“So—who the hell are you? How come you got chosen?” That was the question my mentor, philosopher Paul Weiss asked of me over dinner as I was about to profess my First Vows in the Society of Jesus. Can you guess how I answered?
“So—why did you marry your wife? Did you come up with a series of logical propositions that led you to the air-tight conclusion: ‘I should marry Victoria’? No. You got to the point where you decided, ‘I can’t not do this and still be honest’. Isn’t that right?” He agreed and the conversation moved on.
That conversation took place in mid-August, 1992. I had entered the Society of Jesus about two years earlier. I had been tried and tested and probed and provoked—and decided to make that offering to the Lord. I had come to the conclusion that, “I can’t not do this and still be honest.”
I think of these things in light of both distant and recent events. Distantly, I recall that I entered the Jesuit novitiate on the Solemnity of the Assumption, August 15, 1990—the year of the 500th anniversary of our founder, Saint Ignatius Loyola and the 450th anniversary of the founding of the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits. In less than a week, I will mark my 25th anniversary as a Jesuit, during this year in which the Church celebrates the Year of Consecrated Life. In recent days, I find myself looking back over 25 years, which unfolded at once in the blink of an eye and over the course of a lifetime.
More recently, a few days ago I spent some time with a young friend who had just made her First Profession in a very fine women’s religious community. Her joy was incandescent. Her winsome innocence was undeniable. But she was not naïve—she did not have the wide-eyed wonder of an untested novice, caught up in what the spiritual writers call, “first fervor”—a fever that mercifully lasts for but a while. No, she too had been tested and tried and stretched for greater glory. While still shining with hopeful newness, she had the confidence that comes to one who had given her all and came to be trusted by those whom she respected. Her community has now given her their habit, their mission and their name. She stood taller in their eyes (and in her own) than when she did upon arriving at the Mother House three years ago.
I could not help but notice the similarities and differences between us. I arrived at the novitiate well before she was born, just shortly after her parents married. I have had so much more time than her to learn and grow and make mistakes, and fail and recover, and ask for mercy and try again.
Unable to erase or forget the past 25 years (and not really wanting to), I wish to find again her brightness, joy, excitement and confidence. I am also sure that over the years, I have found a familiarity with God’s Providence and Mercy, in both the brightest light and the deepest dark, beyond anything this young woman could guess at just yet.
As I reflect on 25 years in religious life, the three words that come to me repeatedly are, “gratitude, contrition and hope.”
As a religious, I have received even more than the Lord’s promised “hundredfold.” (Mark 10:30) Repeatedly, I tell those who come to me for spiritual direction or confession to ask themselves at every moment (but especially when tempted or discouraged), “What can I do here and now to prove to God that I am grateful?” I tell them that when every other resolution fails or falters, there is always a reason to be grateful. As I tell them that, I recall one of my Jesuit heroes, one of my spiritual directors, the late Father Clarence Martin, S.J., who suffered and sacrificed heroically as a missionary in the Philippines during the Second World War and its aftermath. When he was in a Jesuit community in his 90s, feeble but alert, blind and unable to work, I asked him, “How do you pass the time?” He smiled: “Oh, I review my life and savor the graces. It’s a wonderful way to spend the day.” After walking the path of a Jesuit pilgrimage for 25 years, I am grateful but I know that I have not yet attained Clarence’s capacity to “savor the graces.” And I have more to be thankful for than can be listed in this forum or recounted in this life.
As I look back on 25 years of religious life, I am overcome by compunction and contrition. My education and my formation were good—I can offer no excuse for my sins. I am in anguish over my faults and failings. My sins of commission and omission are always with me. I am not crushed by my regrets because I cling to a line from the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Decree 2, paragraph 1: “Our many faults we know and confess; our graces are more important because they come from Christ.”
