jesuits

Interesting times: an interview with Austen Ivereigh

Austen Ivereigh is a writer, commentator and author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a radical Pope, a biography profoundly informed by his understanding of Jesuit spirituality and institutions. He kindly agreed to speak to me about his connection with the Society of Jesus and his short but eventful time as a Jesuit novice.

Photo courtesy of Austen Ivereigh

Photo courtesy of Austen Ivereigh

How did you first come into contact with the Society of Jesus?

It was really through my studies above all. It was while I was doing my DPhil at Oxford, which was on the subject of the Church in Argentina. I was generally looking at late nineteenth and early twentieth century history, and the Jesuits just kept coming up. And so I became very interested in them.

I think the first real contact I had with the Society was just after writing my DPhil thesis, when I felt the stirrings of a vocation. I remember rather boldly phoning up the Jesuit vocations director saying: I think I’ve got a vocation, and he—he’s actually now the Provincial—very patiently said: Well, come and spend a weekend up in Loyola Hall, near Preston. And there he gave me what I now realise is the Exercises—at least a very basic form of the First Week, getting me to do an Examen over my whole life. That was a great revelation to me, a huge opening-up for me spiritually. The whole question of vocation was put on hold, but I then embarked on what would be a couple of years of spiritual growth and spiritual development. I owe to the Jesuits my spiritual awakening. By doing the Examen of my life, I grasped that God had been there with me all the time, even though I had treated other people badly and so on; that there was unconditional love and mercy and forgiveness. In The Great Reformer I make a big deal of the fact that this, for Francis, is key to mission and evangelisation. It is that primary experience of God’s merciful love that opens the heart and mind to conversion, rather than doctrines and ideas.

When you say that you felt you had a vocation, can you take apart how that felt? What was the sensation of feeling that you were being called?

Well, I think it was excitement. I had experienced through my DPhil a kind of intellectual awakening, which wasn’t a spiritual awakening exactly, but it was a huge realisation that I was a Catholic, that I believed, that what I’d been struggling with intellectually over the many years in the university context was…I’m trying not to use the word “resolved”, because of course these things are never resolved, but they were completely reframed in terms of the Gospel and in terms of revelation. And then, I suppose, just a natural admiration for and identification with the Society, partly because of the life of St Ignatius, but I think mostly because of the role of Jesuits in the vanguard of politics and culture. And so I just had this enormous admiration for them. I didn’t at that stage know many Jesuits; they hadn’t been part of my upbringing—I was educated by Benedictine monks. And so that first weekend with Father Dermot Preston was the catalyst, really.

So where did you go from there?

That was in 1993-94. I then spent a few years spiritually searching. Soon after that weekend with the Jesuits, I went back to Worth Abbey, where I had been at school, and felt drawn to be in the monastery for some “desert” time. The monks were wonderful with me and gave me a berth for a few months to try and sort myself out, and just to explore spiritually. I was still trying to work out what I was supposed to do with my life. I applied for a couple of academic jobs, and then, while I was waiting for those to come through, I went off to Peru—the monks sent me to report on some projects they were funding—which was wonderful. Then I came back and I started at Leeds University but just before then I had a tropical disease which I had picked up in the Peruvian Amazon. It kept me in hospital in London for five weeks and I nearly lost my eye. Weakened by the treatment, I then started in Leeds as a lecturer in Latin American history. I lectured for three years at Leeds.

During that time, I went back to Peru and I did an eight-day retreat with a wonderful Spanish Jesuit whom I met in Peru in a place called Ayacucho. That was a phenomenal, revelatory eight-day retreat. It’s what left me convinced that I wanted to be a Jesuit, or at least wanting to explore the possibility. So, when I got back I then spoke to the then vocations director, who was different; and I was accepted for the following year. I entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1998. I entered in the autumn of 1998 and I left the following May 1999, having done the thirty-day retreat at St Beuno’s.

What did you experience in your short time in the novitiate?

It was a very gruelling experience of what I would now recognise as “descent”, which of course is exactly what the novitiate is designed to do. I just wasn’t psychologically prepared for it. I’ve realised this recently—it’s been a wonderful few years, these last few years, and one of the great things about the book is that I’ve fallen back into contact with the Jesuits. I recently did an eight-day retreat in Loyola, Spain, and reflected back on that time, and realised that I just wasn’t capable of it psychologically back then, because my ego was still too fragile. I realise now that—and this, by the way, is true of love in general—in order to be able to love you have to be willing to sacrifice; you have to sublimate the ego and so on. And I think I wasn’t capable of entering the Jesuits then. I wasn’t capable of marrying, either. I wasn’t capable of that kind of commitment, and I think I wasn’t for many years.

