Saturday, June 29, 2013

Vocations and the 11:15 pm Mass.

Scott Holmer, a Georgetown contemporary of mine, was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Washington earlier this month. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, now-Father Holmer traces the roots of his priestly vocation to the example of Father Thomas M. King, S.J., whom I wrote about here last Sunday. Here is more from Father Holmer, as interviewed by WaPo religion writer Michelle Boorstein:
Q: Tell me a little about your faith background.

A: Growing up, I went to Mass, but my own faith wasn’t something I really valued. I wasn’t that much of a religious guy, per se. Then I went to Georgetown [University] for college in 1998 and was really impressed with the intellectual honesty of the Jesuits. I had never known the intellectual depth of the Catholic faith and was blown away. . . .When you go to Sunday school [as a child], they’d just say: 'It’s a mystery. It’s a mystery,' and I wanted to know more. And the Jesuits had spent their lives exploring the more.

What were your questions?

How do you reconcile science and faith in your own mind? [The Jesuits] wrestled honestly. The thing that stuck out most for me was Father Thomas King [a popular Jesuit priest and theology professor who died in 2009]. He'd celebrate Mass by candlelight at 11:15 p.m. every single weeknight, and it was the most spiritually moving experience I had ever had. And I wanted to be a part of that.
One can find more details in this story from the Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington:
In a darkened chapel at Georgetown University, the sight of a priest standing at the altar and reverently celebrating a late night Mass by candlelight made Scott Holmer first think about becoming a priest. . . .

As a student at Georgetown, the future priest was invited by his teacher, Jesuit Father Thomas King, to join other students at an 11:15 p.m. Mass he celebrated at the university's Dahlgren Chapel.

"That would be a good way to end the day after studying," said Deacon Holmer, who said it was clear that for Father King, his love of the Eucharist was the source of his life, and that love was contagious for several students who were inspired to become priests by his example. "I wanted to experience the same joy and happiness that he exuded in his priestly ministry," the deacon said. "I wanted to be like him. I still do."
As I have written here before, I owe my vocation as a Jesuit not merely to Father King's influence as a teacher and as a starets but also and most especially to the 11:15 pm Mass that Father King celebrated six nights a week at Georgetown. At the time of the fortieth anniversary of the 11:15 pm Mass, Father King's list of '11:15 alumni' who had either been ordained or were studying for the priesthood had over forty names on it. Though most on Father King's list had either joined the Jesuits or entered the diocesan clergy, other religious orders like the Dominicans and Franciscans were represented as well; the men on the list whom I know personally are notably diverse in background and temperament, and I doubt that many who knew us as undergraduates would have figured us for future priests.

The 11:15 pm Mass helped to lead many Hoyas to the priesthood not merely because it got us into the habit of doing to daily Msss but because it was a Mass like no other on campus. As my fellow Hoya Joseph Grieboski once wrote in a tribute to Father King, "Tom's 11:15 pm Mass introduced us to a beauty and majesty of the liturgy with which we were not previously familiar." The 11:15 was celebrated with gentle solemnity and quiet reverence, providing ample stretches of silence and incorporating traditional elements like the Last Gospel. Though he always gave long, theologically rich homilies on Sundays, the weeknight 11:15 usually included no homily at all, giving the liturgy an opportunity to speak for itself. The overall effect of the experience was to teach us that the Eucharist is the true center of the Christian life, and that offering the Eucharist as Father King did six nights a week in Dahlgren Chapel was a joyful and noble endeavor. Had I not learned those lessons at that particular time in my life, I'm not sure that I would have been able to discern the call to religious life. Thus, as I continue to pray for Father Tom King four years after his death, I do so with a very deep sense of gratitude. AMDG.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

"At the entrance of paradise, what speech would you make, explaining why you can't come in?"

"There is something very fundamental in the Gospel that we don't want to hear, and what we don't want to hear is going to give us life." So says Father Thomas M. King, S.J. in the homily presented above, which ends with this pointed question: "At the entrance of paradise, what speech would you make, explaining why you can't come in?" Father King died four years ago today, yet his presence-in-absence still remains very palpable to those of us who knew him. Of the various things that I've written on this blog regarding Tom King, I believe that the best remains this post written shortly after his funeral. AMDG.