As I recall my sins and faults, I recall a conversation I had with Father Joseph Tetlow, S.J . I told him that I wished that Jesus had someone better than me to carry on His mission and His name. He scolded me with uncharacteristic severity: “No! That rejects His gift! You have to believe that when the Lord called you that He got the man He wanted!” I don’t know why the Lord called me, but I know that He did; and I know that He has anointed me and forgiven me and sustained me and missioned me. I cling to the Lord’s promise that Satan, “the accuser of the brethren”, has been cast down. (Revelation 12:10) Even with a sober sense of my sins, I resolve to focus on my graces, which are from Christ. I must say to myself what I say to my penitents: “Our sins do not define us.” Instead, I must insist that I am defined by my baptism, my consecration and my ordination.
As I approach my 25th anniversary in religious life, I have an abiding sense of hope. Because of who God is and how He has revealed Himself to the Church, to the Society of Jesus and to me, I trust that He who has begun the good work in me will bring it to fulfillment. (Philippians 1:6) I have hope because even as anyone might identify faults in me or other Jesuits or Jesuit institutions, I know that the Lord continues to bring good young men into the Society of Jesus—men who embrace the heroism Saint Ignatius called for in the Spiritual Exercises, men who, as Saint Ignatius called for, “wish to distinguish themselves in the service of Christ the King.”
As I approach my 25th anniversary as a Jesuit, I wish, with humility, audacity and hope to make a public invitation to good young men to consider a vocation in the Society of Jesus. I ask them to consider taking a place in that “Long Black Line” of Jesuit heroes that extends across the centuries back to our founder, Saint Ignatius Loyola. Join the ranks of Jesuits reaching back from Ignatius in Rome to Saint Francis Xavier in Asia—Francis Xavier who baptized hundreds of thousands and who died face down in the sand pointing to the shores of China that he could see but could not reach.
Join the ranks of Jesuits from Francis Xavier to Saint Isaac Jogues in North America. Isaac Jogues escaped with his life after his first mission in the New World, and chose to return and face certain death, in order to ensure that the gospel would be firmly planted here.
Join the ranks of Jesuits from Isaac Jogues to Blessed Miguel Pro in Mexico. Miguel Pro shocked and shamed the Church’s persecutors by shouting out “Vivo Cristo Rey!” (“Long life Christ the King!”) at the moment he was being shot by a firing squad as a traitor to the state.
Join the ranks of Jesuits from Miguel Pro to Blessed Rupert Mayer in Germany. Rupert Mayer enraged Hitler with his fearless and relentless resistance to the Nazi madness.
Join the ranks of Jesuits from Rupert Mayer to the American, Walter Ciszek in Russia, who remained faithful to his vocation through years in Soviet prisons and Siberian exile.
Those names are familiar to many. There are other Jesuit giants likely not known to you, whom I was privileged to meet in my Jesuit life. I recall now great Jesuits whose example thrilled me and humbled me.
Today I remember Michael Kavanaugh, who served lepers in India, and offered Mass for them in graveyards, the only place where people would not try to kill them. I remember Jack Carboy, who dying of cancer and giving thanks to God for his disease, gave spiritual direction to a prostitute dying of AIDS and who wished to give thanks for her disease—their respective maladies forced them to decide what was worth living and dying for. I remember Clarence Martin, who was imprisoned, starved and almost executed in Japanese death camps in the Philippines, who never lost the joy of the Lord, and spent his last years, old and blind, recalling and savoring the graces God had given him.
I know that all those men, my Jesuit brothers, are with us now, interceding for us, in the hopes that we might hear and answer the call of Christ the King.
Henry David Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Not so for good Jesuits, who, on fire with love for Christ the King, always have something important to do, and always have a good reason to live and a good reason to die. Good Jesuits, striving always to distinguish themselves in the service of Christ the King, always have more to give, and always have a most urgent purpose.
Young men, if you want to find out how good your best can be, if you want to know truly how amazing is grace and how vile is sin, come clear-eyed, open-hearted, eager-minded, and with ready hands to the high heroism Saint Ignatius intended for his companions in the Society of Jesus.
With thanks to all for who have been good to me, with apologies to all whom I have disappointed, and with hope that God Who has been so faithful this far will bring me from this life to eternal life, among my victorious Jesuit brothers and the whole Company of Heaven, I ask for a special remembrance in your prayers as I mark this Saturday my Silver Jubilee in religious life.
Next week, I will offer advice to parents whose children are leaving for college for the first time. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.