Interviews

The Story of a Vocation, by Bruce Botha SJ

imageWhen I emailed my questions to Bruce Botha SJ, parish priest at St Martin de Porres Soweto, I got this wonderful piece of spiritual memoir in reply. Enjoy.

It is only in recent years that I have been able to trace back the roots of my vocation to childhood circumstances and events. They were the rich soil in which the seed of a question—”have you ever thought of the priesthood?”—was able to grow.

I grew up in Durban, South Africa, to Catholic parents, in a traditional and conservative home. I don’t think my family were much different to most in our small suburban community. My parents were not pious, but we went to Mass every Sunday and they ensured that I and my brothers went to catechism classes.

My maternal grandparents stayed in a small town, little more than a village, about an hour’s drive from Durban. Every holiday, the children of the family would be sent to my grandparents, to ride horses, walk in the wild, and other equally fun things. My grandmother was the hub around which the family revolved, and she was a much loved figure by her children and grandchildren. She had a down-to-earth spirituality, practical and characterised more by love in action than piety.

One of my earliest memories is of going to pray the rosary with her and Fr Canisius, the parish priest of her small village church. I remember that the lights were out in the darkened church, apart from the candles in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary. Three souls telling beads in a darkened church, drawn together in mystical communion. It was events such as these that prepared my heart to say “yes” when eventually I heard God’s call.

As a teenager I was a dutiful Christian, doing all the right things but without much conviction. It was a mechanical, and maybe even a Pharisaic faith. That changed when I got to university and joined a club for Catholic students. It was an experience of community and friendship that led me to be more at home in my faith. We had a Dominican chaplain, Fr John Allard, who saw something in me that I could not; at least, not then. He asked me if I had ever thought of becoming a priest. I hadn’t, not in any mature sense, but he had planted the metaphorical seed. Over the next year, the question niggled at me, and I mulled over the implications of priesthood for me. What would my friends think? What would my family think? I spent a long time thinking “what if?” until I woke up one morning and realised that I had stopped thinking “what if” and was thinking “when”. That realisation filled me with great joy. I had made a decision on a subconscious level and had yet to test and confirm it, but that sense of peace and joy seemed to be a sign.

Fr Allard left the country to return to America, and our next chaplain was Fr Nick King, a Jesuit. I was comfortable with him, liked him, and so asked him to be my spiritual director. I saw him often on campus or in the Jesuit community when groups of students went there for a function. He directed me on an eight day retreat. It was mind-blowing. My spiritual experiences both in the retreat and in daily life convinced me that my life would be empty, a meaningless void, without Christ. I felt the calling to a deep unity with him. I knew that he was calling me to follow him, but was not sure where, or how.

I knew from the very beginning that I was not being called to the diocesan priesthood, because the priests that I saw, admittedly from the outside, seemed lonely and isolated. I knew that community was important to me, that I wanted to live my life with a band of brothers. I had read a lot about the different orders, and met a whole variety, but it was the Society of Jesus that resonated most with me.

In those early days of fierce burning desire for Christ, I was filled with spiritual ambition. I wanted to do great things for Christ, and my reading on the life of St Ignatius and his early companions had convinced me that if I followed the way of Ignatius I could also do great things for God. The early companions had their share of proud and wilful individuals, of the arrogant and headstrong, and despite their flaws they went on to do amazing things for God, because they allowed the way of Ignatius to shape and inform their lives. This decision was again confirmed for me through prayer, and it was then that I applied to join the Society of Jesus.

I had already finished my Higher Diploma in Education and was teaching in a high school when I applied to the Jesuits. I was stunned when I was told that they didn’t think I was ready yet, and that I should wait for three years and then apply again. It was a difficult period, made all the more difficult by not know where my shortcomings were or how I should grow. It seemed to boil down to not having enough life experience, whatever that meant.

In retrospect it was the best decision possible. I continued in spiritual direction with Nick King, I experienced life, fell in and out of love, flirted with another religious order and grew to know myself much more deeply. At the end of my waiting period I was accepted, and entered the novitiate in Cape Town.

I entered aware that I could be called to do any kind of ministry in my Jesuit life, and was very happy with that. I was also aware that because of my background in education I could be used to some kind of educational ministry, either as a teacher or as a chaplain. In the novitiate, one of my experiments was to work in an AIDS hospice, as well as to do some basic counselling training and then pre- and post-HIV-test counselling.

This experience has marked me deeply. I fell in love with this ministry, filled with righteous anger at the plight of those with AIDS in South Africa, moved with compassion for their suffering. When I returned to the novitiate I wanted to continue with this ministry on the two days of the week we were allotted for apostolic work. I was told that there was another project in Cape Town that had requested help, and it wasn’t in the area of AIDS ministry. When I expressed my unhappiness at this my novice master posed a question: was I a Jesuit or an AIDS counsellor?

As I have grown in the Society of Jesus I have made my own certain touchstones of identity, in particular “being a loved and called sinner” and the “Magis”. More recently, our General congregations and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI have emphasised the “call to the margins:. These ways of understanding myself and my apostolic call were not available to me as a young Jesuit, faced with the stark reality that a Jesuit is often called to take up ministries that would not ordinarily be his choice, and that he is often called to sacrifice passions, dreams and relationships for the greater good.

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.

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.

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.

