jesuit

Smoked Octopus and Rum: life advice from Brother Guy

Today is the feast day of Ignatius of Loyola, and it is also the first birthday of Project SJ. By way of an anniversary extra, here’s a wonderful speech delivered by my friend (and Project SJ’s invaluable supporter) Guy Consolmagno SJ. The year: 2010. The occasion: prize day at St Aloysius’ College, Glasgow. The topic: well, let’s call it What Not to Do…

Photo by Alessia Giuliani.

Photo by Alessia Giuliani.

I am honored to be among you this afternoon, to add my congratulations to those of your faculty. I confess, when I attended the Jesuit high school in Detroit, I used to sneer at academic awards; that is, until I actually won one. My sophomore year I was named to the National Honor Society, for reasons that were utterly mysterious to me. I had not distinguished myself academically; in fact the most common comment I had heard from my teachers was that I was “working below my capabilities.” But I thought I was getting by, just fine; I had a firm belief that hard work was just a sign you hadn’t figured out the system. I suspect, in retrospect, that the powers who handed me that honor knew me better than I knew myself, however. I was so embarrassed at getting the award, that I wound up actually working hard—or, at least, harder than I had been—to try to see if I couldn’t make myself a little more worthy of it.

Hard work is one of those virtues that is often misunderstood. One of the awful clichés that we used to hear at my high school from speakers (like me today) was, “If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be, you can reach your dreams!” Now, that always sounded like utter nonsense to me. What if I dreamt of being the star center for the Detroit Pistons, our local basketball team? Would hard work make me sixteen inches taller or stretch my arm span by an extra foot? Not likely.

The trick, of course—and it is a trick—is that you can be anything you want, only by controlling what it is you want. If you want to follow your dreams, you have to put some hard work into choosing your dreams. What is it that you really want?

Let’s say you think you want to be a basketball star. Ask yourself, why? Is if for the fame? There are plenty of ways to be famous besides playing basketball. A classmate of mine got his name in the papers just last year; he was working with the US military space program and was caught trying to sell military secrets to the Israelis. Hey, if it’s fame you want…

Is it for the money? You don’t need to be a sports star to get rich. Another high school friend studied to be an accountant. He wound up as the president of a bank.

It is the adulation of the crowds you crave? You can’t do better than my roommate at MIT. He’s married now with two sons. His wife and family know him as only family can, and they think the world of him. What adulation could be better than that?

Or maybe, just maybe, you want to be a basketball star for the irrefutable reason that you just love basketball. In that case, play basketball. It doesn’t matter if thousands of fans pay to watch you play, or if nobody watches; that’s not why you do it. Find a league, find friends, find a place where you can get a pickup game with people at your level, and play your heart out. There’s a guy I have worked with for thirty years, born with coordination problems, blind in one eye, he has no depth perception; but he loves basketball and even now—he’s a college professor, my age—three times a week he drags his aching old bones out onto the court for the sheer love of the game.

Now, if you’re lucky, your passion will match your skills and you’ll be good at what you want to do. If you’re even luckier, you will find a way to make a living at it. But the important thing is, to understand what your passion really is. In the words of St. Ignatius, you must learn to discern your deepest desires.

You knew I was going to drag Ignatius into this. He has a whole system for discerning your desires, but the main key to it is a principle that ought to be obvious, but sometimes gets lost: God wants you to be happy. The trouble is, of course, that what really makes you happy in the long run is sometimes not what you think will make you happy right now.

When I was eighteen and went off to University, I had no idea what I wanted. When it came time to choose a place to study, I picked Boston College mostly because it was in Boston, which seemed like a good place to be a student (there are 300-odd colleges and universities in Boston, some of them very odd). And Boston College was a Jesuit school; I had an idea that maybe I would want to be a Jesuit, but I wasn’t sure.

When it came time to declare a major—in America you can choose anything, it doesn’t depend on how you did on any particular subject in high school—I looked at the list and tried to find the box that said “all of the above.” It was the fault of those clever teachers in my high school who had gotten me to work hard; I had discovered that learning stuff was really, really fun. I wanted to learn everything.

