I was just ordained a Jesuit Priest. Exactly how this vocation emerged is difficult to describe. Even in a Church that spends most of its time focusing on mystery, people have difficulty making sense of the choice to become a member of the Catholic clergy. I think of the various, surprised "What's?" of my friends when I told them of my decision to join the Society of Jesus. Having been part of various artistic communities for years made my desire to be a Jesuit priest appear strange at best, polemical at worst. Yet, there it was: I had an undeniable pull to enter a religious order in the Roman Catholic Church.
Vocation is a strange thing. It is the idea that people can be drawn towards a particular way of life. Vocation is partially about the job, but more about the way a person's choice of work allows something deeper to develop in his or her heart. For many, "the call" comes at the expense of other aspirations. It is a trade-off. We let go of certain impulses and choose to follow other desires, in an oftentimes circuitous route, that we hope will lead towards a deeper awareness of how me might better love and serve humanity.
This desire to love and serve led me to explore a single mystery in a deeper way: GOD. Awareness of the great I AM, the Source of Being (also the source of much debate and even war) was a sensitivity that I had desired to cultivate openly and without distraction for years. It was not that I thought I would find the answer. Rather, I hoped the choice to grapple with the mystery of existence and the human attempt to give voice to those things we call "eternal" would shape me in ways that I had come to admire in others. When I found the Society of Jesus, I found a group of people that were responding to this same mystery in a profound way.
I look to the group that I was ordained with, and I see my own struggle to accept the role of priest reflected in their stories. Their resumes and records of life experiences are extensive. They were, in different lives, medical doctors, the director of a New England think-tank, a political speechwriter, academics, MBA's, artist's, school teachers and even an Army Ranger. Of course, lists of accomplishments show little of the struggle that each of us went through to get to the place where we could choose to follow our desire to join the Jesuits. Somehow, in the midst of a culture that is far from supportive of such impulses, we had all found our way into a group that was dedicated to prayer and service lived within vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.
None of the eighty or so men I originally joined with could have known what was in store for us in the next eleven years of training. Weeks after we entered the Jesuits, the Twin Towers toppled and the U.S. entered a sort of hysteria. Months later, rumors of various sexual "improprieties" began to appear in the news, only to develop, in the coming years, into a horrible description of full-scale sexual abuse and cover-ups that spanned the course of decades. This was only the beginning. The coming years would bring war, natural disasters, political turmoil, religious factionalism, and a terrible economic recession. With each year, my classmates and I would be given new experiences in ministry as a way of preparing us for a deeper awareness of the world's difficulties, as if we were not already painfully aware.
During those years of training I was asked to work with addicts in the Bronx, go to New Orleans to gut houses, live with tea-garden workers in Northeast India, and take classes in counseling. I taught religion at an all-boys prep school, spent summers in Ecuador learning Spanish and interacting with people of various mountain tribes, built affordable housing in Omaha, and prayed with people on silent retreats. I did restorative justice with the men incarcerated at San Quentin, ministered to the sick and the dying, and took stray classes in business management. I moved from community to community, never staying in one place for more than nine months at a time. In each new home I was asked to interact with the best and worst that humanity has to offer, and somehow find the grace of God thread through it all.
Ultimately, this is the purpose of Jesuit training: to find Christ in all things. Rather than fleeing from the world and finding Christ in the quiet of our own private meditations, we seek to name the Incarnation, the eternal God being revealed in all of our lives every day. We engage the existential difficulties of humanity not only in an academic way, but in the lives of the people that we meet, minister to, and minister with. Somehow in that place of conflict and uncertainty, we all learn to name the truth of the Spirit that gives us life and calls us all towards a greater embodiment of compassion and patience in a tumultuous world.
Looking back, I am not exactly sure how any of us made it to ordination. For each of us, though, there was something in the commitment that we made eleven years ago that would not allow us to forget our "yes" to God and Church. There is something in the faith that we profess that has allowed us to thrive. And while maybe none of us could name what it was that kept us here in a way that all would agree with (thus the old joke "three Jesuits, five opinions"), what I say is that eleven years ago I gave a commitment to continue exploring this great Mystery in a faith that stretches back thousands of years. It is a yes I will continue to follow as this life unfolds mercifully before me.