Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

A few announcements:

Br Guy Consolmagno is the new director of the Vatican Observatory. Congratulations, Br Guy! Here’s a recent radio interview where he speaks about science and faith.

Fr Dominic Robinson and Fr Trieu Nguyen of Farm Street Church, together with parishioners Marie Wilson and Sandra McNally, are walking on the Ignatian Camino this week to raise funds for the anti-trafficking Bakhita House Project. You can follow their adventures here.

Finally, next week I’m starting my second BA in Theology at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. Project SJ is a slow-brewing sort of thing, so it might not make much of a perceptible difference in the posting rhythm! But it does mean I can conduct fewer interviews over the next couple of years, especially as I’ll have paid and academic work to do in vacations. I think it’s a very good step for the project’s long-term future, though, and look forward to seeing how things develop.

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Interesting times: an interview with Austen Ivereigh

Austen Ivereigh is a writer, commentator and author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a radical Pope, a biography profoundly informed by his understanding of Jesuit spirituality and institutions. He kindly agreed to speak to me about his connection with the Society of Jesus and his short but eventful time as a Jesuit novice.

Photo courtesy of Austen Ivereigh

Photo courtesy of Austen Ivereigh

How did you first come into contact with the Society of Jesus?

It was really through my studies above all. It was while I was doing my DPhil at Oxford, which was on the subject of the Church in Argentina. I was generally looking at late nineteenth and early twentieth century history, and the Jesuits just kept coming up. And so I became very interested in them.

I think the first real contact I had with the Society was just after writing my DPhil thesis, when I felt the stirrings of a vocation. I remember rather boldly phoning up the Jesuit vocations director saying: I think I’ve got a vocation, and he—he’s actually now the Provincial—very patiently said: Well, come and spend a weekend up in Loyola Hall, near Preston. And there he gave me what I now realise is the Exercises—at least a very basic form of the First Week, getting me to do an Examen over my whole life. That was a great revelation to me, a huge opening-up for me spiritually. The whole question of vocation was put on hold, but I then embarked on what would be a couple of years of spiritual growth and spiritual development. I owe to the Jesuits my spiritual awakening. By doing the Examen of my life, I grasped that God had been there with me all the time, even though I had treated other people badly and so on; that there was unconditional love and mercy and forgiveness. In The Great Reformer I make a big deal of the fact that this, for Francis, is key to mission and evangelisation. It is that primary experience of God’s merciful love that opens the heart and mind to conversion, rather than doctrines and ideas.

When you say that you felt you had a vocation, can you take apart how that felt? What was the sensation of feeling that you were being called?

Well, I think it was excitement. I had experienced through my DPhil a kind of intellectual awakening, which wasn’t a spiritual awakening exactly, but it was a huge realisation that I was a Catholic, that I believed, that what I’d been struggling with intellectually over the many years in the university context was…I’m trying not to use the word “resolved”, because of course these things are never resolved, but they were completely reframed in terms of the Gospel and in terms of revelation. And then, I suppose, just a natural admiration for and identification with the Society, partly because of the life of St Ignatius, but I think mostly because of the role of Jesuits in the vanguard of politics and culture. And so I just had this enormous admiration for them. I didn’t at that stage know many Jesuits; they hadn’t been part of my upbringing—I was educated by Benedictine monks. And so that first weekend with Father Dermot Preston was the catalyst, really.

So where did you go from there?

That was in 1993-94. I then spent a few years spiritually searching. Soon after that weekend with the Jesuits, I went back to Worth Abbey, where I had been at school, and felt drawn to be in the monastery for some “desert” time. The monks were wonderful with me and gave me a berth for a few months to try and sort myself out, and just to explore spiritually. I was still trying to work out what I was supposed to do with my life. I applied for a couple of academic jobs, and then, while I was waiting for those to come through, I went off to Peru—the monks sent me to report on some projects they were funding—which was wonderful. Then I came back and I started at Leeds University but just before then I had a tropical disease which I had picked up in the Peruvian Amazon. It kept me in hospital in London for five weeks and I nearly lost my eye. Weakened by the treatment, I then started in Leeds as a lecturer in Latin American history. I lectured for three years at Leeds.

During that time, I went back to Peru and I did an eight-day retreat with a wonderful Spanish Jesuit whom I met in Peru in a place called Ayacucho. That was a phenomenal, revelatory eight-day retreat. It’s what left me convinced that I wanted to be a Jesuit, or at least wanting to explore the possibility. So, when I got back I then spoke to the then vocations director, who was different; and I was accepted for the following year. I entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1998. I entered in the autumn of 1998 and I left the following May 1999, having done the thirty-day retreat at St Beuno’s.

What did you experience in your short time in the novitiate?

It was a very gruelling experience of what I would now recognise as “descent”, which of course is exactly what the novitiate is designed to do. I just wasn’t psychologically prepared for it. I’ve realised this recently—it’s been a wonderful few years, these last few years, and one of the great things about the book is that I’ve fallen back into contact with the Jesuits. I recently did an eight-day retreat in Loyola, Spain, and reflected back on that time, and realised that I just wasn’t capable of it psychologically back then, because my ego was still too fragile. I realise now that—and this, by the way, is true of love in general—in order to be able to love you have to be willing to sacrifice; you have to sublimate the ego and so on. And I think I wasn’t capable of entering the Jesuits then. I wasn’t capable of marrying, either. I wasn’t capable of that kind of commitment, and I think I wasn’t for many years.