But when I got to Boston College, I found myself in a freshman dorm where the local liquor store made deliveries. (The legal drinking age was twenty-one, we were all eighteen, but they didn’t seem to care.) Everyone went nuts doing all the stuff they thought they wanted to do, all the stuff they couldn’t do when they were living with their parents.

I remember one Friday night, there was this guy who tried to drink an entire bottle of rum and eat a tin of smoked octopus. I found him in the hallway about to be sick into the trash barrel; but he stopped. Something was wrong. He looked puzzled. Slowly, he took off his trousers and carefully lay them over the trash barrel. Then he got sick, into them.

Eventually these geniuses started failing their classes. No surprise. Well, that wouldn’t have bothered me, except that for some reason they would come to my room and pour out their problems to me. As if I cared. The more they bewailed their situation, the more I thought to myself, “you know, life is tough… when you’re stupid.”

I didn’t like it there. I didn’t fit in. So I figured, ok, there’s no problem so big you can’t run away from it. Time to bail out. Join the Jesuits, like I was thinking of doing anyway.

I found a Jesuit and asked him where to sign up, and he asked me a very peculiar question: “Have you prayed about this, son?” (I hate it when they call me “son”.) Well, I figured it was part of the routine. Why not? I went back to my room, sat on the floor, looked at the ceiling, and said, “OK, God, I’m supposed to ask if you want me to be a Jesuit, but I know you’re desperate for priests and I’m desperate to get out of here…”

Silence. Nothing came from the ceiling. And I was feeling very foolish.

While I was sitting there, waiting for something to happen, a funny question occurred to me. What does a priest do for a living? You know, when they show up at their desk on a Monday morning—I assume priests must have desks—what’s on those desks? Papers, I guess. Papers about what? About people. People with problems. People just like the idiots in my dorm whom I was trying to get away from. What a terrible job!

So… either there was no God, in which case it would be stupid to be a priest; or there was a God, and he had just told me it would be stupid for me to be a priest. (more…)

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!

The Public Jesuit: In Good Company, by James Martin SJ

imageSo I invited a few close friends from Penn to my favourite restaurant in Manhattan, called Le Brasserie, to spring the news on them. They were miffed at all the secrecy that I had intentionally let accompany the dinner. We sat down and I watched them squirm in anticipation. Finally, my friend Jim said, “Okay, Martin, what’s going on?”

I said flatly, “I’m going to become a priest.” All three of them said nothing for a good five seconds.

At that point the waiter arrived and asked us if we needed more time.

“Yes,” said Andy, “we need a lot more time.” (p. 100)

When James Martin—then in corporate finance at General Electric—announced that he was going to leave the business world and become a Jesuit, those around him were understandably surprised. But nobody was so shocked, so fundamentally shaken by this decision as James Martin himself.

In Good Company was written just a few years after Martin entered the Society of Jesus in 1988, and first published in 2000, happily unrevised. I say happily, because the narrative still bears the marks of the extraordinary process that brought a bright young executive and “lukewarm Catholic” to give up all he owned and join the priesthood. The James Martin of today is an outstanding communicator. His 2006 spiritual memoir, My Life with the Saints, is a masterful piece of theological outreach: funny, polished and poised. But this isn’t a story that needs poise or polish. What it needs is precisely what it has: the quick, rather feverish pace; the spiky humour; the lingering note of wonder and of bafflement. It needs to be raw.

The interest of this book goes far beyond the procedures of Jesuit formation, or even the strange and cloistered world of corporate finance (I found the latter much more alien). What drives it is the desire at its heart: a surprising desire, often described but never explained. That the mechanism of Martin’s conversion—because it is a conversion if it is anything—remains partly concealed is no bad thing. It serves to reinforce the fact that a vocation story can only ever be an attempt to impose order on something essentially disorderly; to give form to the subjective, the transcendent, the felt.

If one thing can be taken from this complex and sometimes messy narrative, it is that to go from G.E. to the Jesuits is not only a matter of exchanging one habit, or set of habits, for another. It’s something far more concrete: a radical shift in the self that can only be accommodated by an equally radical change in context.

I read the 10th anniversary edition, Sheed & Ward 2010. Paperback, 216 pp. ISBN: 978-1580512367

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.

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…)