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.
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?
Normally not. In this community, at Mount Street, we don’t have a spiritual director for the community. Everyone would have a spiritual director outside of the community. There may be one or two who have somebody who is in the community, but there isn’t somebody appointed to be the spiritual director. That’s how things work here; it tends to be how things work in Britain.
It makes sense.
It does make sense to us. When I was living in Rome there was a spiritual director for the community: we were a much larger community of eighty people. We weren’t in such close quarters all the time, so it made a bit more sense.
That’s a big community, eighty.
Eighty is very large. It’s just about the largest I think we’ve got.
I was thinking that. I can’t imagine many other countries where you would have the numbers to have a community of eighty.
That’s right, yes.
Within the UK, have you seen a sort of Francis effect? Has there been an increased intake of Jesuit vocations, or an increased interest in Jesuit vocations?
There’s definitely a Francis factor; there’s certainly something there. There’s a real interest in the Jesuits through Francis. When Francis was elected, here at Mount Street—the Curia—the phone never stopped ringing from a few minutes after he was elected: all the journalists wanting to interview us, or wanting to know what is a Jesuit, what makes Francis a Jesuit. So there’s certainly a huge interest on that level.
But there’s a huge interest from within the church, certainly: people who know the history of the Jesuits, and where we might fit in, and what does it mean having a Jesuit pope, and what does he give; people who are quite well versed in what the Jesuits are about, or might be. And then there is an interest from outside. The parish team go along to memorial services, wedding receptions, baptisms; and very often people who have been away from the church, away from organised religion, or who haven’t got any particular religious affiliation—or people who we used to call the lapsed, which is one thing we deal with very specifically through a programme we’re running here at Mount Street for those who are returning to the Catholic church—people like that come up and say, well, I love Pope Francis. There’s a real sense of the human face of Catholicism through Pope Francis. So people are certainly, I think—I hear anecdotally anyway—that people are getting interested in the Catholic faith, or those in other Christian churches and communities are appreciating what the Catholic church is about through Pope Francis. You hear a lot of that, for example, what Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby are doing on the anti human trafficking front at the moment.
So people recognise that from outside the church and in other churches as well, and people are coming back to the practice of the faith, whatever that means to them: they might come and do an Ignatian retreat day here at the Mount Street Jesuit Centre; and then they might come to Mass at Christmas; and then they might come again at Easter; and then they might ask to have their child baptised; and then a friend of theirs or a relative might go along to us for marriage prep and to get married here, and they come in that way; and then they might get interested in volunteering. It’s not the way in which we thought of things when I was growing up in the seventies in what I’ve learnt to label as your typical northern Catholic parish, where everyone went to Mass every Sunday and if you didn’t you were in trouble, and you gave something to the community by going to things and being part of it. People dip in and dip out. I think the Francis effect is part of that; that people, through the leadership of Pope Francis, are coming to us as a Jesuit church and centre more. It’s a way of people reconnecting; a way in which they realise the welcome that there is, and the human face of the church through Pope Francis is a vital part of that
I often hear that at wedding receptions, when you work round the room and you meet people, and they say: I’m not a Catholic, but I love Pope Francis. So I think that’s happening. Vocations to the Society of Jesus? I think they’re steady in just the same way as they have been in the last few years in Britain. You’d have to really ask the vocations promotion people about that, as I don’t have the facts on it.
As we’re talking about vocations, I’d like to hear your take on the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. I think people often think of it as a renunciation, but I have the impression from the Jesuits I’ve spoken to that it’s more than that: it’s a taking-on, a liberating factor, a positive thing.
Certainly a positive thing. I think the three vows go together. It can seem at times that the vows aren’t especially challenging, and I would say personally that particular vows might seem more challenging at different times of your life.
Poverty isn’t about living in destitution; it’s certainly not that. It’s a vow of poverty which is apostolic. It’s a vow of poverty which speaks somehow of saying no to a culture of accruing of wealth. I suppose for me it depends on when you enter religious life, and the kind of personality you are, as well. I was never really into accruing wealth because I entered pretty much straight after university. So having no actual material possessions of your own, moving around and—where obedience comes in—being able to be moved around from one place to another I’ve always found, not restricting, but actually fulfilling and something which is simply part of your response to the call to this way of life. It’s part of it, and chastity is as well.
It doesn’t mean that you’re not called to close friendships; that’s really important. It doesn’t mean that you’re called to an isolation; that’s far from it. It’s all to do with the mission, I think, for us as Jesuits, and it’s actually therefore less about a saying no to something than a saying yes: saying yes, I agree to do this, to do this for the greater glory of God. I’m part of the body here. I’m part of the Company, the Society of Jesus. And so the vows are part of my life, and it’s simply a way of life.