What happened on the novitiate was that I did the usual things that novices do, in the sense that I had to learn sign language, and then I did a couple of what are called Experiments; one of them was in Northern Ireland, in Portadown on the Garvaghy Road, where there was a lot of sectarian tension. But my memory of the novitiate was never feeling like I could do anything: always feeling like I was standing around and never really being any good at anything, or being effective at anything. And of course that was immensely frustrating for me, because I had joined with the excitement and hope of being a successful Jesuit. I now realise that that was the problem: that a person who thinks he can be a good Jesuit is going to be a bad Jesuit. Only the crucifixion of the ego can bring about any real adult spiritual growth—but I found it really really hard. I mean, there were things that I enjoyed about the novitiate, and I felt enormous affection for my novice master, who was a wonderful man, but it was gruelling. So much so that by the time the thirty-day retreat came about I was already strongly doubting whether I could do it, and I think I was relying on the thirty-day retreat to tell me.

Oh dear. (more…)

Walking with the saints: an interview with the Revd Richard Coles

fathomlessIn his riveting autobiography Fathomless Riches (review here), pop star turned Catholic convert turned Anglican priest Richard Coles happens to mention, briefly and in the midst of it all, the fact that he once attended a vocations weekend with the Jesuits at Campion House, Osterley Park. Naturally, I couldn’t let this pass unexamined. I wrote off to Fr Richard with a plea to hear more of the story, and he kindly set aside time to meet with me in London and tell me all about it.

Perhaps you could start by telling me more about that vocations weekend at Osterley Park?

Like most people of my temperament and background, if you’re floating around the Roman Catholic Church, I think that sooner or later the call of the Jesuits will sound. Quite a lot of the stuff I read, I found I was reading Jesuits. And there’s a particular affinity between certain kinds of Anglicans and Jesuits, so I kept meeting Jesuits who were floating around in Anglican circles, in a way which is rather atypical. You didn’t meet that so much with the secular church and didn’t so much with the religious orders. Also, because I was at King’s College London, and there was an overlap in academic fields. There were people like Frederick Copleston at Farm Street; people working around there.

And also, part of the reason, when I converted to Roman Catholicism, was that I was very much bedazzled by the glamorous qualities of the English literature of the nineteen-thirties and forties and fifties. You think of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and Ronald Knox and people like that, and I thought…oh, I get that. I love the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. And there’s a sort of toughness, and a rigour, and a commitment—and a track record—about the Jesuits that I continue to find very attractive. I thought the commitment particularly to the gospel for the poor in Latin America was very powerful.

And they were always slightly surprising, and counterintuitive, so that was good. And they do good things. I remember going to Castel Gandolfo and seeing the socking great observatory there, which is a Jesuit thing. So from this point of view I was fascinated. And I met some Jesuits, who were very nice; and so I went to Osterley Park to see if that might be for me. I can remember staying and talking to a very nice Jesuit in his house which was flown over by a 747 about every fifteen seconds from five in the morning until midnight, and they seemed, rather amazingly, completely inured to the sound of these aircraft that were going across about twenty feet over our heads.

Discipline!

Discipline. But I found it rather distracting. They had a lovely wisteria, and I liked the wisteria—that was good. But I got into the nitty-gritty of talking about my vocation and who I was, and I began to see that it was not for me. I think I was rather romantic and dazzled in those days, and thought that Roman Catholicism was rather glamorous and you realise that, while it is indeed all those things, that ain’t enough to keep you…That ain’t enough to keep you. It was a wake-up, actually. A beautiful wake-up. And I did not become a Jesuit. I’d have been terrible at it—an awful Jesuit.

And was this the beginning of the end for your Catholicism, in a way? Was it on that path?

I think it helped something to come into focus. I don’t think I’ve ever reached the end of my Catholicism.

Your Roman Catholicism, I should say.

Well, I’m not sure I’ve reached the end of that! Well, no, I have to now—I suppose I’ve made too emphatic a departure to ever come back. But, you know, I think that where I am most at home is with the Benedictine monks. I was at Quarr Abbey a few weeks ago, making a documentary about chant [listen to it here], and when I was there I thought that if God would be more biddable to my sense of my own needs and delights and comforts, I’d be a Benedictine. That’s more of the vocation—well, not the vocation, but community and form of life that suits me best, I think. I’d be a terrible liberation theologian. I’d have been too tired. Also, I wouldn’t be brave, so if the army came round with guns I’d have said: “Oh, I repudiate everything. Whatever you want me to say, I’ll say, so long as I stay alive!”

