Donal Godfrey SJ is a Liverpool-born Jesuit priest whose ministry has taken him from Ireland to the USA. His book Gays and Grays (2008) narrates the integration of the LGBTQ community at Most Holy Redeemer, San Francisco. (There’s a wonderful Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper report on MHR here).
When, and how, did you feel the call to join the priesthood? What brought you to the Jesuits?
It is hard to answer when I first thought of becoming a Jesuit. I went to a boarding school called Bishop’s Court in Liverpool. There I recall meeting a Jesuit for the first time. Later I attended Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit boarding school in England. There I met and got to know Jesuits personally. Something attracted me to their spirituality. I was part of prayer meetings and the Christian Life Community while at this school. I recall talking with one Jesuit, Fr Tom Shufflebotham, and him telling me that I should remember that I am always held by God in the palms of his hand. I remember another, the late Fr Tom Smalley asking me if I thought I had a vocation. I recall the late Fr Gerry Hughes on a retreat making a deep impression on me also. And how his vision of God seemed very open and broad.
I decided not to pursue this particular vocation after being at Stonyhurst, but rather went on to study law in Ireland. I lost touch with the Jesuits in Ireland, but while at law school, at the King’s Inns to become a barrister in Dublin, the idea kept coming back to me. At the time I had become involved with the charismatic prayer movement. However, it was after going into some depression that the idea of a vocation as a Jesuit came back to me. But there was also a part of me that did not want to go forward with this, and hoped the idea would just go away. It did not. It kept buzzing around within me and eventually I thought I must follow up on it, if only to get it out of my system, so to speak. I wrote to the English Jesuits and they suggested writing to the Irish Jesuits. The Irish Jesuits took a long time to reply and it was not a very encouraging letter, so I thought that left me off the hook! But then I met someone who had applied to the Jesuits and been accepted and he set up a meeting with Donal Neary for me. We met on the border of Cork and Kerry. I hitch hiked to get to meet him there. Then we set up the more formal meetings and interviews and psychological tests. Soon a letter arrived from the Provincial welcoming me to the novitiate at Manresa, Dollymount, Dublin. I was surprised. I imagined I might last a year and then get it out of my system, but I stayed and found a vocation that has been very rich and life giving for me, and hopefully for the people of God also!
Did you feel drawn to a specific ministry when you entered the novitiate? Did any of the experiments make a particular impression on you?
I did not feel drawn to any particular ministry while a novice. I was open to many possibilities. I do not recall even discussing where my ministry might lead me at this stage. The experiments left deep impressions on me. Walking from Paris to Taizé on pilgrimage in a hot summer was unlike anything I had ever done. Being open to the spirit and the hospitality on the journey was humbling. Being invited in to homes for dinner by poor farmers or a curé was heartening. In many ways the pilgrimage became a metaphor for my life in God, the journey of faith and trust despite all the many difficult times that come along in life.
I also loved spending time in Portadown at the Jesuit community in a council estate. I loved the people and being part of a very dynamic and engaging Jesuit community that was a pioneer in this kind of ministry and work, on the edge. I also got to meet and spend time with some remarkable people like Davy Byrne, Paddy Doyle, Declan Deane, and Brian Lennon. All people who in very different ways inspire me still to be a better Jesuit and follower of Jesus.
What do you bring to your role in university chaplaincy? What do you take from it?
I love being a chaplain in a university ministry. These days my work is mostly with the faculty and staff. I develop programs for them, such as the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius offered in daily life, Faculty and staff lunches with discussion about our Jesuit mission, spiritual direction, book clubs, developing a Faculty Forum which is a kind of Ignatian formation program for faculty.
However, as the only Jesuit on our chaplaincy staff, I also work with students, of course, and enjoy this work also. They keep me young! Life is very different for our young from when I was their age: it really is the digital age. But the quest for meaning and God is real now as it was then. It is just that we have to adapt and be willing to go where the young are now and accompany them in their pilgrimage in life.
As Catholics are a minority here among students, faculty and staff, it is a challenge to make all feel part of our Jesuit Catholic mission. However it is a challenge that I enjoy and love. Our new president Fr Paul Fitzgerald told me that I seem to have a gift to make people feel welcome and own our mission even when they do not belong to our tradition. I love being able to cross the boundaries of different faiths and cultural traditions to make sense of our mission.
In 2008 you published Gays and Grays, your book about the integration of the LGBTQ community at Most Holy Redeemer in San Francisco. What kind of responses have you had to it from within the Catholic community? From without?
The publication of my book Gays and Grays has changed the perception people have of me. It has made me someone that people turn to on this topic in San Francisco. I have been interviewed by newspapers, on radio, and television. For the most part I have had a positive reception from people, especially LGBTQ Catholics. However, some in the blogosphere have attacked me, sometimes in personal ways and, while I welcome critique, this is usually done in bad faith, and anonymously. Those who who attack me there do not speak to me in person or want any dialogue. However, their writings have had certain unfortunate consequences for me at times.
Nonetheless, in prayer I feel invited to do what Jesus asks, to shake the dust from my feet and move to where God is working so powerfully in the church and particularly in the LGBTQ community. It is time for the church to welcome LGBTQ people. I pray and hope that Pope Francis can say as much in the final document coming from the Synod on the Family. I sent Pope Francis a copy of my book. I received a nice response from someone in his office, but I imagine that owing to the huge mail he receives Francis has never personally seen my book. I would love him to look at it, not because I or my work is especially important, but because the voices of faithful LGBTQ Catholics are important and need to be heard. I wish that some of the voices in my book could speak to the Synod so that their witness and testimony is part of the communal discernment we are making in the Church on family right now.
As a church we need to accept that family goes beyond traditional lines. I don’t expect the teachings to jump to acceptance in one day, it will take decades. In the meantime we need to accept people pastorally as they are and where they are. For now, this would be sufficient. Later the teachings will catch up and evolve.
Finally, what does the Jesuit identity mean to you?
I hope my Jesuit identity is part of who I am, but an important part. I see it as my particular way of being a Christian, a follower of Jesus. It does not make me a better Christian than anyone else, but it is my way of struggling to follow Jesus. Like any vocation, it has had ups and downs over the years. And it also means discipline, the discipline of being a part of something bigger than I am on my own. I live in community, and that is important to me. So I follow Jesus in this way, with others, who are all different and have different views on many things, but the same mission. Prayer, community, discernment. My vocation allows me to be present in a privileged way in the lives of so many people, to have the sense that I am part of what God is doing in helping to create a more just and compassionate world in some small way. I am so grateful to God for my vocation as a Jesuit!