Parish ministry

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.

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Dominic Robinson SJ, Superior, Mount Street Jesuit Centre

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.

Dominic RobinsonWhen and how did you feel the call to join 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?  (more…)

Wolfgang Müller SJ, St. Michael, Göttingen

Photo courtesy of Wolfgang Müller SJ

Photo courtesy of Wolfgang Müller SJ

Fr Wolfgang Müller worked for many years with the German Christian Life Community, leading courses on the Spiritual Exercises. Since 2011 he has lived in Göttingen, where he provides pastoral care in the parish of St. Michael and the Neu-Mariahilf Hospital.

Fr Müller has been a great force for good in my own life, so I am very pleased that he agreed to answer my questions by email. The translation is my own (original version here) and so are any errors.

When and how did you feel the call to join the priesthood? What brought you to the Jesuits?

It happened like this: I was a devout, faithful Catholic in a majority Catholic environment. (Freiburg is the capital of the Black Forest region, and is mixed Catholic/Lutheran: the father of a classmate at my school, a Gymnasium specialising in classical languages, was a Lutheran Superintendent. The Protestants were always the smaller group in the class, and they had to go into another classroom during Religious Education.) I wasn’t an altar server, but I was in the parish youth group. When I’d just passed my Abitur (with a mark of “Good” [the second highest mark attainable]), a chaplain from our parish asked me if I’d enrolled in the Collegium Borromaeum, the Freiburg seminary, because he obviously assumed—knowing me—that I would become a priest. I said: “No, but I could do that…” And, with the encouragement of our assistant priest, I did.

Once I’d studied theology for two years in Freiburg (while based at the seminary) and then for one in Munich (the so-called Externitas), I returned to the seminary. There the spiritual director asked me: “Have you thought about joining a religious order?” I said: “No, but I could think about it…” He said that my path might be towards the Society of Jesus. And so he enrolled me in the Jesuit Novitiate, and I began my “career” with the Jesuits.

Which experiments did you undertake as a novice? Did any of them have a particular effect on you?

My only experiment beyond the Novitiate (in Neuhausen, near Stuttgart) was at a Catholic hospital in Stuttgart. For four weeks, I lived in the well-known Stuttgart Hospital, which was run by nuns, and was once again exposed to “the world”. Then, of course, there was the “big” thirty-day retreat run by the Society, at the Novitiate, where it still takes place today. I have good memories of both these experiments. The “spiritual” side was decisive for my path into the Society; I’m not “practically” minded. My Enneagram Type is Nine, with a strong wing type of One.

How did you come to the Enneagram, and what role does it play in your daily life?

My Superior in Augsburg, who was the Ecclesiastical Assistant of the Christian Life Community in Germany for a long time, had, at the age of fifty, spent a year in the United States (1981-82). He had worked zealously to extend and deepen his Ignatian/Jesuit studies at the Institute for Spiritual Leadership in Chicago. His big “discovery” was getting to know the Enneagram, which he told us about. I think he also met the two original authors while he was there: Fr Richard Rohr OSF, an American Franciscan, and Pfarrer Andreas Ebert, a German Protestant minister, who had together—working ecumenically—written the book that would be the first prominent publication in German on the Enneagram: Die neun Gesichter der Seele / Nine Faces of the Soul. This was the publication until other good books started to appear, which were also translated into German. Unfortunately I don’t know of any translation of the work of the well-known Irish Jesuit, Peter Hannan SJ!

The German CLC wanted to make use of this new method of knowing the concrete person, in order to work more authentically with those who wanted to undertake the Exercises in the original Ignatian way. And so, as a CLC staff member, out of both personal and “professional” interest, I began to run basic and advanced courses together with lay members of the CLC. I conducted many of these through the years. I also ran courses independently of the CLC, with members of religious communities and usually in conjunction with the Exercises: in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary (where I had translators), in Romania and in Africa, in Zimbabwe and Malawi. To me, the Enneagram without its spiritual side is unthinkable, even if good work can be done from a purely human perspective (for managers, businesspeople and so on).

How does your personal, spiritual development as a Christian and as a priest come together with your work in the CLC and as a course leader? What do you learn from those who come to you for teaching and counselling?

As I worked with the CLC for over 25 years, it is meaningful to think about what this work has brought to my personal faith experience and development. First of all, I was always dealing with people who were interested in Jesus Christ and in belief in him, and who tried to live according to that belief. These were mostly individual courses or group retreats with an Ignatian character. I worked a great deal with individuals (men and women, religious, priests) and saw their personal paths at close quarters. Through this, I came to know and value Scripture more and more in its immense significance for our individual paths. Working with the Enneagram in the many courses offered by the CLC was also important for me. I am very grateful for that. In the search for my “specialism” in the Society, this personal work with groups and individuals has proven its worth above all. I worked for years teaching Religious Education in school, but this wasn’t my strong point.

