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.
When 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…)