It’s a very Jesuit thing, isn’t it, that commitment unto death—and on the margins.

Yes. I’m not a hero. I don’t do heroics.

Are you still in touch with the Jesuits?

Oh, yes. I’ve been reading Francis, yes. He’s rather fascinating, I think. Not just delightful—and I think he’s wonderful—but fascinating. It’s very odd how un-Jesuit he is in the world’s eyes. You start off as a Jesuit and you become The Pope, and it’s like being a monarch—well, he is being a monarch, isn’t he? So I think what’s lost is the CV. It seems to me that with John Paul II you had more sense of his CV, of his being Polish, and coming from a place and a time; while you get the sense with Pope Francis that his Latin Americanness and his Jesuitness, in particular, is a bit more obscure.

I wonder if that reflects a bit on popular misconceptions about the Jesuits—and the Latin Americans.

The wily Jesuit.

The wily cunning Jesuit. Which he is, a little bit—he’s canny.

He’s canny. You don’t get to be Pope without being a bit canny, I think. And I love the sort of…there’s a little simplicity about him, which is slightly—well, calculated sounds wrong. I don’t mean it’s fake at all, but I mean that yes, he thinks it through, and I think he’s conscious that he sends a message.

It’s meant.

Yes, exactly, it’s meant. He reminds me of that President of Uruguay—José Mujica—whom I adore. I think that he’s really embracing the world and making that connection, rather than retreating into the fortress. I mean, he’s the Pope, and Popes have certain jobs to do. It would be foolish to imagine that he’d be the good cop, and Benedict XVI would be the bad cop, and I wouldn’t fall for that for a second. But it’s a change of mood, a change of atmosphere, which feels like an aggiornamento.

How did you feel when Francis was elected?

Well, the first thing I thought was: “Who the hell is he?”. The second thing I thought was: “He looks like Ted Berry”. And then the third thing I thought was “Oh, the Holy Spirit might be surprising us”. I thought he was fascinating. Lots of friends of mine who are much more conservative than I am were rather expecting it to be business as usual, if you see what I mean: a papacy that would be continuously a conservative entity like that of Benedict XVI, and when he said “Francis” they all assumed it meant Francis Xavier. I remember that realisation spreading on Facebook: no, it’s Francis of Assisi, not Francis Xavier. That was just so fascinating, to have made such an interesting choice of name and tradition. And then they said that he was a Jesuit, and I thought: “Ooh, Jesuit pope, that’s a new one!”

Well, it was supposed to be an impossibility, or that was the received wisdom.

You can be Patriarch of Venice, can’t you, but that’s as high as you get. So he’s surprised people; and he seems to be making a serious effort at engaging with the more problematic aspects of the papacy of Benedict XVI, although I’m fascinated by Benedict XVI, too, and find him endlessly captivating.

Do you have a favourite Jesuit saint?

I’d have to say my favourite Jesuit would be Gerard Manley Hopkins. Well, I say he’s not a saint—not formally. I think it may be a while! I don’t think he was a happy Jesuit—I think he was rather a wretchedly miserable Jesuit. That’s a bit unfair, perhaps, but I don’t think he was ever someone who was easily going to be absorbed into a culture like that. One of the stories—quite a heartbreaking story, actually—is of him in community, being rather ignored or overlooked because they all thought he was a bit thick, because he used to just stand sometimes stock still, staring at a wasp or a blade of grass. He did have this intense focus.

Also, I have a parish connection, because Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great unfulfilled passion—I think it was unfulfilled—was with the extraordinarily vivid character Digby Dolben. He was the son of the Lord of the Manor of Finedon, and he’s buried in my church. He was an extraordinary figure and rather eccentric. He started wearing a habit and calling himself Brother Dominic and wandering around in that, which in the Victorian Middle English circles that he lived in was quite surprising. And then, I think when he was at Eton, he disliked having his hair cut and used to singe the ends off with a candle. What’s that about? And then he wrote a rather arch and very passionate series of poems, which are quite wonderful, actually—as juvenilia, I guess—and inspired the passion of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who adored him. And then he drowned at the age of nineteen. He was swimming in the river Welland with the son of his tutor, and the boy got into trouble, and he went in after him and just drowned. Prefigured in one of his poems in which he writes about drowning in a river—an extraordinarily prophetic thing. Anyway, that’s the end of Digby Dolben, as a teenager. A tragic loss.

