Month: August 2014

Peter McVerry SJ: social activist and campaigner

Photo courtesy of The Peter McVerry Trust.

Photo courtesy of The Peter McVerry Trust.

Fr Peter McVerry entered the Society of Jesus in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1975. In 1983, he founded The Arrupe Society in order to help homeless young people in inner-city Dublin. The Arrupe Society subsequently became The Peter McVerry Trust. Fr McVerry is a prominent advocate for the rights of the marginalised in Irish society and beyond. You can see some of his outreach work on the webpages of The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice and iCatholic.ie.

When, and how, did you feel the call to join the priesthood?

From an early age, I wanted my life to be of service to others. I think I got this desire from my father, who was a doctor in a small town (Newry). I remember the phone going at all hours of the night, and he would get up and go to see a patient. In the 1950s and 60s, becoming a priest was a respected and respectable way of serving others (it’s a bit different today!), so the thought of joining the priesthood was in my mind during my secondary school years. I decided to give it a go!

What brought you to the Jesuits?

I went to a Jesuit school from age twelve to eighteen, so when I decided to give the priesthood a try, the Jesuits were an obvious choice.

How would you characterise your experience of the Jesuit education system?

My experience of Jesuit education was that it was a great education, a first-class education. It was a very rounded education, academically, culturally and sporting. I enjoyed my time in Clongowes very much, but I am aware that a few were very unhappy there. It was—especially then, in the 1950s—a very exclusive school, only open to the wealthy. Today there is a wider social group in Jesuit fee-paying schools, but they still remain too socially exclusive.

How would you describe the feeling of being called?

I didn’t experience “being called.” I think going into the priesthood is much like any other vocation. You decide how you would like your life to be lived, and you make a judgement that in the priesthood you can achieve what you would like to do with your life. I don’t think it is much different to deciding to be a doctor, or a lawyer or whatever, except that God is explicit in the decision. The decision is a belief that this is what God wants me to do with my life, which for many others might be implicit or non-existent, but in the case of priesthood, the belief that this is what God wants is at the forefront. But there is no big feeling of being “called”.

What’s your conception of the priest’s role in his community, and how has it evolved in the course of your experience?

I don’t think there is a defined role for a priest in the community. Priests take up many different roles: ministering to the spiritual needs of people, setting up or being part of projects that seek to improve the life of the community or of individuals within the community, being an advocate for the needs of the community. In many parts of the world, priests run hospitals, homes for elderly or orphans or people with disabilities. In other words: whatever the needs, spiritual or material, the priest seeks to improve the quality of life of individuals or the community.

How has it changed? I think priests have become aware of the need to minister to the whole person, and not just to their spiritual needs, and therefore that their role goes beyond providing religious and spiritual services.

Do you think the Jesuits have a particular way of operating within communities, whether theologically/spiritually/politically, or simply because of how Jesuit life tends to be organised?

I don’t think Jesuits have any particular way of of operating within communities. The Jesuit charism is to go where the needs are greatest, so we have a greater freedom to get involved in all sorts of ministry. So Jesuits teach, preach, run observatories, lecture in all sorts of subjects in third level institutions, give retreats, run drug treatment centres, etc. In other words, we feel free to do whatever is necessary to do.

What brought you to start working with the homeless?

I began working with homeless people when I came across a nine-year-old child sleeping on the street. We were already running services for young people in the inner city of Dublin, so we just added a small hostel for six children. But the numbers grew and grew, and so we were forced to open more and more hostels and eventually, some drug services for homeless people.

How do people tend to respond when you talk about homelessness, poverty, drug use?

People respond in different ways: there is generally a very compassionate response to the problem of homeless children. Many people are also very compassionate towards homeless adults, but some people have little time for them, believing that it’s their own fault that they are homeless and they brought it upon themselves. People generally have little time for drug users, as again they believe that they started taking drugs just to have a good time and were selfish and without responsibility. People are afraid of drug users, afraid of being robbed or assaulted, so they want to keep them as far away from themselves as possible.

Do you find that these issues are often seen as a matter for charity alone? To your mind, who can and should engage to help those affected?

Homelessness and drug use are seen as primarily a matter for charity. That is because the government have delegated the running of most of the services to charities and not-for-profit organisations. I have no problem with that, as the charities have the experience and expertise to provide services. However, having a home is a fundamental right, and fundamental rights ought to be guaranteed by the laws of a society and provided through State structures. It is not good enough that a person’s right to a home should be dependent on coffee mornings! So, while charities can play a dominant role in addressing the problem, the State should retain responsibility for the funding and the quality of services to address homelessness. Addressing drug misuse is very expensive, often involving residential treatment and aftercare, and charities can never raise sufficient funds to address the problem. Drug misuse affects society through crime and health problems which incur substantial costs to the taxpayer, so the State should accept responsibility for addressing drug misuse.

Finally, the question I’m asking all my interviewees: What does the Jesuit identity mean to you?

Being a Jesuit gives me the freedom to do what I am doing, in the way in which I am doing it. The vows of poverty and chastity free me from concerns about earning a living or providing for a family. But ultimately, being a Jesuit is about a relationship with Jesus and with the mission of Jesus as expressed in the Gospels. This mission, in my view, is to build a community which lives together in radical solidarity, caring and sharing with each other; and which welcomes and respects those who are marginalised in society, as they too are children of God, and have the dignity of being children of God.

