their work in the community and supporting Xavier students. That includes participating in student Masses, working with the Center for Faith and Justice, and providing spiritual direction for students. It helps that he’s a night owl.
“One thing I’m interested in is talking to departments about how Xavier could be like a lab for parish ministry. How can Xavier help create opportunities for people to share the latest theories and research in ministry and also learn from experience what is happening in parishes and how people react?”
As busy as he is, Fr. Sundrup can’t let go of his social media persona. He still schedules weekly calls with former colleagues in New York to help produce America's "Jesuitical" podcast. And he traveled back to New York in November to tape multiple episodes for season 2 of Jesuit Autocomplete with Fr. Gilger. Their topics this time: What is Advent? Did Jesus laugh? Is chocolate religious?
Of course Jesus laughed, Fr. Sundrup says. And he wept. “This is what it means to be fully human.” As for chocolate, he's not so sure. It’s probably not religious, he says, but it sure can be a spiritual experience. [Source: Xavier University]