Saturday, June 15, 2013


I am in Chicago this weekend for an annual gathering of Jesuits from the two provinces of the Upper Midwestern United States, an event that included the ordination to the priesthood of our confreres Patrick Gilger and Jayme Stayer. To learn more, visit the website of the U.S. Jesuit Conference to read about all of the American Jesuits who were ordained to the priesthood this year. If you are so inclined, please pray for the ordinandi as they begin their priestly ministry, and please pray for vocations to the priesthood and to religious life. AMDG.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Our Lady of La Salette School, 1943-2013.

After seventy years of operation, Our Lady of La Salette School in Berkley, Michigan closes its doors forever this month. Like many other Catholic schools in the United States, La Salette was done in by a sagging economy and changing demographics. Having enrolled nearly 1,000 students in its heyday in the 1960s, La Salette saw its student population decline preciptously in recent years: enrollment for the 2012-13 school year was only 73, barely half of what it was as recently as five years ago.

The closing of the school touches me personally because I once taught there: the novitiate where I entered the Society of Jesus was located in Berkley, and one of the novitiate trials (or 'experiments') that I and many other novices underwent was a period teaching religion at La Salette. St. Ignatius of Loyola wanted all Jesuits to spend some time engaged in "the instruction of children and unlettered persons in Christianity," and teaching at La Salette was a means of fulfilling that mission. I wrote a little about my experience at La Salette on my old blog, and though I now wince at the sort of first-fervor superlatives that I used then - I wonder whether I really found teaching seventh-graders "delightful and truly invigorating" - I still recall my time at the school with affection. Getting out of the hothouse environment of the novitiate for a few hours a week was good for me, and I hope that the students took something positive away from my lessons (I honestly don't remember much of what I may have told them, though I may have some of my teaching notes somewhere in my files).

The closing of Our Lady La Salette School doesn't really surprise me, as I sensed that the writing was on the wall even when I was there eight years ago. The principal and teachers at the school struggled mightily to provide a good education with meager resources, while enrollment (then around 140, I think) was already a cause for concern. Though small, the student body drew members not merely from Berkley but from neighboring suburbs and even from Detroit itself; the closing of other Catholic grade schools in the area had led families in other parishes to send their to children to La Salette, while some families who were not Catholic saw the school as a desirable alternative to failing public schools. Photographs of the large classes of the 1950s and '60s lined the hallways, providing a reminder of the years when the school was bursting with students, while empty classrooms spoke of a very different present. In a certain sense, the novitiate itself was a part of the story of La Salette's decline: constructed to house the Sisters of Mercy who taught in the school, the building had been rented to the Jesuits after the nuns moved out on account of their own diminishing numbers. A large field next to the novitiate where some of my confreres played football remained vacant because plans to build a parish high school there had been scuttled after Catholic school enrollment started to decline in the late 1960s.

Grateful for the time that I spent there, I hope that the students, staff, and alumni of Our Lady of La Salette School are able to find some consolation in this time of loss. I hope, too, that the legacy of La Salette remains alive even as the school's once-raucous hallways become silent. AMDG.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Can the pope live a "normal" life?

I have written very little on this blog regarding the new pope, partly because I have found it difficult to articulate my thoughts in a form that I would be willing to share with the world. My surprise at the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope has not completely subsided, and I'm not sure that it ever will. To put it very bluntly, anyone who assumes that I would have been happy or excited by the election of Pope Francis simply because of his Jesuit background does not know me well. The idea that a Jesuit could be elected pope was virtually unthinkable three months ago, and it is not something that most Jesuits I know expected or hoped to see happen. I'm also a bit perplexed when I read or hear others say that they were particularly pleased with Francis' election because he was a Jesuit or because, as some might put it, he was "formed by the Spiritual Exercises." To repeat an old adage that I've shared here before, "If you've met one Jesuit, you've met one Jesuit." To suggest that Pope Francis acts, talks, or thinks in certain ways purely because he is Jesuit - and not, say, because he is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a unique individual with his own history - is unfair both to the pope and to the Society of Jesus.

Having offered the above as a sort of prologue, I'd like to comment on a news story reported last week regarding the new pope's living arrangements. Much has been made of Pope Francis' decision not to live in a set of apartments in the Apostolic Palace occupied by his most recent predecessors, choosing instead to reside at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a guesthouse for priests and bishops visiting the Vatican on official business. Many have praised the pope's choice as a sign of 'humility' or 'simplicity,' suggesting that Francis rejected living in the papal apartments because he found them too sumptuous, when in point of fact said apartments are actually quite spartan. In a letter to a friend recently leaked to the press, Pope Francis revealed his real reasons for choosing to stay at the Domus Sanctae Marthae. Last week's story in The Telegraph has more:
[Pope Francis] explained his choice in a letter written two weeks ago to an old friend, Father Enrique Martinez, a priest at the Church of the Annunciation in La Rioja.