What happened on the novitiate was that I did the usual things that novices do, in the sense that I had to learn sign language, and then I did a couple of what are called Experiments; one of them was in Northern Ireland, in Portadown on the Garvaghy Road, where there was a lot of sectarian tension. But my memory of the novitiate was never feeling like I could do anything: always feeling like I was standing around and never really being any good at anything, or being effective at anything. And of course that was immensely frustrating for me, because I had joined with the excitement and hope of being a successful Jesuit. I now realise that that was the problem: that a person who thinks he can be a good Jesuit is going to be a bad Jesuit. Only the crucifixion of the ego can bring about any real adult spiritual growth—but I found it really really hard. I mean, there were things that I enjoyed about the novitiate, and I felt enormous affection for my novice master, who was a wonderful man, but it was gruelling. So much so that by the time the thirty-day retreat came about I was already strongly doubting whether I could do it, and I think I was relying on the thirty-day retreat to tell me.

Oh dear. (more…)

Smoked Octopus and Rum: life advice from Brother Guy

Today is the feast day of Ignatius of Loyola, and it is also the first birthday of Project SJ. By way of an anniversary extra, here’s a wonderful speech delivered by my friend (and Project SJ’s invaluable supporter) Guy Consolmagno SJ. The year: 2010. The occasion: prize day at St Aloysius’ College, Glasgow. The topic: well, let’s call it What Not to Do…

Photo by Alessia Giuliani.

Photo by Alessia Giuliani.

I am honored to be among you this afternoon, to add my congratulations to those of your faculty. I confess, when I attended the Jesuit high school in Detroit, I used to sneer at academic awards; that is, until I actually won one. My sophomore year I was named to the National Honor Society, for reasons that were utterly mysterious to me. I had not distinguished myself academically; in fact the most common comment I had heard from my teachers was that I was “working below my capabilities.” But I thought I was getting by, just fine; I had a firm belief that hard work was just a sign you hadn’t figured out the system. I suspect, in retrospect, that the powers who handed me that honor knew me better than I knew myself, however. I was so embarrassed at getting the award, that I wound up actually working hard—or, at least, harder than I had been—to try to see if I couldn’t make myself a little more worthy of it.

Hard work is one of those virtues that is often misunderstood. One of the awful clichés that we used to hear at my high school from speakers (like me today) was, “If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be, you can reach your dreams!” Now, that always sounded like utter nonsense to me. What if I dreamt of being the star center for the Detroit Pistons, our local basketball team? Would hard work make me sixteen inches taller or stretch my arm span by an extra foot? Not likely.

The trick, of course—and it is a trick—is that you can be anything you want, only by controlling what it is you want. If you want to follow your dreams, you have to put some hard work into choosing your dreams. What is it that you really want?

Let’s say you think you want to be a basketball star. Ask yourself, why? Is if for the fame? There are plenty of ways to be famous besides playing basketball. A classmate of mine got his name in the papers just last year; he was working with the US military space program and was caught trying to sell military secrets to the Israelis. Hey, if it’s fame you want…

Is it for the money? You don’t need to be a sports star to get rich. Another high school friend studied to be an accountant. He wound up as the president of a bank.

It is the adulation of the crowds you crave? You can’t do better than my roommate at MIT. He’s married now with two sons. His wife and family know him as only family can, and they think the world of him. What adulation could be better than that?

Or maybe, just maybe, you want to be a basketball star for the irrefutable reason that you just love basketball. In that case, play basketball. It doesn’t matter if thousands of fans pay to watch you play, or if nobody watches; that’s not why you do it. Find a league, find friends, find a place where you can get a pickup game with people at your level, and play your heart out. There’s a guy I have worked with for thirty years, born with coordination problems, blind in one eye, he has no depth perception; but he loves basketball and even now—he’s a college professor, my age—three times a week he drags his aching old bones out onto the court for the sheer love of the game.

Now, if you’re lucky, your passion will match your skills and you’ll be good at what you want to do. If you’re even luckier, you will find a way to make a living at it. But the important thing is, to understand what your passion really is. In the words of St. Ignatius, you must learn to discern your deepest desires.

You knew I was going to drag Ignatius into this. He has a whole system for discerning your desires, but the main key to it is a principle that ought to be obvious, but sometimes gets lost: God wants you to be happy. The trouble is, of course, that what really makes you happy in the long run is sometimes not what you think will make you happy right now.

When I was eighteen and went off to University, I had no idea what I wanted. When it came time to choose a place to study, I picked Boston College mostly because it was in Boston, which seemed like a good place to be a student (there are 300-odd colleges and universities in Boston, some of them very odd). And Boston College was a Jesuit school; I had an idea that maybe I would want to be a Jesuit, but I wasn’t sure.

When it came time to declare a major—in America you can choose anything, it doesn’t depend on how you did on any particular subject in high school—I looked at the list and tried to find the box that said “all of the above.” It was the fault of those clever teachers in my high school who had gotten me to work hard; I had discovered that learning stuff was really, really fun. I wanted to learn everything.

But when I got to Boston College, I found myself in a freshman dorm where the local liquor store made deliveries. (The legal drinking age was twenty-one, we were all eighteen, but they didn’t seem to care.) Everyone went nuts doing all the stuff they thought they wanted to do, all the stuff they couldn’t do when they were living with their parents.

I remember one Friday night, there was this guy who tried to drink an entire bottle of rum and eat a tin of smoked octopus. I found him in the hallway about to be sick into the trash barrel; but he stopped. Something was wrong. He looked puzzled. Slowly, he took off his trousers and carefully lay them over the trash barrel. Then he got sick, into them.

