spirituality

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…)

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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 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.