There’ll be times when, living here in Mayfair…in one sense I’d prefer to be living somewhere slightly less salubrious, but we live here in contradiction, almost, to what’s going on around us. I think it’s important, that: that we have all this empty property around us which hopefully, maybe—or it may be somewhere else—will be part of the resettlement of the Syrian refugees. We’ve got the agreement of Westminster City Council. But all of that empty property…There’s a contradiction of us being here, in this large property in Mount Street, where in fact we live, not a destitute life by any means, but we hopefully live a life which is reasonably simple. Obviously we have to we work alongside lots of laypeople, so here we offer hospitality at lunchtime. It’s important that we invite those who are working with us to have a meal with us. It’s a way of sharing. So if we just had soup and bread every day for lunch, and people came in, it wouldn’t be a mark of great hospitality, really, that. It’s part of who we are. It’s part of the family that we’re modelling here, I suppose, so it might seem that we don’t live poverty, but that poverty’s got to be apostolic. It is a sign of contradiction. We do quite a lot of hospitality here, inviting people in to have meals and whatever and to meet us, and I would hope that people realise that in fact we lead a reasonably simple life when we talk about our lives and what we do; that they realise that we can be moved at any point, as well, and that we live this life of course which says no to family, but says yes to a wider family, and being part of this wider family: which is the community, and those who work here, and the people who come to us.
There are two phrases that come to mind: one is prophetic witness, which is what you’re bearing by being here, and the other is radical availability.
Yes. Radical availability: I think that’s what it’s about.
So you’re a lecturer in systematic and pastoral theology at Heythrop, and then you’re the superior of the community here…
I’ve just started in that role.
How are you finding it?
I’m enjoying it, thank you, yes. I was really quite surprised to be asked to do it, and really humbled by that . I’m enjoying it because it’s about people. It’s not about administration, it’s actually about people.
What role does the superior play in the community exactly?
The first thing is about the care of the community, hopefully; it’s about the care of the members of the Jesuit community. What we call in Latin cura personalis: personal care, being available for the community itself. It’s also about making sure—and I’ve got really, really good support in that from different people: our house manager, very good assistant superior, and the community consultors, and various other people—it also involves making sure of the fabric and finances, and the relationship between the different ministries that go on here. Just being a presence, I suppose, to what is an apostolic community; and that will vary, what you actually do. You can spend a whole week where you’re dealing with one issue, or there might be nothing which comes up specifically. But we meet regularly; there are meetings about things as well, and it’s also being present as best I can, and being around: something I’m having to remind myself of.
I really enjoy the conversations with people, so I’m enjoying it as my role. I don’t know if other people are—you’ll have to ask them!
How do your academic life and your community life fit together?
I’m not doing as much academic work at the moment, certainly, no. But Jesuits—those of us who are working at Heythrop College, or anywhere else, for that matter—we were missioned by the Provincial to develop ourselves academically. So how do they fit together? Thankfully, I’m able to do academic work here. I’m able to do things like writing and preparing lectures, that kind of thing, here; but most of the time I will reserve that myself for going to Heythrop, which is at a distance, because I need to be available for what’s going on here. So I can block that off to some extent.
I think that higher education anyway at the moment is in a real state of farce. There are some real challenges there about who we offer higher education to, and one of the things I think which is really important for the Catholic church—for the Christian churches—is that we do our very best to be in the position (and that’s easier said than done, to say the least) to offer education to those most in need of it, and to those in minority groups and those who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity. Since I finished my further studies and came back to London, my main job—which took up a lot of my time—was setting up what was essentially a lay ministry programme which is joint between Heythrop College and the Diocese of Westminster for a foundation degree in pastoral mission. At the end of that we had around eighty students who went through and are now working in pastoral ministry: laypeople, not just in the Catholic church but mainly in the Catholic church, and half from the Diocese of Westminster.
So I think that kind of thing, and providing that possibility, is what academic life also should be geared towards. While at the same time as those who have a vocation more to the intellectual apostolate, as we call it in the Society: to actual research, to writing…having that time for creative thought, I think, is important for them, but I don’t find myself in that position in the moment as an academic. I find that my position at the moment is more involved in teaching. Teaching—what we do at Heythrop, teaching those who will be future priests as well—is something I enjoy very much, and I think that’s where we should be and what we should be doing. I think also that should be as best as it can extended to laypeople, and really to make a difference in the church. If we’re doing academic work which isn’t largely making a difference, then we’re missing something there. So that’s where I am. That’s where that kind of fits in: my academic life and my vocation, I suppose.
The final question—I ask everybody this—what does the Jesuit identity mean to you?
It means finding God in the world, especially in human beings, who are made in God’s image. I mean spirituality which recognises God right there. And responding as best as we can to seeing in the world that presence of God, and nurturing it.