Eventually these geniuses started failing their classes. No surprise. Well, that wouldn’t have bothered me, except that for some reason they would come to my room and pour out their problems to me. As if I cared. The more they bewailed their situation, the more I thought to myself, “you know, life is tough… when you’re stupid.”

I didn’t like it there. I didn’t fit in. So I figured, ok, there’s no problem so big you can’t run away from it. Time to bail out. Join the Jesuits, like I was thinking of doing anyway.

I found a Jesuit and asked him where to sign up, and he asked me a very peculiar question: “Have you prayed about this, son?” (I hate it when they call me “son”.) Well, I figured it was part of the routine. Why not? I went back to my room, sat on the floor, looked at the ceiling, and said, “OK, God, I’m supposed to ask if you want me to be a Jesuit, but I know you’re desperate for priests and I’m desperate to get out of here…”

Silence. Nothing came from the ceiling. And I was feeling very foolish.

While I was sitting there, waiting for something to happen, a funny question occurred to me. What does a priest do for a living? You know, when they show up at their desk on a Monday morning—I assume priests must have desks—what’s on those desks? Papers, I guess. Papers about what? About people. People with problems. People just like the idiots in my dorm whom I was trying to get away from. What a terrible job!

So… either there was no God, in which case it would be stupid to be a priest; or there was a God, and he had just told me it would be stupid for me to be a priest. (more…)

Rome, Syria and an update

Statue of Ignatius at Chiesa di S. Ignazio, Rome. This one is a model for the statue at St. Peter's Basilica

Statue of Ignatius at Chiesa di S. Ignazio, Rome. This one is a model for the statue at St. Peter’s.

I spent the last week on holiday in Rome – terrific place, didn’t want to leave – and came back with all kinds of exciting leads for Project SJ and for my eventual academic study. Highlights of the week included visiting St. Ignatius’ rooms at the community house of the Jesuit mother church, the Gesù; attending the Angelus blessing in St. Peter’s Square and seeing the Pope, although from some distance; going to Mass every day (not an option in my parish and, as I’m cantor, it was quite relaxing simply to attend for once!); and seeing all kinds of fascinating representations of St. Ignatius, which I photographed where possible. I was especially fortunate that the Gesù itself, which was closed for renovation when I arrived, re-opened before I left. So I could go and pay my respects to Ignatius and to Francis Xavier as well. I’m looking forward to going back, especially as I have an exciting potential interview in the works.

I came home to find that my review of John A. Weafer’s sociological study of the Irish priesthood, Thirty-Three Good Men, is in this week’s Tablet (sorry, paywall). While I have my issues with the methodology of the study, it is an extremely interesting read and I recommend it to anyone who wants an insight into the interior world of the priesthood.

Finally, I want to flag up a very interesting event: an upcoming talk by Fr Ziad Hilal SJ on the current situation in Syria. Fr Hilal is Director of the St Saviour Centre at Homs, where Fr Francis van der Lugt SJ lived until his murder last year. The talk will take place at Farm Street Church Hall at 6:30 PM on Wednesday 1 July 2015. Entrance is free with a small donation requested for refreshments. For more information, please contact Fr Dominic Robinson SJ: dominicrobinson[AT]rcdow.org.uk.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols on diocesan priesthood and identity

I recently spoke to Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, about his own vocation and role in the church. The Cardinal is a diocesan priest himself and a great advocate for the diocesan priesthood. So here, by way of an interesting contrast, is what he has to say about that identity and how it differs from the identity and experience of those in religious orders.

…[One] of the first parishes to which I was appointed had been a Benedictine parish in the middle of Liverpool. It was a Benedictine parish when I think a lot of the ship owners and captains lived there. When they moved, I think the Benedictines moved as well. But I met people in the flats that now filled the parish who said quite straightforwardly: “Oh, I’ve not been to church since the real priests left.” And they meant the Benedictines. And so diocesan priests somehow were kind of second best.

But there is an important difference, and to me the difference lies in, if you like, the basic orientation of the different pathways of priesthood. Those who join religious orders, their first context is the order, the congregation to which they belong and the charism that it gives and the bonds that it set up, and therefore within that they’re free to move in all sorts of places. They can go to this frontier or that endeavour, and they can change, you know, an order can change its focus. A diocesan priest is attached to the land. A diocesan priest is the one who has the soil in his fingernails, because this piece of land, this territory, is the vineyard that he’s been entrusted with. Therefore the more the priest gets to know the quality of the soil, the kind of grapes that grow, how fruit is produced in these circumstances, the more wise he becomes as a parish priest. To walk the streets of a parish with a parish priest is like walking with a farmer who knows his crops, and he knows his soil, and he knows the temperature, and he knows how this field is good for that, and that one is good for the other. And it’s a wonderful experience, actually, to walk as a bishop with a priest round his parish.

The first parish I went to had an old priest who’d been in the parish for forty-five years. I was a young priest in Liverpool, and I went to St. John’s in Kirkdale, and Father Hopkins walked me around the parish. And he just talked to me about the people who lived in the different houses—he’d been there for ages. Then we came around one corner, and there was a patch  of wasteland, and on the brick wall on the far side of the wasteland in six-foot letters was written: GOD BLESS FATHER HOPKINS. So I thought: I wonder why he brought me round this way? But it just said that he was in the bricks and the muck of the parish. As Archbishop in Birmingham, I remember one priest who’d been in his parish a long time. We stood at the door together and he greeted everybody by name. He could tell me the background of every family. He was their priest. And that’s the great joy of being a diocesan priest.