And he’s buried at your parish church.

He’s buried in my churchyard, yes. And also, I have a connection with Gerard Manley Hopkins because my point of entry to the church as an adult was St Alban’s, Holborn, where Hopkins used to worship before he converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Jesuit. I don’t know, it’s not an entirely rational thing, but we can feel that we walk with the saints.

 

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.

Normal service will resume in 3… 2…

It’s been very quiet here on Project SJ – much quieter than planned. I’ve had some health problems (much improved now) which have necessitated running in bare-essentials mode for the last couple of months. However, I’m happy to say that we will be back with a bang in the New Year. Upcoming interviews include USF Jesuit and LGBTQ rights activist Donal Godfrey; Wolfgang Müller of Sankt Michael, Göttingen, and the Christian Life Community; and Anglican priest and radio/TV presenter the Reverend Richard Coles, who’ll be telling us about his experiences on a Jesuit vocations weekend at Osterley Park.

Tomorrow I’m off to London to meet Dominic Robinson SJ of Heythrop College and the Mount Street Jesuit Centre. Today, please accept my apologies for this long silence, and enjoy this reflection from James Martin SJ on Good King Wenceslas. Have a wonderful Christmas, and see you in 2015!

 

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.

Reading The Fifth Week

image

The Society of Jesus is also unlike any other religious order. The men whose lives we have seen in this book are organically united not only by the presence of Jesus Christ in their lives, but by the specifically different thrust given to the Society by Ignatius Loyola and by the dynamism he capsulized in the Exercises, the Constitutions, and the rules. 

To specify further is as difficult as it is for a man to give specific reasons why he loves and chooses one woman rather than another. — from Chapter Five, Life in the Society Today, p. 155

My reasons for embarking on Project SJ—essentially, for going around asking Jesuits to explain themselves—are more or less three.

Firstly, because I like Ignatian spirituality. I attend a Jesuit church; I have a spiritual director; I have Jesuit friends and confessors and beta readers. The Society of Jesus is part of my religious and intellectual landscape. I want to understand it better.

Secondly, because Jesuit stories incorporate a lot of the things that preoccupy me as a writer: vocation, identity, masculinity, military and quasi-military structures, narrative self-representation, mysticism.

And thirdly, because deep down, in the face of all the evidence, there’s part of me that still can’t quite take in the whole concept of religious vocation as a positive choice: as a taking-on and not merely a giving-up. I am not proud of this, and yet there it is, lurking. It’s partly down to culture, partly experience—I was thirty before I met a Catholic priest. (But there’s a useful side to this inbuilt distance: it makes me more likely to ask awkward questions.)

It follows that, although I read The Fifth Week some time after I first decided to undertake these interviews, it still surprised me. What was surprising about it was not the pithy, uncompromising stories of sainthood and suffering at the beginning, or the rigorous old-school Jesuit formation described at the end, but the bit in the middle: the wry candid voice of William O’Malley, telling his personal vocation story.

To say that O’Malley is a man of his time would be insulting, and not just because he’s still around. It would reduce a strong, distinctive character to the echo of an imagined past. The experience he describes is, to a fair extent, moulded by circumstances and conventions that no longer apply, within the Society of Jesus and beyond. But that’s all detail. The meat of this story is in the emotional narrative; the turbulent and sometimes violent reshaping of a soul. There’s anger in there, and confusion, and determination, and love.

To me, standing outside the frame of reference, the most astonishing part was the love. Such is the strength of feeling in this narrative that even the baffled and cynical part of my brain could only shut up and listen. There can be no question that, for O’Malley at least, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are not a joyless rejection, but a joyful embrace. This is not news: my interviewees thus far have all told me the same, although in different words. It makes perfect sense that men who become and remain Jesuit would frame their commitment in positive terms. And yet it bears repeating.

It is hard to sum up the value of The Fifth Week in just one post, and I may have to return to it. But I will add, for now, that it is perhaps the most striking illustration I have yet encountered of the extraordinary balance of individualism and collectivism at the heart of the Jesuit identity. (Or so it appears to me. Once again, I am learning.) I think it fair to say that there is nobody like William O’Malley, and yet he is part of something quite distinct, something that stretches all the way back to Ignatius. It isn’t a corporate identity, or a set of values, or an ethos: it’s something at once more concrete and harder to define, and it is fascinating.

Loyola Press, paperback, 218 pp. ISBN: 0829409289. First published 1976.