When 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.