You can see the interview in its entirety here.

Dominic Robinson SJ, Superior, Mount Street Jesuit Centre

The Mount Street Jesuit Centre, attached to the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Farm Street, is an extraordinary place. When the parish was founded in 1849, Farm Street was an obscure location: a safe, out-of-the-way site for a new Jesuit community in hostile times. Now the Centre is a living contradiction: a witness to apostolic poverty, Christian hospitality and social justice, right opposite the Connaught Hotel at the heart of opulent Mayfair.

But the Centre’s importance to Jesuit life in the UK is more than symbolic. In addition to its pastoral, spiritual and cultural programmes, it houses the offices of the British Province of the Society of Jesus, the London Jesuit Volunteers and Jesuit Media Initiatives (which created the Ignatian podcast Pray as you Go). 

The current superior of the Mount Street community is Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, lecturer in systematic and pastoral theology at Heythrop College and interim Chair of Churches Together Westminster. He kindly agreed to meet with me to explain something of his mission and his personal sense of vocation to the priesthood.

Dominic RobinsonWhen and how did you feel the call to join the priesthood?

I felt the call first at about the age of fourteen, I suppose, and I felt it where I was growing up. I grew up in—I suppose in a fairly typical Catholic parish in the North-West. I’m a cradle Catholic. In the 1970s and early 1980s the parish was very much your community, if you like. You had a really strong sense of community there. There were a number of priests in the parish as well, diocesan priests, and I very much appreciated who they were: as good people, as kind people, as men who really wanted to serve and to bring the best out of people, and who spoke of the gospel and spoke of God. And it made a lot of sense. So that first attraction, I suppose, to priesthood came there. I thought about different other things I could do, you know—I was certainly interested in politics, interested in law, I had academic interests—history, for example. I was at a school run by another religious order from the Jesuits: the Augustinians, and that was a very good school, a very good experience with the religious community who ran the school.

Well, I went to university and there were several other options. I had a wonderful experience at St. Andrews, and a real broadening experience as well of people of no faith, I suppose, and friends who had no faith. I was involved in debating, for example, at St. Andrews, so those sorts of issues to do with faith and the contribution of faith to society and culture. It was a very strong Catholic chaplaincy, and I suspect that without that I might not have even kept on practising the faith. I think it was really good to have a strong sense of community which emerged from the Catholic chaplaincy there. There was a community of religious sisters there, the Assumption Sisters, who welcomed students in. You could be yourself—you could explore your growing development, growing maturity. There were people whom you could trust and speak to in confidence, etc.; social life and prayer life and community life came together. It makes me realise just how important university chaplaincy ministry is. So we also at St. Andrews were very grateful to have two Ignatian Retreats in Daily Life there: the Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life with Gerry W. Hughes, who died recently, of course, just a couple of weeks ago—we had his funeral here at Farm Street. So Gerry W. Hughes came up to St. Andrews, and I remember that there was a huge room of about 100-150 people who came to the initial meeting. I did two Retreats in Daily Life at St. Andrews and I ended up getting in touch with the Jesuits and became a candidate for the Society, went to the candidates’ programme and then I decided, at the age of twenty-three, I would take the plunge, as it were.

I remember meeting a priest when I was a teenager who gave me very good advice, I think, and he said: If you’re thinking about vocation, it’s important to discern. And so discernment is really the key. But it’s also important not to put it off, as well, if you feel that this is something you know is something you want to commit yourself to, something which you must do. And I felt that to some extent: that, looking at the pros and cons of entering into a lifelong commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience in this Society of Jesus where, as it was sold at the time, varied works of a unique spirit—which really attracted me, I think, as well. And the advice from him, from this very wise priest, I seem to remember, was: Well, take the plunge. You have to take the plunge. So I did, and I think that was good for me—I think it was good. So I would advise anyone who feels not sure about whether I’m called to this, whether I’m called to another profession, whether I’m called to marriage, whether I’m called to diocesan priesthood or to a religious order, at some point to take the plunge. So that’s what I did, and I think there’s a sense in which you have to trust in that, and thank God—God was faithful, and it worked.

Were you drawn to any particular ministry on entering the Society? Did anything particularly attract you: chaplaincy, for example, or mission work? Or were you open to whatever developed? 

I suppose I was always interested in education. I was quite interested in theology at the time, and so I was interested in doing further studies in theology anyway. What attracted me to the Jesuits, though, was this experience of Ignatian spirituality, where I discovered this call to find God in the facts, to find God in ordinary life and on a daily basis to reflect on the presence of God in my life and the presence of God in the world. So connecting up the dots of religion of my Catholic faith and of the world around me. I somehow knew that that was important. I think I knew that I wasn’t called to monastic life; I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t called especially to what would be the work of a diocesan priest, which is a wonderful gift of parish ministry for the whole of your life—in different communities for the whole of your life—which in one sense seems attractive, but I kind of wanted something more. I wanted more of a diversity. I wanted to use gifts of teaching and spiritual accompaniment, I suppose. At the time I didn’t really think about community life—I didn’t think about the possibility of living on your own, and loneliness, and that kind of thing. I didn’t think of that. But in hindsight…I suppose you do this subconsciously as well—at least, that’s my analysis of it when I look back—that you recognise…that I was also quite happy with the idea of living in community, and felt that that was something I could do, which would be good for me. I realise now that community life is something which also attracted me, even subconsciously, to the Society, and I couldn’t imagine now not feeling that community was part of my vocation and central to my Jesuit vocation.

