How I Met the Jesuits

Godinall thingsToday is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order and without whom my life would be quite different.

You see, when I met the Jesuits, I was likely on my way out of the Catholic Church.

I’ve been a lifelong Catholic.  I was an altar server through High School.  Deacons in my church took care of me in youth and recreation groups.  The pastor of my childhood parish was a wonderful and holy man.  After he retired, it all went down the toilet, but it was one event in particular that pushed me towards the exit.

I was a Senior in High School and I helped out as an altar server at a wedding.  As I swept the rice off the church steps after all the festivities were over, a disheveled older man approached me.

“Do you think Father could give me a sandwich?”

I went inside to retrieve the new associate pastor.  He came out and chased him away and when he came back he said to me, “I’m not racist, I just don’t like blacks.”

I was done at that moment.  I wanted nothing to do with the parish. Fortunately, I had a good relationship with both God and my parents who reminded me that “one priest does not a church make.”

I was off to college in the coming weeks.  I was headed to Fordham and I didn’t know what a Jesuit was.  The aforementioned parish I attended was afraid of those liberal Jesuits and encouraged me to transfer before it was too late.

But I now had my own ideas.  Fordham gave me a nice aid package, it was close to my Yonkers home, but far enough away that I could live on campus for the real college experience.  I lived right next door to the University Church in Queen’s Court and Fr. John Piderit, S.J. was a resident of our hall, often inviting us to join him for a squash game, dinner, or a spirited conversation.  As “Master of the House”, Fr. Piderit encouraged us to look deeply at issues and to get involved in serving the needs of the local Bronx community.   Fr. Paul Brandt, S.J. was director of Campus Ministry and invited me to be an altar server.  Fr. Jim Miracky, S.J. trained me to be a lector (and taught me to pronounce all my consonant sounds!).  Fr. Bert Rushmore, S.J. taught me theology (and a bit of mercy when I bombed the mid-term!).  And working at POTS soup kitchen was an occasional Saturday activity.

As time went on, the Jesuits became father-figures for me.  Fr. John Mullin, S.J. showed up soon and began the Emmaus retreat program at Fordham, which really captured my imagination and gave me a leadership role.  He was a true mentor and honed in on my vocation, never letting me forget that I had the skills and the desire to be a retreat director and a lay minister.  Fr. Norris Clarke, S.J. and Fr. Gerry McCool, S.J. were two of my all time favorite teachers who taught more classical Philosophy, Thomas Aquinas and Plato and Aristotle.  Fr. Clarke may have been the most peaceful person I ever encountered.  I still have the mini-autobiography that I wrote for him as a final project in his class.

Fr. Joseph O’Hare, S.J. led us as President and I’d find him at the 10PM mass in the sacristy preparing to say mass.  As a sophomore, the Jesuits in El Salvador were murdered and Fr. O’Hare was part of the delegation that went down to investigate.  He came back changed by the experience in my eyes.

“We know who did this!” he told me when he returned.  “And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it!”

When I asked him, if the Jesuits were going to leave El Salvador, he remarked.  “Mike, we’ve got guys lined up around the block ready to take the place of the martyrs!”

I learned a lot about the Jesuits that day.  I learned a lot about why those men were killed along with their housekeeper and her daughter (two people the Jesuits quickly point out whenever people forget).  This past year I went down there to that site with Fr. Frank LaRocca, S.J. and some of our students and was greatly moved by the experience.

Today, I serve with many Jesuits.  Fr. Michael Tunney, S.J. serves as our Director of Mission and we do many projects throughout the year.  He’s a big reason I’m here.  Fr. Joe Burke, SJ is our rector these days and he’s an amazing person, who I have come to call a friend.  Bro. Chris Derby, SJ. has the gargantuan task of being my spiritual director, hearing my desolations and more often, pointing me towards the consolations that I’m too hard-headed to see.

Fr. Tom Colgan, S.J. and Fr. James Dugan serve with me in Campus Ministry and I’m humbled to be their director.  There’s something I never thought would happen.  I’m supervising two Jesuits!  Most often, the hearts of these men for our students, direct me to grasp a sure glimpse of God within the outpouring of their love for the campus.

The truth is that I meet the Jesuits every day, for they are always surprising me and showing me something new.  The truth is that the Jesuits meet us in the world.  Our Pope, Francis, a Jesuit, himself, shows the world what God’s love and mercy is all about each day of his papacy.

One Jesuit friend once told me words that I will take to my final resting place:  “Mike, you’ve made me a better Jesuit.”  But the truth is, that I have been made a better person by the Society of Jesus and for that, I will be forever grateful.

Happy Feast Day, fellas!   Long live the great Society of Jesus!

 

An Inspiring Ignatian Year

180px-Ignatius_Loyola
On this feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I’m blessed to have spent a year officially in the Ignatian family. Although, I have spent a majority of my adult life around Jesuits, 2013-14 was the first school year where I drew a paycheck from an Ignatian institution as a professional campus minister. This past year at Canisius has been one filled with inspiration. Each day I look back there is much more to be excited about than negative about. It hasn’t been a perfect year, but Ignatius would remind us that life is never perfect and that we need not look at how we might prefer things to be, but that we should rather consider what has been and find where God has been for us in these experiences for better or worse.