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Peter McVerry on vocation

I’ve just completed an email interview with Peter McVerry SJ, which will be posted in full next week. Fr McVerry is a social activist, campaigner and founder of homelessness charity The Peter McVerry Trust.

One of the things that fascinates me in talking with Jesuits is their sense of vocation, and how they describe what to those on the outside can seem a strange and mystical sense of calling to a particular ministry. It’s something I want to get in about as much as possible. Accordingly I always ask interviewees: How did you experience the feeling of being called? Here’s what Fr McVerry has to say:

I didn’t experience “being called.” I think going into the priesthood is much like any other vocation. You decide how you would like your life to be lived, and you make a judgement that in the priesthood you can achieve what you would like to do with your life. I don’t think it is much different to deciding to be a doctor, or a lawyer or whatever, except that God is explicit in the decision. The decision is a belief that this is what God wants me to do with my life, which for many others might be implicit or non-existent, but in the case of priesthood, the belief that this is what God wants is at the forefront. But there is no big feeling of being “called”.

What do you think? How does this tally with your experience of vocation: to religious life, to a particular career or ministry or service, to a way of life or a relationship? Leave a comment and let me know.

The Incomplete Pope Francis: My Door is Always Open

imageGod manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallises them. God is in history, in the processes under way. We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run [long-term] historical processes. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting. (Ch III: “Seeking and Finding God in All Things”, p. 96)

In last week’s post, I mentioned something that struck me while reading My Door is Always Open, the conversation between Pope Francis and Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica. Namely, this line from page 24:

The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking.

This line appealed to me immediately. Partly because I have a tendency to scrupulosity, and find this Ignatian open-mindedness both challenging and deeply therapeutic, so the reminder of it is always welcome. (For a sympathetic but detached perspective on scrupulosity, listen to Fr Thomas Santa on This American Life here.) But mostly because, of all the things I’ve read by and about Francis since his election, this is the single phrase that has cast most light on the way he works. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not simply a conservative or a radical. He is not a hardline essentialist, nor is he a Po-Mo (Pope-Mo?) relativist. He is a Jesuit, and a Jesuit by his own standards. He is an open-ended thinker.

And this is a conversation primarily about thinking; about approaches rather than actions. Readers looking for a manifesto of reform, or a promise of preservation, will leave disappointed. The primary value of this interview is the opportunity to see inside what Spadaro calls “the Bergoglian vision of the world”: on one hand, the transcendental certainty of redemption, the utter conviction of faith; on the other, the innate limitations of human perception, the impossibility of knowing.

Reading it properly requires several passes, although Spadaro’s commentary goes a long way towards entrenching the cardinal points, and without editorialising too much. The conversation is wide-ranging and touches on a number of topics, including collegiality, the role of women, sexuality and Church doctrine, the history of the Jesuit order and the Pope’s taste in literature. By the time I picked it up, many of the more topical statements had already been singled out for extensive discussion in the media, and had lost their impact. This was no bad thing. It allowed me a much clearer view of the whole, and released me from my usual habit of scrabbling through the Papal interview for signs that Francis and I agree: another kind of scrupulosity.

Bloomsbury, paperback,  224 pp. ISBN: 9781472909763

On unfinished thinking

I am currently reading My Door is Always Open, Antonio Spadaro SJ’s interview with Pope Francis. One Jesuit interviewing another (especially this one) is of obvious interest to Project SJ, and I’ll be writing a proper review in due course.

In the meantime, I am deeply struck by this phrase of Francis’ regarding discernment:

The style of the Society is not shaped by discussion, but by discernment, which of course presupposes discussion as part of the process. The mystical dimension of discernment never defines its edges and does not complete the thought. The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking. (p. 24)

I’ve been carrying this concept about with me—the incomplete thought, the open-ended process—and I think it’s key. Not just to the interest of Jesuit perspectives and Jesuit culture “from without,” but to the very real usefulness of the Spiritual Exercises in combating scrupulosity, absolutism and the allure of the too-hasty decision.

What do you think? (“I don’t know yet” is a more than acceptable answer.) Is there a particular phrase, idea or image that says “Jesuit” to you? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

Author Q&A: William O’Malley SJ (The Fifth Week)

William O’Malley is a professor of theology at Matteo Ricci College, Seattle University. His books include Why be Catholic?, Meeting the Living God and Building Your Own Conscience. For my review of his Jesuit classic The Fifth Week, click here.

What do your writing days look like?

Depends if I’m teaching and how many classes. Two—nothing except Saturdays. One, maybe morning or afternoon. Summer, daily, except Sundays—and I stop at dinner every day. Otherwise you lose perspective. The point is, I can’t not write.

If you were writing The Fifth Week now, who would be your Jesuits of the Present?

Famous? Jim Martin, Bob Drinan , Arrupe, Greg Boyle of Homeboys, Jack Halligan, Bill Cain the film director.

Do people still ask whether you’ve never gotten laid?*

Psst! I’m 83! And wrinkled as an albino California raisin.

Which book would you recommend to readers who want to know more about the Jesuits?

John O’Malley (no relation): The First Jesuits.

Sum up the Jesuit identity in five words or less.

Gospel, Exercises, humanity, adaptability, forgiveness.

What is your favourite text by St. Ignatius?

There’s only one that counts.

* Cf. The Fifth Week, p. 183