"I didn't want to go and live in the apostolic palace. I go over there just to work and for audiences."

"I've remained living in the Casa Santa Marta, which is a residence which accommodates bishops, priests and lay people." There he feels "part of a family" he wrote in the letter, which was obtained by Clarin, an Argentinian daily.

"I'm visible to people and I lead a normal life – a public Mass in the morning, I eat in the refectory with everyone else, et cetera. All this is good for me and prevents me from being isolated."

"I'm trying to stay the same and to act as I did in Buenos Aires because if you change at my age you just look ridiculous." The Pope, the first Jesuit pontiff in history and the first to come from the Americas, said his election was "something totally surprising" which he considers "a gift from God."
Speaking as a Jesuit, I wonder whether very many people who do not belong to religious orders like my own would think of living in a hotel and taking most of one's meals in a refectory as "normal." Despite my earlier criticism of a certain kind of 'Jesuit essentialism' in many analyses of the new pope, I actually do think that Francis' justification of his decision to live at the Domus is very typically Jesuit. This is so not because I think that living in a hotel in preference to the papal apartments gives more profound witness to the ideal of religious poverty - frankly, I think that such an argument would be ridiculous - but because the rhythm (if not the style) of life at the Domus probably more closely resembles life within a large, institutional Jesuit community than would life within the papal apartments: instead of living with a small circle of close collaborators, the new pope lives in a larger 'community' of fellow priests and bishops, with many visitors coming and going and meals taken in a large common dining room and not in a more intimate, family-style setting. As one who has lived in institutional Jesuit communities that I presume are not unlike the ones that Jorge Mario Bergoglio lived in before he became a bishop and moved into a small apartment, I think I can see where the new pope is coming from on this, even though I would rather see him living in the Apostolic Palace as other recent popes have done.

As Pope Francis' letter indicates, what was really at stake in this decision was not simplicity so much as a desire to maintain a certain degree of independence. As I wrote the day after Pope Francis' election, the loss of autonomy and a positive sense of anonymity that come from assuming the office of the papacy must be particularly difficult for a person who is used to having his own way in small matters as well as large ones. The Pope himself says that "if you change at my age you just look ridiculous." Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Jorge Mario Bergoglio's life has changed irrevocably since he became Supreme Pontiff; he may try as much as possible to maintain his own freedom of action by living in circumstances that permit him to have casual contact with a broader circle of people, but I presume that his daily encounters must remain somewhat 'scripted' insofar as his interlocutors all know that he is the pope and conduct themselves accordingly - in other words, what is 'normal' for the pope cannot really be 'normal' for those around him.

The new pope's desire to live "a normal life" is understandable, but it is also difficult to see how "normal" a pope's life can be. To repeat a point that I sought to make in March, the election of a Jesuit pope has given me a new way of understanding the total offering of self demanded by our vows. Watching Jorge Mario Bergoglio assume the yoke of the papacy, I have more than once thought of Christ's admonition to Peter in John 21:18: "When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go." Accepting the loss of freedom and anonymity that comes from an office like the papacy demands a real sacrifice of self, but so too does the humble acceptance of the many customs and expectations that come with such an office - where one must live, how one must dress, what one says in public, and so on. Pope Francis has sought as much as possible to remain himself as he exercises his new office, but the fact remains that his life is no longer his own.

As I have noted more than once in this post, I am wary of attempts to define Pope Francis in terms of his identity or background as a Jesuit. I am also wary of the overuse of the term 'humility' as applied to Pope Francis; he is certainly humble in recognizing that it is hard to change one's ways once one is old, but Pope Benedict XVI was no less humble in submitting to the expectations of his office, even when they went against his personal inclinations. Pope Francis is stubborn in a way that many of us often are, particularly as we get older, and one can recognize this while still admitting that the pope is sincere in his desire to live as simply as the duties of office allow. Pope Francis is a complex human being with his own doubts and struggles, but so was Pope Benedict XVI - and so, for that matter, was St. Peter himself. As the words and deeds of Pope Francis continue to spark debate, I hope that we will not lose sight of what is really most "normal" about the Successor of St. Peter. AMDG.