A week or so ago I ran out to the airport to welcome home a Canisius contingent fresh back from Nicaragua. The group contained a few students I knew as well as some parents. Our President, John Hurley, also led the crew who did a lot of manual labor and learned much about land reform and redistribution in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Over the years I’ve gotten to know quite a few Presidents of Jesuit Universities. Also, one of my closest college mentors is now a College President of a school in New Hampshire. I’ve admired a great deal of them, especially the two Presidents I’ve known from my alma mater, Fordham, Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J. and Joseph McShane, SJ. Their keen prowess in leading the Jesuit University of New York has been nothing short of amazing.

As I was driving to the airport, I began to think about how centered our President is on mission, especially as a layman. It’s not every President of a University that would travel to places like Nicaragua or El Salvador as he’s done. He has a tough job and one that requires a lot of politicking and financial savvy and in this economic climate, it is a gargantuan feat to simply stay above water. It’s easy for us to complain about all the things that go wrong at a college, but I’m glad I got to see something very right about Jesuit education as I watched President Hurley and his family come through the airport with students and parents, including one parent recovering from cancer, who provided added inspiration for the journey. We’re indeed pretty lucky.

I too, travelled to Central America this year. I left for El Salvador just a few days after graduation with 9 amazing students and one of my favorite Jesuits, who never ceases to impress and inspire me. Frank LaRocca, SJ has been teaching business ethics and law for a long time and he’s also been a co-leader on many of our trips. He’s a fluent spanish speaker and has been to El Salvador many times, which gave me great comfort. But there were two moments during the trip that really brought me to tears.

The first was when we went to the Universidad Centro America, where in 1989, during my Sophomore year of college, 6 Jesuits and their cook and her daughter were killed in cold blood, by the Salvadoran government’s death squad, ARENA. The campus itself is fairly typical. We entered the chapel and saw where the Jesuits were entombed. These men were killed for standing up for the needs of the poor and criticizing the government as well as the rebel forces who both continued to fall short in caring for destitute people and in avoiding war and violence. I can remember when Fr. O’Hare came back in 1989 from his visit to El Salvador to investigate what went on with all the other Jesuit presidents in solidarity together. He came back profoundly changed and pretty angry. His anger resolved through dedication to the poor and continuing to call us into a greater concern for those in harm’s way. Now I was standing in that chapel wondering how different it must have felt to be there so soon after the murders. As we turned to leave the chapel, I watched Frank stop for a brief moment and pause by the tomb of his brother Jesuits. We both prayed silently, priest and layman, for men who were not much different from us–higher education professionals, sharing ideas, pushing people to think a bit more critically. And for that, these men lost their lives. I imagined how I would have felt if this has happened at Canisius. People shot in the quad and their murderers walking scot-free out on to the main road. It seemed unconscionable, and yet, this is what happened. Frank touched the side of the mausoleum wall and we exited together. It was a touching moment that I shall not soon forget.

The second moment was during one of our reflections. Frank has admired this blog for some time and has let me know that often enough. We had great conversations in El Salvador on some late nights. When we reflected with the students Frank was asked to affirm me in some way. My expectation was that he would have said something about my writing or our friendship. He very well may have focused on that, as well as some of my pastoral skills, but I can only remember one line from his treatise that night.

“Mike, you’ve made me a better Jesuit.”

And that is the best compliment I have ever received because the Jesuits have meant so much to me. They have made me much of who I am. Inspiring me from my college days to the present.

What most Jesuits and even most people don’t know, is that when I started Fordham in (good Lord!) 1988, I was having a real crisis of faith. I still believed in God and even still was going to mass, but I was having a tough time believing in the church and their priests. I was always active in the church and spent many weekends doing something around my parent’s parish. But one Saturday, it all changed. While I was sweeping the church steps of the rice from the afternoon wedding, an older black man approached me.

“Hey kid, I’m hungry! Do you think the Father might be able to give me a sandwich? I’ll help you sweep if you want.”

I told him to wait there and I’d go check with the Associate Pastor. I had seen our old pastor do this several times and even go far beyond a sandwich. Guys left with coffee thermoses and winter coats and a blessing. Now retired, there were new sheriffs in town.

“Father,” I said. “There’s a man out here looking for a sandwich and said he can sweep with me if you want.”

The associate pastor took off, nearly running to the church steps and then let out a yell:

“GET THE HELL AWAY FROM HERE! GO! NOBODY WANTS YOU AROUND HERE!”

Downtrodden the man left and I felt awful. I wanted to chase after him and bring him to the pizza parlor or something but I was young and afraid. It was then that the priest looked at me and said, “I’m not a racist, but I just don’t like those blacks!”

I thought I heard a record skip in my head. Did I hear that right?

If this was a man who dedicated himself to the gospel, I wanted no part of that scene. I had already settled on going to Fordham (which he was highly against me attending because of those liberal Jesuits) but there was no way I was planning on being as involved in the life of the church as much as I had been.

And then, I met the Jesuits.

And there I saw what true discipleship means. There I found men who ate and slept with the poor. Men who operated soup kitchens. Men who passed along ideals to help create men and women for others. Men who inspired me and invited me into the experience of loving those who had nobody to love them. I spooned out soup and cleaned pantries once in a while and became a lector, eucharistic minister and altar server. I went on my first retreat on my 20th birthday, because my resident director challenged me:

“You can go out to Clarke’s and drink any night of the week. Why don’t you come away and think about what the next 20 years will be like?”

Well, those next 20 years have been pretty good. I hope Ignatius and Peter Canisius can continue to allow me to be inspired by students, by faculty, by Presidents and of course, by my Jesuit brothers, including a Jesuit Pope who seems to inspire everyone he touches. I pray it lasts for another 20 years and beyond.

But for today, we celebrate!

Happy Feast Day!