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Award recognizes dynamic campus ministry

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HONOREE: Campus minister Jamie Cleaton, this year's recipient of the Fiat Award, speaks at Theology on Tap in this file photo. (Credit: Courtesy Jamie Cleaton)

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SAN DIEGO — Jamie Cleaton, campus minister at the San Diego State University Newman Center, will receive the Fiat Award at the diocese’s annual Young Adult Christmas Gala.

Some 240 young adults from across the San Diego Diocese will attend the sold-out event on Saturday, Dec. 9, at St. Gabriel Parish in Poway. It will include a catered dinner, drinks and dancing.

The Fiat Award is presented annually by the diocesan Office for Youth and Young Adult Ministry, which organizes the gala. The award recognizes a young adult who has served “diligently, prayerfully and with a servant’s heart.” Its name comes from the Virgin Mary’s answer when asked to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:38); “Fiat” is Latin for “Let it be done.”

“How is someone supposed to respond when they are given an award that is named after the response of the Blessed Mother, (when) they’re given an award based off her perfect ‘yes’?” Cleaton asked rhetorically, before sharing that he felt “humbled,” “grateful” and “very blessed” to receive this recognition.

He expects that it will be “weird” to be standing on stage by himself, when the success of his ministry was made possible by many others, including his wife, Grace; their six children; Father Pedro Rivera, director of the SDSU Newman Center; the Office for Youth and Young Adult Ministry’s staff; and the more than 30 SDSU students on the Newman Center’s leadership team.

“My ‘yes’ doesn’t stand alone. That’s for sure,” the 37-year-old said.

Cleaton grew up in the Ocean Beach area in what he described as “a very blessed Catholic household.” He was homeschooled, and daily Mass was “a part of our curriculum.”

As a fifth-grader, he attended a retreat that had a profound effect on him.

“I remember getting prayed over in this retreat, and I realized for the first time God didn’t just exist, but He actually loved me and loved me personally,” he said.

Cleaton “really started to fall in love with the Church” while attending a nondenominational high school, where he had to research the answers when his Catholic beliefs were challenged by Protestant schoolmates.

Though the reality of the Eucharist kept him from being led away from the Church, he acknowledges the “very dynamic prayer and preaching” in Protestant churches.

“I really want to be a vessel to help bring a dynamic ministry like this to the (Catholic) Church, the home of the sacraments, the home of the fullness. And that’s why I decided to go to college to study catechetics and theology and go into a life of ministry,” said Cleaton, who graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2009.

After graduation, he served as a youth minister at St. Mark Parish in San Marcos and at Sacred Heart Parish in Ocean Beach.

For almost six years, Cleaton has guided campus ministry at SDSU. During that time, he has seen the university’s Catholic community “explode.”

He recalled how a one-day retreat held shortly after his arrival had attracted about 10 or 15 students, while a retreat this past spring drew about 140. Meanwhile, a “handful” of Bible studies has grown to more than 15, Sunday Mass attendance is so high that “we barely fit in our building,” and 26 men from the Newman Center attended the diocese’s recent Explorer Day to learn more about priestly life.

Maricruz Flores, director of the Office for Youth and Young Adult Ministry, said, “He’s really made a second home in the Newman Center for all of those who attend San Diego State.”

But Cleaton isn’t limiting himself to fostering Catholic community at SDSU.

Brilema Perez, associate director of the Office for Youth and Young Adult Ministry, said that Cleaton’s ministry dovetails nicely with the approach her office has taken, which is to “build bridges between communities.”

She said he is in the privileged position of being part of “plugging (college-age Catholics) into the San Diego young adult community once they graduate.”

In June of last year, Cleaton founded a San Diego-based nonprofit named Paradigm Missions. He said its purpose involves creating “a dynamic college ministry,” while also helping young Catholics to develop into “a good practicing parishioner” after graduation. He explained that the “off-ramp” from college ministry is “really an on-ramp into parish life.”

The nonprofit reaches out to students in local community colleges.

“Those are our freshmen and sophomores,” Cleaton said, explaining that many current community college students will transfer into SDSU as juniors.

Paradigm Missions has assisted the Catholic Club at Cal State San Marcos, he said. By next semester, there will be a Catholic Club at Mesa College and “hopefully” one at Palomar College.

“Just like Mary’s Fiat was just the beginning, I also feel like this is just the beginning,” Cleaton said.

He added, “The Lord’s just begun in college ministry in San Diego and … and I’m really excited for what’s to come.”

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