I’d also like to ask how you experienced Vatican II, especially in your life within the Society. I know that’s a big question.

As I received my cultural imprint in the Catholic Church before Vatican II, I had to learn anew and try to practise the new emphases in spiritual direction and counselling: the new freedom in which we could, and should, celebrate the liturgy, in our native tongues and with a great deal of personal freedom of expression in carrying out the basic “tasks”. I also learned better to understand the personal dispositions and gifts of others, to uncover and facilitate their vocations. I was never involved in parish pastoral ministry, so work with large groups is unfamiliar to me. So is academic work per se.

But, as I have said, the awakening of the Church at the Council was a joyful experience. I had the good fortune to follow the progress of the Council “live”, through a Swiss Jesuit, Mario von Galli SJ, who regularly reported enthusiastically on how the “movement” was going. I am very aware that young people (even those at fifty!) only know the preconciliar Church through history books and can’t understand what we older ones lived through in the course of that year.

What does the Jesuit identity mean to you?

Although I’m surely not the “typical” Jesuit, I am very focused on the devotional prayer Sume et Suscipe (“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty…”). I pray it from conviction when I get up and when I go to bed. I want to “seek and find God in all things”. I always want to be ready to receive, ready for encounter, ready to start anew. Ever more to act out of the conviction of faith: God has loved me (and not cast me) into being. He has loved me on my own personal path (cf. Phil 3.13f: “I do not reckon myself as having taken hold of it; I can only say that forgetting all that lies behind me, and straining forward to what lies in front, I am racing towards the finishing-point to win the prize of God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus.”). He takes me by the hand on my pilgrimage. He is always with me, through the Holy Spirit, who always teaches me afresh to distinguish and to discern (cf. John 14.26: “…the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you…”).

This is really my belief.

P. Manfred Hösl SJ, Pfarrer, Sankt Michael Göttingen

Passfoto IEnglish version.

Wann und wo fühlten Sie sich berufen, Priester zu werden?

Ich habe in Regensburg Theologie, Soziologie und Pädagogik studiert. Priester- oder Ordensberuf kam für mich v.a. wegen des Zölibates nicht in Frage. Die Jesuiten kannte ich nur über Literatur. Mich beeindruckte aber die Weltzugewandtheit des Ordens. Und ich schätzte viele Persönlichkeiten: Karl Rahner, Oswald von Nell-Breuning u.v.a.m.

In der Mitte meines Studiums Mitte der 80er Jahre geriet ich in eine Sinnkrise, verlor meinen Glauben. Auf der Suche nach meinem Glauben begegnete ich wieder den Jesuiten, diesmal im Kontext von Exerzitien, geistliches Leben, Kontemplation.

Was hat Sie zur Gesellschaft Jesu gebracht?

Zunächst Literatur. Dann nahm ich an der Uni Regensburg Kontakt mit P. Richard Loftus SJ auf, der dort am Lehrstuhl für Zoologie forschte. Er stellte den Kontakt zu P. Merz SJ her, bei dem ich dann in geistliche Begleitung war. Er hat mich dann auf meinem Weg in den Orden von ca. 1988 bis 1991 beraten. Nach mehreren Gesprächen mit dem damaligen Novizenmeister P. Hans Abart SJ und den normalen Aufnahmegesprächen bin ich dann 1991 angenommen worden und in den Orden eingetreten.

Hat eine bestimmte Aufgabe Sie angezogen, als Sie in das Noviziat eingetreten sind? Gab es ein Experiment, das eine besondere Wirkung auf Sie hatte?

Meine große Frage war: Gibt es überhaupt Gott? Stimmt die Bibel? Ist Jesus wirklich von den Toten erstanden? Alle anderen Fragen wie z.B. nach der Lebensform oder bestimmte Berufe kamen mir nebensächlich vor. Wenn es Gott nicht gibt, dann ist alles egal und nichts macht Sinn. Wenn es ihn gibt, ist der Beruf aber auch nicht mehr so wichtig, weil man Gott auf vielerlei Weise dienen kann.

Mich hat immer die Frage nach dem Tod und dem Leben danach beschäftigt. Im Noviziat habe ich mit Sterbenden gearbeitet (Onkologiestation, Hospizarbeit). Das hat mich sehr geprägt. Auch heute finde ich die Arbeit mit Trauernden, Sterbenden und deren Probleme wichtig und interessant.

Ich werde immer, egal wo ich arbeiten werde, von Jesus Christus, besonders vom Tod und der Auferstehung Jesu Christi, sprechen. Das ist das Wichtigste, nicht der Ort oder die Aufgabe.

Wie sind Sie zur Gemeinde Sankt Michael gekommen?