As you say, when you were growing up, your parish had several priests; now, that’s very rare. But community is not so alien to the diocesan priesthood in principle, is it?

I think that’s an interesting question, actually. Well, I can’t speak for the diocesan priest, but the diocesan priests I know wouldn’t look at it from the point of view of: “either I’m interested in community, or I want to be on my own”. The community of the diocesan priest as I see it—and I stand corrected on this—is the parish. It is the people who are in the parish.

I had a wonderful experience when I was living in Rome, of community in a parish, with a diocesan priest who really knew his community very well. He’d be out for dinner most nights of the week, which is fantastic in an Italian parish. In Italian culture, the priests are invited into the house; they don’t even need to go knocking on doors. They’re invited in every night for meals, and that’s just how it works. You get to know people really well, and that came out in his homilies. We were going in, as young Jesuits, on Sunday mornings to go and hear confessions, and in the confessions you just got a sense of what Don Silvio was saying in his homily. He really touched peoples lives, because he understood where they were.

So it seems to me the parish priest—whether it’s a religious or a diocesan priest—has as his community the whole parish, and the idea is to get to know them. He’s the centre of the community. For a Jesuit it’s slightly different. If you’re working in a parish you have that, but you also have your religious community who share your life; who are your companions. And we are all different as Jesuits; we are all radically different sometimes, it would seem, and we need that more—intimate would be the word—sharing with each other. I think it can happen in different ways. It usually happens in a Jesuit community over the dinner table or over a drink—a community social—but it also happens when we come together to pray, which is really important as a Jesuit community: that we come together for Mass, to share bread together, share the Eucharist, and also to just be in silent prayer sometimes as well with each other. There is that special intimacy of knowing that we’re living roughly the same life, bringing the same charisms, and trying to allow God in so that God can show us where he’s at work in the world, where he’s at work in the ministry we do to those outside. But I suppose it starts within us, because hopefully, as Jesuits…we’re a funny mix sometimes. We’re naturally introspective: we do two thirty-day silent retreats in our lifetime. But our introspection is not an introspection which tries to find God within us. We find God in the facts, as Gerry Hughes put it; we find God outside there, and so we need that conversation. We need what Pierre Favre would have modelled—one of the first companions of Ignatius—I’m a great fan of Pierre Favre—we need that…on one level, just normal conversation about the things of God. And we find that within Jesuit community, I think, between each other, even if it doesn’t seem so at times; even if it just seems, well…You come to dinner in a Jesuit community and people expect there might be some kind of big academic discussion or whatever going on, and people are surprised, you know, which is a bit mad; but in fact we’re just talking about what’s happened in the news that day, or about a meeting which we’ve got about something that’s happening in the diocese, or films somebody’s seen. But the conversation we have within the community also is a way of actually impacting on our own relationship with God. It’s not rocket science; it’s not something which is specific to Ignatius and to Jesuits, but it’s something which I think our spirituality is about.

Could you talk me through some of the spiritual relationships within a Jesuit community: for example, the hearing of confessions, spiritual direction…Are these things that the members of the community do for each other?  (more…)

George Williams SJ, Catholic chaplain, San Quentin State Prison

Photo courtesy of George Williams SJ

Photo courtesy of George Williams SJ

I first knew of George Williams from the beautiful, shocking article he wrote about prison chaplaincy for The Jesuit PostI wrote him an enthusiastic email, and he very kindly agreed to speak to me over the phone. NB: This was only the second interview I conducted for Project SJ, and the first with a total stranger, so please excuse any slightly silly questions!

When did you first feel the call to the religious life?

I actually remember it clearly. I was a second lieutenant in the Air Force, and my first assignment was at a Remote Radar station in Alaska. I remember walking down—they call them Arctic Hallways—corridors between the buildings for when it’s too cold to go outside. So I’m on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere, in Alaska. I still remember walking down this hallway and asking myself: Is this really what I want to do with my life? There must be more to life than this. And at that point I just said to God: Show me what you want me to do. And then, soon thereafter, I met a Jesuit priest who worked in the Native Alaskan villages in the interior of the state. I was impressed with his sense of humour, his devotion to the people he served, and thought to myself, “I’d like to be like him.” That was what prompted me to look into applying to the Society of Jesus.

So the first impulse was to become a Jesuit? That was the first point of contact?

I grew up Catholic, and I knew diocesan priests and liked them, but when I met the Jesuits there was something about them that really resonated with me. I think it was their sense of openness and their sense of humour. I also was impressed with their sense of purpose and mission in life, dedicating themselves to serving God and humanity. So from that point I was really pretty clear about being a Jesuit. I looked into a few others, like the Maryknoll Missioners, because I was interested in missionary work as well.

Did you imagine at that point that you might end up in prison chaplaincy?

No, I had absolutely no idea. Prison work was the last thing I would have been interested in at that time. In fact, I think I would have been horrified by the thought at that time.

So how did you first come into contact with it?

When I was a novice, we did a number of placements in different areas—what they called experiments at the time. Basically you’d get to experiment with different types of ministry.

The idea was to expose ourselves to experiences that would stretch us beyond our usual comfort zones. I read the comments a novice had written a few years earlier when he did a prison ministry ‘experiment’—and it sounded terrifying to me! So I figured it was something I should try to face. I  wasn’t expecting to enjoy prison ministry at all. I was surprised, when I first went into the prison, how much I enjoyed the interaction I had with the inmates and with the chaplain, and discovered that I really felt drawn to this ministry. It also seemed to fit what I had been seeking—a way to minister to and with the poor and the marginalised people in our society. And where else but prison can one find such a concentration of poor, rejected and despised people?