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

George Williams SJ on prison ministry as vocation

I have just finished writing up an interview with George Williams SJ, Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Prison. Fr Williams left a career in the US Air Force in order to become a Jesuit, and his story is a compelling one. (He is also extraordinarily patient: due to a series of technological foul-ups, it took three phone calls and a great deal of back-and-forth over email to arrive at the final product.)

Of course, I had to ask him: what do people say when you tell them what you do? Here’s what he told me:

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.

To find out more about Fr. Williams and his work at San Quentin, read his article “Ministry on Death Row” at The Jesuit Post.

Brother Guy Consolmagno: planetary scientist, Vatican Observatory

Portrait by Fr. Don Doll, SJ

Portrait by Fr. Don Doll, SJ

How did you experience that first call to religious life?

Every couple has their “how we met” story, and every religious has his or her vocation story. I have told mine so many times that I remember less the actual events, and more the version of the last time I told the story. So to make it fresh, and maybe find some truth in it that has been hidden from me, I am going to try to approach it from a different point of view.

First, some basics. I am a classic baby-boomer kid, born in 1952 in America of an Irish-American mother and Italian-American father, the youngest of three children. That’s a pretty common background for cradle Catholics of my generation. We were active Catholics, but not overly pious; we certainly did not live in a Catholic ghetto.

What’s less common is that my parents were both college educated, and my Italian grandfather (who came to the US at age seven in 1899) was a lawyer with a degree from Boston University. All my siblings have multiple university degrees; my sister is a retired schoolteacher, and even my hippy brother, who has lived mostly on air for all his life (he’s a blues musician) has a master’s in creative writing. We’re a bookish family. We’re also all great friends who enjoy each others’ company.

What was I going to be when I grew up? A writer; a pilot; an astronomer; a journalist; a chemist; a sailor; a lawyer; a soldier; a priest. The usual, in other words. A favorite toy was my father’s old typewriter, the one he took with him to World War II (and which I took with me to college). I wrote a biography of my brother when I was six, and he was nine; I typed out a regular family newspaper.

I grew up in the affluent suburbs of Detroit, back when Detroit was at its peak. I was the smartest boy in my class, no mean feat given the competition; in the achievement tests we took at age 14, seven of us boys scored in the 99th percentile. There was one girl who got better grades than me; she became my high school sweetheart. (We’re still good friends.)

I first heard of the Jesuits, and their high school, when I was about ten, as part of a presentation on how our school taught science, at a teachers’ meeting being held at the local Jesuit high school. I was told that it was the best school in the city; I knew then that I would go there. In fact my brother started there three years before me, but he’d flunked out by the time I arrived. (“He knows many, many things, but none of them are on the syllabus.”)

I loved it. The first year was tough—it was not so much the shock of no longer being the smartest kid in the class, but the temptation to relax and use that as an excuse not to work hard. The Jesuits wouldn’t let me get away with that, however. They shamed me, cajoled me, and flattered me into academic excellence. By the time I was finished, at age seventeen, I had as good a background in the arts and humanities as most university undergraduates.

The Jesuit spirituality supplemented my mother’s Irish piety with a strong intellectual backbone. It was nothing new or unusual to me; the sisters who had taught me religion—and science—in my Catholic grade school were no slouches, either. But it was completely congruent with both my intellectual family background and the tenor of the times.

I graduated high school in 1970. I loved the Jesuits and their sense of what life in general was all about. I decided to attend a Jesuit university in Boston, Boston College, to stay close to them and maybe be available if I should decide to follow a religious vocation.

After my great high school experience, Boston College was a great disappointment. It was not intellectually challenging and, worse, it was part of the same narrow Catholic world that I was ready to go out beyond. Rather than repeat the story I have told too often of how I did not become a Jesuit then, let me merely state that what had attracted me to be a Jesuit was mostly the desire to get away from an unhappy situation; and I realized even then that it wasn’t a good enough reason. Instead, I transferred to MIT and studied planetary sciences.

Fast forward nearly twenty years. By 1988, I had my doctorate, several dozen scientific publications, a reputation for good (and bad) in my field, two years’ experience in Africa in the Peace Corps, and a job at a small university in Pennsylvania. I had also just turned in the manuscript of my first book, Turn Left at Orion. I had finally admitted to myself that my five-year attempt to make a relationship work with a woman I knew in Boston was beyond hope; and, to be honest, it was a relief to accept that and move on. But though I was as happy as I could ever have imagined myself… something was still incomplete in my life. I thought of my Turn Left co-author, Dan, married and delighted with two small children. And I realised that, wonderful as that was for him, it wasn’t for me.

Can I identify one moment when the sense of vocation came to me? I remember several, and I am not sure that any one of them was definitive. On the shore of Windermere in January, after I’d delivered my manuscript. At the apartment of a soon-to-be-married friend from my Peace Corps days. But I have also found reference to the possibility in a letter I wrote to my parents from Africa, two years earlier. So… no, there was no specific moment.

Was it something I was sure of from the beginning? Not at all… I worried about it for nearly two years, not even counting the two years of novitiate before taking first vows. I talked about it with everyone I knew… including women I had dated. I was stunned at the unanimous opinion of everyone in favour of me entering religious life. Including from friends who were atheists. Including women I had dated.

I came up with lots of rational reasons for and against. In retrospect, neither set turned out to be valid. It has not been what I expected. I never expected it to feel so right.

Was it always a question of becoming Jesuit? Or did you ever consider entering another order, becoming a diocesan priest (when the priesthood was still in your sights)… (more…)