Der Provinzial machte mir vor dem Ende meiner Ausbildung in Dublin vier Angebote, wo er sich mich nach Dublin gut vorstellen könnte Göttingen war aber nicht dabei. Dann überrumpelte er mich, weil er dringend jemanden als Pfarrer in Göttingen brauchte. Ich stimmte zu und bin sehr gerne nach Göttingen und Sankt Michael gekommen. Die Arbeit hier ist sehr vielseitig und herausfordernd.

Was bedeutet Ihnen die Jesuitenidentität?

Mir gefällt die Spiritualität (sog. MagisMehr, d.h. die Dynamik des Ordens). Mir gefällt die intellektuelle Schlagseite des Ordens. Ich freue mich mein Leben in einer apostolischen Gemeinschaft leben zu dürfen, in der sich die einzelnen nicht fragen: Was will ich? Sondern: Was wollen wir? Ich finde unser Organisationssystem gut und effizient. Die Stimme eines jeden wird gehört, aber dann entscheidet der Provinzial es gibt keine endlosen Diskussionen! Ich finde es gut, dass wir nach 6-10 Jahren immer eine neue Aufgabe bekommen. So kann und muss man immer Neues ausprobieren. Man kommt viel in der Welt herum. In meiner gut 20 jährigen Zeit im Orden war ich bisher an 8 Orten und drei Ländern. Das weitet den Blick. Ich bin gerne Jesuit und verdanke dem Orden sehr vieles. Die Lebensweise in Kommunitäten gefällt mir gut und ich bin gerne Priester.

Manfred Hösl SJ, Parish Priest, St Michael Göttingen

Photo courtesy of Manfred Hösl SJ

Photo courtesy of Manfred Hösl SJ

Fr Manfred Hösl is parish priest of St. Michael, Göttingen, in Lower Saxony. St. Michael has particular meaning for me: it was my local Jesuit community for five years, the first place where I came into contact with Ignatian spirituality in practice, and I was received into the Church there at Easter 2014. So I’m very pleased that Fr Hösl was happy to speak to me about his own path. We conducted the interview over email, with his answers in German; the translation is mine and so are any errors. Deutsche Version.

When, and how, did you feel the call to join the priesthood?

I studied theology, sociology and education at Regensburg. Any religious or priestly vocation was out of the question for me, above all because of the celibacy requirement. I knew the Jesuits only through books. But I was impressed by the orders international outlook. And I held many Jesuit personalities in high regard: Karl Rahner, Oswald von Nell-Breuning, and many others.

In the middle of my studies, in the mid-1980s, I plunged into an identity crisis and lost my faith. Searching for it, I met the Jesuits again, this time in the context of the Spiritual Exercises, spiritual life and contemplation.

What brought you to the Jesuits?

Books, first of all. Then, at Regensburg, I came into contact with Fr Richard Loftus SJ, who was a researcher at the Faculty of Zoology. He put me in contact with Fr Merz SJ, who then became my spiritual director. He advised me on my way towards the order, between about 1988 and 1991. After a number of conversations with the then Novice Master Fr Hans Abart SJ, and the usual entrance interviews, I was accepted and entered the Order in 1991.

Did you feel drawn to a specific ministry when you entered the novitiate? Did any of the experiments have a particular effect on you?

My big question was: does God exist? Is the Bible correct? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? All other questions––such as those about way of life or a particular career path––were secondary to me. If there is no God, then nothing matters and nothing makes sense. If he does exist, career path isnt so important then, either, because you can serve God in many ways.

After this, my other preoccupation was the question of life and death. In the novitiate, I worked with the dying in cancer wards and hospices. That affected me deeply. I still find working with the grieving, the dying and their problems both crucial and interesting.

Wherever I work, I will always talk about Jesus Christ and especially His death and resurrection. Thats the most important thing: not the place or the task.

How did you come to St. Michael?

Before the end of my tertianship in Dublin, the Provincial of the Order made me four offers of potential placements––but Göttingen was not among them. Then he sprung it on me, because he urgently needed a parish priest in Göttingen. I agreed and came to Göttingen and to St. Michael very happily. The work here is very varied and challenging.

What does the Jesuit identity mean to you?

I like that Jesus is the benchmark for the order and not Ignatius, the founder. I like that the order engages with modernity (modern schools, universities, journals, books…). I find the debate with atheism, philosophy, with ideologies and intellectual currents important and interesting.

I like the Jesuit spirituality (called Magis: more, i.e. the dynamic of the order). I like the orders intellectual bent. I am happy to be allowed to live my life in an apostolic community, one in which we as individuals dont ask: what do I want? but: what do we want? I find our organisational system good and efficient. Everyones voice is heard, but then the Provincial decides: there are no endless discussions! I find it good that we are always given a new task every six to ten years. This way, you can and must always try new things. You travel a lot. In my twenty-odd years in the order I have been in eight parishes in three countries, so far. This broadens the mind. I love being a Jesuit, and I owe the order a great deal. I enjoy living in community and I am happy being a priest.

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.