Do you feel that your Jesuit identity and spirituality equip you well for this kind of ministry? Is it easier for you in some ways than it might be for a diocesan priest?

It isn’t an either/or. Going to the margins is part of the Jesuit ethos, and the Spiritual Exercises are very useful in my work. But a lot of it’s about personality, and being cut out for prison ministry and attracted to that kind of work. And yet Ignatian spirituality has a lot to offer prisoners. So, while on one level the training I’ve received is very useful, it goes deeper: to charism, and being suited for the job.  Ultimately it is a grace—I have met priests and brothers and sisters from many religious communities as well as diocesan priests who were superb prison chaplains. I think prison ministry does speak to the heart of what it means to be a Jesuit, though—in fact, St. Ignatius described ministering to the imprisoned in the founding documents of the Society of Jesus, long before he thought about education and schools. So it is part of our charism.

And you live in community, is that right? 

I live at the Berkeley Jesuit School of Theology community, about twenty minutes from San Quentin. I chose to live there because I wanted to invite the lay and Jesuit theology students to San Quentin to do prison ministry. Especially the lay students, because I think that, in this country, that’s the future of prison ministry.

Do you find that living in community gives you a certain strength for your work?

Absolutely. My Jesuit brothers are supportive of my work, and it’s nice to come home to a place where I’ll be around like-minded people. I try not to talk about it too much, though, because people don’t want to talk about serial killers over dinner. It would be hard to go home and be alone to process everything.

I imagine that living in a theology department, around people doing a different sort of work, might also be good in terms of giving you some mental space.

It’s good to be around people who aren’t doing the same thing. The drawback is that I’m around people who teach theology, and that’s pretty much all they talk about. But I find that the students are more open and curious about different kinds of ministry. I think it’s important for them to be considering this kind of work and not focusing solely on academic careers.

It seems quite in keeping with the Jesuit ethos: pushing people a little beyond their boundaries, out of their comfort zone.

I think it’s very important for people in formation, whether lay students or Jesuits, to have the opportunity to do something that’s going to take them beyond their comfort zones.

I’d like to go back to an earlier point: that moment when you were walking along the Arctic Hallway. How would you explain that feeling of being called?

I think it was more of a sense of invitation. It wasn’t like a clear call to “go, become a Jesuit.” I was just asking God for meaning in my life and for his guidance in finding a way to use my life to be of service to others. In a way, it was like asking God to show me the way. And so the sense of calling really played itself out over the next couple of years, as it became more and more clear that that was the direction. It wasn’t like a lightning bolt, it was more like being gently guided toward a new way of living.

I suppose this is what discernment means, isn’t it?

Yes. I guess it started with me asking the question, and then waiting for the answer to become revealed to me in my life.

And how did you imagine that your vocation would play out? Where did you see yourself at the beginning?

Because I had met the first Jesuits in Alaska, who were missionaries for the most part, I imagined myself working in the missions somewhere, either in Alaska or overseas. Because I like to travel, I guessed I’d be a missionary. I saw myself working in places where there was poverty.

What would you say is the driving motivation of your work at San Quentin?

I think there is a sense of a real call to this work, and the overall experience I have is one of gratitude. Every day I go there I am reminded of God’s power: not only at work in my life, but I see it played out in the lives of the men and women I’ve met in prison and through their struggles. There’s just a tremendous feeling of being in the presence of God’s grace, ironically in such an awful place as a prison.

In an article for The Jesuit Post [see header], you wrote about the experience of working within a system you describe as “demonic”, and posed the question of “cooperating with evil”. Could you elaborate on how this question interacts with your faith, and with the connection with the people you meet in prison?

I think it’s a challenge when you work within an institution and are paid by the State. There is an inevitable conflict between our fundamental religious beliefs in the value and dignity of every human person and the dehumanising environment of contemporary American prisons. It seems to come down to the difference between those who believe people are basically good and can always change, and those who believe people are fundamentally flawed and evil and cannot change.

Prison brings out the worst in prisoners, and that doesn’t really make a lot of sense if you really want to rehabilitate people. So what we end up creating are breeding places for cruelty, pain, suffering and anger. They are, in a sense, demonic strongholds in that they model a hellish, hopeless world. The prison system is a reflection of our society’s lack of compassion and also mirror the racism that lies under the surface of our culture. And I think the result of that lack of compassion and that indifference is a lot of people suffering, and it’s unnecessary. In the United States, a lot of what goes on in prisons is a reflection of issues of racism in our culture, because the number of people of colour in our prisons is so disproportionate. So I think that things like racism, sexism and oppression are all played out graphically in the prison system as well.

I suppose that, for the majority of the population, those things are quite literally shut away. They simply don’t see them.

Exactly. I don’t know who said it, but I think it’s true—the opposite of love isn’t hate, the opposite of love is indifference. I think that’s pretty much the public attitude towards the prison system: indifference to what goes on in prisons.

Do you feel that part of your calling is also to communicate that to the outside world: through your work with the theology faculty and through your writing?

Yes. That’s my hope. I may not stay in prisons full-time, but I would certainly like to devote time to use some of my experiences to educate people, not only about what prisons are like, but what our response ought to be as Catholic Christians.

And how do people respond when you tell them what you do?

