Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Middle Jesuits Share Challenges, Create Connections at Keepers of the Fire Conference in California

by Mark Mossa, SJ

For four days in June, Santa Clara University experienced a rather unique kind of Jesuit presence. About 200 “middle generation” Jesuits braved the near perfect weather for an experience of fraternity and looking toward the future. These “keepers of the fire,” invoking the words of the recent General Congregation, gathered from all the U.S. provinces, and a few others, to reflect on the call of Christ as experienced individually, and as brothers in the Society of Jesus.

The attendees represented various apostolates and generations within the Society. The youngest in religious life, although not always the youngest in age, were the most recently formed brothers, and those who had been ordained only a year. Others brought the wisdom of having been Jesuits for more than thirty years. All brought their experience of having spent a significant portion of their adult life as Jesuits, no matter their ages.

Jesuit Conference President Fr. Tom Smolich (CFN) kicked things off with a keynote address on Wednesday night, sharing the unexpected turns, and resulting consolations, of his Jesuit life up to now. He surprised some by stating his belief that, based on his experience, being Provincial is “the best job in the Society.” He emphasized the privilege of getting to know so many Jesuits, knowing them from the inside out. And he expressed his hope that these days at Santa Clara might provide a similar experience for us all.

To that end, the next day provided a mixture of talks by Jesuits reflecting on their life in the Society, and faith-sharing in small groups of diverse ages and apostolic experiences. The candor of hardened veterans mixed with the enthusiasm of those recently ordained, and parish priests compared their experiences with high school teachers. In a short time, observed Fr. Provincial Mark Lewis (NOR), “We moved from not knowing each other to sharing at a very deep level.”
Conversation was spurred by excellent presentations. The first was by Fr. Jim Gartland (CHG), who shared the many unanticipated turns of his Jesuit career, as well as his realization, at 41, that “I was never going to get it all together.” Fr. Jerry Cobb (ORE) led a multimedia guided meditation, inviting the group to meditate on the various graced moments in Ignatius’ life depicted by Dora Bittau’s panels in the chapel at Seattle University. The Jesuits were asked to reflect on the question, “Which grace most speaks to you at this moment in your Jesuit life?” Fr. Dan Lahart (MAR) shared with the group his experience of skydiving, describing his leap from a plane just before being challenged to take the greater leap at Strake Jesuit of accommodating and educating an additional 400 students from New Orleans just after hurricane Katrina.

The days also provided an opportunity for proposed future province groupings to share about their respective province “cultures.” Some groups divided into subgroups representing common apostolates. Others focused more on the opportunities for mission, which their combined resources might afford. Each reported back to the larger group some of the priorities which emerged from their discussions, attending especially to which of the General Congregation 35’s “frontiers” they seemed most called.

As illuminating as such lists were, attendees touted the meeting’s less quantifiable aspects. U.S. Assistant to the Curia Fr. Jim Grummer (WIS) explained that he found the meeting to be very much in concert with Father General’s recent emphasis on the universal vocation of the Jesuit. Fr. Kevin Ballard (CFN) expressed his thanks for the gift of a gathering in which the participants were not divided into pre and post-Vatican II groups. Smolich observed, “It has been very moving to me just to see us hanging out with each other, and what that speaks of.” Similarly, Fr. Provincial Tom Krettek (WIS) shared that compared with other meetings, “What I’ve been noticing here is the laughter.”

Still, some were concerned what would come of it. “What does it mean that we continually elicit these desires, yet somehow feel stuck?” asked Fr. Roc O’Connor (WIS). Others had questions about current challenges, like province bankruptcy and vocation promotion.

Yet, as notable as the laughter and fraternity was the fact that such questions did not unleash a wave of negativity. “What I experienced was moving beyond the critical,” commented Lewis. Krettek added, “These questions have been around as long as the Society has been around,” and stressed the importance of these desires being nurtured by the two kinds of laughter he noticed—“knowing laughter,” and “the laughter of sheer enjoyment.”

None sought to downplay the challenges the Society faces. Fr. Provincial Pat Lee (ORE) pointed out that in a time of so much change, when we also face the consequences of past failures; we have to ask, “What are we supposed to be doing with all this?” “The Spirit is leading us into a new wilderness,” said Lewis, striking a similar note, a wilderness “with a single criterion—what is God’s will in this?” These are the questions the men were charged with bringing back to their apostolates and provinces, along with Lee’s reminder that “Hope is what we are about, and we can’t keep that being an elusive word.”

Fr. Mark Mossa (NOR) is a student of theology at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. He also writes a blog entitled “Diary of a Rookie Priest” at frmarkmossasj.blogspot.com.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine