Jesuit friends

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…)

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.

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.

 

Gone Fishing

I’m about to move house (move countries, as it happens) and so Project SJ will be taking a short-as-possible hiatus. In the meantime, please enjoy these videos featuring some of the Jesuits and allies who’ve participated in the project so far. Click on the hyperlinked names to see the original interviews.

Br Guy Consolmagno was my first Jesuit interviewee, both on Project SJ and elsewhere. (This interview took place in 2010, when I barely knew what a Jesuit was; note how graciously he answers my rather silly questions.) Here he is at Heythrop 400, talking about the Jesuit contribution to science.

My next interviewee was George Williams SJ, whose words on prison ministry are here. This video from America Magazine gives some idea of how he works with the prisoners at San Quentin, and how some of them respond.

Peter McVerry SJ, of The Peter McVerry Trust, spoke frankly about vocation, freedom and charity. His homily at this year’s Portlaoise Novena is a window into his experience working with those who are homeless and marginalised, and what they have taught him. (I couldn’t, unfortunately, embed it: right-click to open in new window.)

Peter McVerry SJ: Portlaoise Novena 2014

Finally, Rowan Williams is not just a churchman and theologian, but also a poet and literary scholar. Here’s his inaugural lecture at the University of Chester on “The Messiah and the Novelist: Approaches to Jesus in Fiction.”

Enjoy! And I’ll see you again soon.

Rowan Williams on Jesuit education

Many thanks to Dr. Williams, who kindly answered my questions by email despite a very busy schedule.

“I remember reading an article about the Jesuits in a Sunday newspaper supplement in the mid-sixties, and being fascinated by the diversity of intellectual and spiritual gifts displayed by the people interviewed. Since then, I have had Jesuit friends and students for over thirty years. What has always impressed me has been (a) the businesslike approach to vocation and service: complete flexibility grounded in the daily attempt to become radically available to God, and (b) the sense that such a wide range of employment for mind and body is all of it equally likely to offer the opportunity of doing God’s will.”

So Rowan Williams outlines the history of his relationship with the Society of Jesus: a working relationship of friendship and respect. Williams is not so prominently associated with the Ignatian tradition as he is with other strands of Catholic theology; he is primarily known for his work on, among other things, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and the Rule of St Benedict. But his lecture on Jesuit education, delivered at the 400th anniversary celebrations of Heythrop College in June 2014, reveals that his connection with the Jesuits is not merely a matter of admiring coexistence, but of common ground.

The main thrust of his analysis (or, perhaps more accurately, the thing that most appealed to me) relates to the idea that studying something, and studying it thoroughly and well, is intrinsically valuable in itself; that education is not merely a matter of individualistic self-realisation, or of preparing the student to be of economic value in ‘the real world’, but is a constituent part of the formation of a soul. This is a fundamental principle of Jesuit education, and it gives concrete meaning to the tired old phrase ‘God-given talents’. It is also something with which Williams clearly has great sympathy, and which is consistent with his own approach to the politics (and theology) of education. (I was fortunate enough to hear some of his views in conversation last year: the part relating to the academy is here.)

On this occasion, I couldn’t resist asking him the same question I put to my Jesuit interviewees: What does the Jesuit identity mean to you? Here’s what he had to say:

“The ‘Jesuit identity’ is so diverse, united it seems simply by the conviction that all skills are relevant to sharing the gospel; but of course underlying it all is the Exercises, shaping a spirit ready to be put to any kind of service. I suppose because my own spirituality has been so much influenced by Benedictine and Carmelite sources, I haven’t been so devoted an advocate for Ignatian methods as some in recent years; but I have come to see that some of the polarities people see between these worlds are pretty artificial. There is also, to me, a refreshing distance in the Society from conventional ideas of church hierarchy (no abbots! Discouragement from becoming bishops or whatever—which is why a Jesuit Pope is a remarkable thing, and potentially a very creative one; as we see).”

Dr. Rowan Williams is the former Archbishop of Canterbury and now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.