Often I get asked the question “Why are you in prison?” as if I’m there because of some sort of punishment, or I couldn’t do anything else. And historically, prison has been kind of a dumping ground for dysfunctional clerics and religious. But I see it as a great grace and opportunity. So I think that what people are saying is: “Well, why would anybody choose prison ministry?” Especially if you’re a Jesuit, because you’re smart, and you’re supposed to be teaching at some prestigious college. And that’s fine, if that’s what people feel called to, but I don’t feel called to that. It’s clear to me that my calling is to minister to the imprisoned.

So in a way you’re countercultural, even within the structure of the Catholic church.

I think it’s very much so. Prison ministry is a countercultural statement. Because what we’re saying, against the culture, is that these people have value and the culture’s saying they don’t. And I’m saying that if they don’t have value, then none of us do. I think that each one of those who ends up in prison, no matter what they’re in here for, is valuable and loved by God. Human beings deserve being treated as a human being.

What does the Jesuit identity mean to you?

The Jesuits… we have all kinds of sayings. Ignatius talked about “finding God in all things,” and I really think that the gist of what I feel drawn to in the Jesuit character is that we are able to be men of open minds and critical thinking, to look at the world the way it is and really to engage with it instead of running away from it. It’s about the desire to be in dialogue with the world around us, to engage in the real daily struggles of life here and now. I think it’s about an open-mindedness and an ability to use our education for critical thinking. The Catholic Church has a long history; we’re not a cult… I think our ability to question the things other people aren’t willing to question is attractive, and it’s something that the Church needs. To really be effective in the world today, we have to be able to see where other people are coming from, to engage with them with respect and compasson in dialogue. The desire to use everything that God has given us, whatever talents we have, whatever brains we have, and to give it back to the Church, to God; it’s very noble and it’s incredibly Jesuit.

Wild Boys: Inigo, written and directed by Jonathan Moore, White Bear Theatre Kennington

I try to do some justice to Jonathan Moore’s extraordinary Inigo, on Vulpes Libris today.

Vulpes Libris

inigo-web-img

NB: As this is a historical play, and closely follows the autobiography of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, there seemed no sense in avoiding spoilers. If you don’t want to know what happens to Ignatius, look away now.

Up to his twenty-sixth year the heart of Ignatius was enthralled by the vanities of the world.

The White Bear Theatre is a tiny place: a pub backroom with forty chairs in it. It isn’t a plush experience, or even a particularly comfortable one. I sit there in my barely-padded seat, horribly aware of my feet (and my coat, and my drink, and my programme), and wonder what on earth is coming.

Inigo starts with a clang. In the heat of the forge (I can feel it, with the light in my eyes) the child Inigo, the youngest Loyola, is learning about swords. A moment later and he is a boisterous young man, bursting onto the…

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Walking with the saints: an interview with the Revd Richard Coles

fathomlessIn his riveting autobiography Fathomless Riches (review here), pop star turned Catholic convert turned Anglican priest Richard Coles happens to mention, briefly and in the midst of it all, the fact that he once attended a vocations weekend with the Jesuits at Campion House, Osterley Park. Naturally, I couldn’t let this pass unexamined. I wrote off to Fr Richard with a plea to hear more of the story, and he kindly set aside time to meet with me in London and tell me all about it.

Perhaps you could start by telling me more about that vocations weekend at Osterley Park?

Like most people of my temperament and background, if you’re floating around the Roman Catholic Church, I think that sooner or later the call of the Jesuits will sound. Quite a lot of the stuff I read, I found I was reading Jesuits. And there’s a particular affinity between certain kinds of Anglicans and Jesuits, so I kept meeting Jesuits who were floating around in Anglican circles, in a way which is rather atypical. You didn’t meet that so much with the secular church and didn’t so much with the religious orders. Also, because I was at King’s College London, and there was an overlap in academic fields. There were people like Frederick Copleston at Farm Street; people working around there.

And also, part of the reason, when I converted to Roman Catholicism, was that I was very much bedazzled by the glamorous qualities of the English literature of the nineteen-thirties and forties and fifties. You think of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and Ronald Knox and people like that, and I thought…oh, I get that. I love the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. And there’s a sort of toughness, and a rigour, and a commitment—and a track record—about the Jesuits that I continue to find very attractive. I thought the commitment particularly to the gospel for the poor in Latin America was very powerful.

And they were always slightly surprising, and counterintuitive, so that was good. And they do good things. I remember going to Castel Gandolfo and seeing the socking great observatory there, which is a Jesuit thing. So from this point of view I was fascinated. And I met some Jesuits, who were very nice; and so I went to Osterley Park to see if that might be for me. I can remember staying and talking to a very nice Jesuit in his house which was flown over by a 747 about every fifteen seconds from five in the morning until midnight, and they seemed, rather amazingly, completely inured to the sound of these aircraft that were going across about twenty feet over our heads.

Discipline!

Discipline. But I found it rather distracting. They had a lovely wisteria, and I liked the wisteria—that was good. But I got into the nitty-gritty of talking about my vocation and who I was, and I began to see that it was not for me. I think I was rather romantic and dazzled in those days, and thought that Roman Catholicism was rather glamorous and you realise that, while it is indeed all those things, that ain’t enough to keep you…That ain’t enough to keep you. It was a wake-up, actually. A beautiful wake-up. And I did not become a Jesuit. I’d have been terrible at it—an awful Jesuit.

And was this the beginning of the end for your Catholicism, in a way? Was it on that path?

I think it helped something to come into focus. I don’t think I’ve ever reached the end of my Catholicism.

Your Roman Catholicism, I should say.

