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!