Ireland

Donal Godfrey SJ: Associate Director for Faculty and Staff Spirituality, University of San Francisco

Photo courtesy of Donal Godfrey SJ

Photo courtesy of Donal Godfrey SJ

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!

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.