Well, I’m not sure I’ve reached the end of that! Well, no, I have to now—I suppose I’ve made too emphatic a departure to ever come back. But, you know, I think that where I am most at home is with the Benedictine monks. I was at Quarr Abbey a few weeks ago, making a documentary about chant [listen to it here], and when I was there I thought that if God would be more biddable to my sense of my own needs and delights and comforts, I’d be a Benedictine. That’s more of the vocation—well, not the vocation, but community and form of life that suits me best, I think. I’d be a terrible liberation theologian. I’d have been too tired. Also, I wouldn’t be brave, so if the army came round with guns I’d have said: “Oh, I repudiate everything. Whatever you want me to say, I’ll say, so long as I stay alive!”

It’s a very Jesuit thing, isn’t it, that commitment unto death—and on the margins.

Yes. I’m not a hero. I don’t do heroics.

Are you still in touch with the Jesuits?

Oh, yes. I’ve been reading Francis, yes. He’s rather fascinating, I think. Not just delightful—and I think he’s wonderful—but fascinating. It’s very odd how un-Jesuit he is in the world’s eyes. You start off as a Jesuit and you become The Pope, and it’s like being a monarch—well, he is being a monarch, isn’t he? So I think what’s lost is the CV. It seems to me that with John Paul II you had more sense of his CV, of his being Polish, and coming from a place and a time; while you get the sense with Pope Francis that his Latin Americanness and his Jesuitness, in particular, is a bit more obscure.

I wonder if that reflects a bit on popular misconceptions about the Jesuits—and the Latin Americans.

The wily Jesuit.

The wily cunning Jesuit. Which he is, a little bit—he’s canny.

He’s canny. You don’t get to be Pope without being a bit canny, I think. And I love the sort of…there’s a little simplicity about him, which is slightly—well, calculated sounds wrong. I don’t mean it’s fake at all, but I mean that yes, he thinks it through, and I think he’s conscious that he sends a message.

It’s meant.

Yes, exactly, it’s meant. He reminds me of that President of Uruguay—José Mujica—whom I adore. I think that he’s really embracing the world and making that connection, rather than retreating into the fortress. I mean, he’s the Pope, and Popes have certain jobs to do. It would be foolish to imagine that he’d be the good cop, and Benedict XVI would be the bad cop, and I wouldn’t fall for that for a second. But it’s a change of mood, a change of atmosphere, which feels like an aggiornamento.

How did you feel when Francis was elected?

Well, the first thing I thought was: “Who the hell is he?”. The second thing I thought was: “He looks like Ted Berry”. And then the third thing I thought was “Oh, the Holy Spirit might be surprising us”. I thought he was fascinating. Lots of friends of mine who are much more conservative than I am were rather expecting it to be business as usual, if you see what I mean: a papacy that would be continuously a conservative entity like that of Benedict XVI, and when he said “Francis” they all assumed it meant Francis Xavier. I remember that realisation spreading on Facebook: no, it’s Francis of Assisi, not Francis Xavier. That was just so fascinating, to have made such an interesting choice of name and tradition. And then they said that he was a Jesuit, and I thought: “Ooh, Jesuit pope, that’s a new one!”

Well, it was supposed to be an impossibility, or that was the received wisdom.

You can be Patriarch of Venice, can’t you, but that’s as high as you get. So he’s surprised people; and he seems to be making a serious effort at engaging with the more problematic aspects of the papacy of Benedict XVI, although I’m fascinated by Benedict XVI, too, and find him endlessly captivating.

Do you have a favourite Jesuit saint?

I’d have to say my favourite Jesuit would be Gerard Manley Hopkins. Well, I say he’s not a saint—not formally. I think it may be a while! I don’t think he was a happy Jesuit—I think he was rather a wretchedly miserable Jesuit. That’s a bit unfair, perhaps, but I don’t think he was ever someone who was easily going to be absorbed into a culture like that. One of the stories—quite a heartbreaking story, actually—is of him in community, being rather ignored or overlooked because they all thought he was a bit thick, because he used to just stand sometimes stock still, staring at a wasp or a blade of grass. He did have this intense focus.

Also, I have a parish connection, because Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great unfulfilled passion—I think it was unfulfilled—was with the extraordinarily vivid character Digby Dolben. He was the son of the Lord of the Manor of Finedon, and he’s buried in my church. He was an extraordinary figure and rather eccentric. He started wearing a habit and calling himself Brother Dominic and wandering around in that, which in the Victorian Middle English circles that he lived in was quite surprising. And then, I think when he was at Eton, he disliked having his hair cut and used to singe the ends off with a candle. What’s that about? And then he wrote a rather arch and very passionate series of poems, which are quite wonderful, actually—as juvenilia, I guess—and inspired the passion of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who adored him. And then he drowned at the age of nineteen. He was swimming in the river Welland with the son of his tutor, and the boy got into trouble, and he went in after him and just drowned. Prefigured in one of his poems in which he writes about drowning in a river—an extraordinarily prophetic thing. Anyway, that’s the end of Digby Dolben, as a teenager. A tragic loss.

And he’s buried at your parish church.

He’s buried in my churchyard, yes. And also, I have a connection with Gerard Manley Hopkins because my point of entry to the church as an adult was St Alban’s, Holborn, where Hopkins used to worship before he converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Jesuit. I don’t know, it’s not an entirely rational thing, but we can feel that we walk with the saints.

 

Problem Exists between Keyboard and Chair

Apologies to any blog followers who just ended up with two dead links. I was trying to be clever and have two drafts open simultaneously: the English and the German versions of the Wolfgang Müller interview.

It did not go well.

I’ve since renamed and republished both, and it seems to be working now. That will teach me to attempt sophistication.