Peter Mussett seems like an average Boulderite: hipster glasses, bushy beard, curly man-bun, feet laden with the token Chaco sandals. Seeing him pass on the street wouldn’t draw much attention, but his neck adornment might require a double-take.
His Roman collar and black clerical garments do not seem to match up with the shaggy, bubbly man talking about his punk-rock band days. Yet Mussett has been a Catholic priest in Boulder for over 11 years, serving as the head pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. He provides Catholic ministry to thousands of college students and residents of Boulder.
“It’s the best,” Mussett said. “I love being a priest in Boulder like I cannot tell you. I don’t feel like I ever left college.”
Studying art, sculpture and photography at the University of Northern Colorado, Mussett entered into seminary directly after his college graduation in 1999. Upon completing his seven-year degree, his first parish assignment was the St. Thomas Aquinas campus parish at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2006. Nearly 12 years later, Mussett still remembers the moment he first arrived. His director of religious education said to him, “you think you’re going to come up here and change Boulder, but you’re going to be changed by Boulder.”
In the 18 years since beginning seminary, Mussett has seen the church ebb and flow, especially among the college student population. The Institute for Higher Education at UCLA conducted a survey in 2016 that suggests college students are progressively losing their religious affiliations. This group (called the “nones”) increased from 10 percent in 1986 to 31 percent in 2016. Over that same 30-year period, students who visit religious services consistently decreased from 85 percent to 69 percent. The number of students who don’t attend church more than doubled.
Scott Powell, who holds a doctorate in theology and directs the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought in Boulder, is not alarmed by this trend.
“College is this new, foreign place where you’re enclosed, so you do what the people around you are doing,” Powell said. “1986 wasn’t that long ago, so what’s to say in another 10-30 years it won’t dramatically shift in another direction? I’m more curious what happens after college and what those numbers say.”
It’s common for young people who renounce their faith to return later in life, since college is such a time of exploration. Of those who abandon Catholicism in college, many return to the church when they’re married or have children. The Georgetown Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate estimates that those who return post-college encompass nearly 10 percent of Catholics in America.
Boulder is unique in that its Catholic population contains many long-time parishioners, young families and a plethora of college students. Mussett oversees both Powell’s institute and a team of missionaries who work for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), a nationwide campus ministry, to reach the latter population.
Ann Wagner, the FOCUS Team Director, has known Mussett for five years through the missionary work that her team does. “Students come to college because they’re searching for something more, not because they really like algebra,” Wagner said. “They have goals, hopes, dreams — ultimately they have a longing to live a life that has purpose.”
Wagner believes Mussett helps increase Catholic student involvement with his “relatability, transparency, and authenticity.” Since he had a deep rediscovery of faith on a college campus, Wagner thinks his life is a witness to college students. It doesn’t hurt that “everything he does is over the top,” either, she said.
“He’s so passionate about so many things,” Wagner said. “He loves kite-flying and will invite you to make a kite with him. He has a Celtic knot tattoo. He designs engagement rings for couples he marries. He goes off-roading in his jeep. He was in a punk rock band. Everything he does is truly a work of art.”
Powell has also worked with Mussett for years at St. Thomas Aquinas, and considers the priest a dear friend.
“I imagine it’s really hard to be Father Peter,” Powell said. “He looks a certain way, people think about him in a certain way, they caricature him as the weird funky man bun hippie priest in Boulder, which is actually not who he is.”
Mussett, 40, had his first intonations of a calling to the priesthood at just eight years old when his dad took him and his brother to see a priest. “I was kind of just a punk rock kid, I was looking for ways to push the fashion envelope,” Mussett said. “I saw the priest on the altar in the vestments and was like, ‘Dude that’d be tight, that’s like next level.’ I wanted to dress like that.”
Powell recalled a memory from college where he noticed a massive crowd around this man with a huge afro, showing everyone how his hair didn’t fit in his new driver’s license photo. “He wasn’t Father Peter, he was known as Peter Big Hair at the time,” Powell said. “I just remember thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’ He wasn’t trying to get attention, he was just being himself and people orbited around him.”
Mussett’s ability to draw others in may contribute to his success in Boulder, where he often finds people telling him they are “spiritual not religious.”
“Spiritually, in Boulder, people have never even heard the Gospel,” Mussett said. “They’ve inherited this sense that religion starts wars and causes conflict, but what they haven’t inherited is the actual message of ‘why did Jesus Christ come?’”
The opportunities to share that message with others is what makes the priesthood “the best gift” for him. “It’s such a blessed life to be with people in the really sensitive spots of their hearts,” Mussett said. “There’s days when I just want to run away, but I have never regretted it.”
With modern scandals and shifting formalities, the Catholic Church may struggle to stay relevant in society. College students are drifting away from organized institutions and searching within for answers. Mussett said in his ministry, he has witnessed an increasing anxiety and self-reliance in young people.
“I think that self-sufficiency ultimately just breaks down into this profound need for other human beings,” Mussett said. “I think that’s where we experience right now a trend of the need for church and I think we’re going to see it become exceedingly more and more because we’re trying out total radical self-sufficiency and it’s just not working.”
Contact CU Independent guest writer Lindsey Nichols at lini5389@