(Published in National Jesuit News, October, 1996)
This summer, along with many other men across the assistancy, I celebrated my golden jubilee in the Society. To tell the truth, I had not given much thought to it until it was just about upon me. When one's life and ministry are engaging, you forget that 48 does indeed turn into 49, which spills over into 50. Then suddenly you are a jubilarian — and didn't they used to be old guys?
What is it like to gather with Jesuits you had not seen or contacted, in some instances, for over 40 years? It is impossible to capture suc a complex experience, of course, but I offer what I can name: some threads that recurred, feelings, impressions.
One surprise is the amount of time we devoted to asking about those who had left. We wanted to hear where they were and what they were doing. The prevailing tone was care for these good men and concern for rough times they might have experienced after leaving. We felt joy at hearing that one or other of us was still in close contact with one of them. It was difficult to learn that some were still carrying wounds from the mean-spirited legalism they had encountered from church people at the time of their departure or later.
It was only natural to ask about those who are still in but who, for whatever reason, had not responded to the invitation to join us. In some instances we heard that the issue was not simply scheduling demands or feelings about our class; the man had isolated himself from any serious interaction even with those in his own community. Our inability to connect with someone who was still in was harder to deal with than the fact that others had felt called to leave the Society.
Of course it was only natural that we would repeat all the hoary barracks tales from the course: classroom hijinks; the foibles and follies of an endless stream of professors, ministers and triduum presenters. We remembered escapades and culpas. Some did get caught; most lived to tell the tale. "I always wondered what the story behind that was; so that is what really happened."
An eavesdropper might have marveled at the colorful nicknames that tripped from our lips: Sarge and Snake and Horse, and Pie; the Baron; and the Chief and Spook and Hang-Dog.
We remembered fondly some lay brothers whose job might have been baker or tailor or infirmarian but whose real glory was that they kept us scholastics sane.
It goes without saying that we recalled men who had died. A name would surface and there would be knowing nods around the group. "The last time I saw him..." Gentle smiles; you didn't even need to tell the stories they represented.
Reminiscing over drinks was fun for a while but it soon got old. Occasionally — but only rarely — you had the uneasy sense that the man rehearsing the old days might not have left them yet.
What did we say about ourselves? There is a stereotype in our culture that old geezers focus on all their physical ailments when they gather together. That did not prove to be the case with us. There were hearing aids and an occasional cane, of course. We heard brief accounts of surgery, and a few jokes about loss of memory or plumbing that isn't working very well. Or too well.
Clearly the rich ore to be tapped lay hidden in questions such as, “What happened to you in life after the course? Where did your journey take you? Where does it find you now?”
Some of the stories we shared were revelations. One could have been tempted to remove one's shoes, for we were standing on sacred ground.
Some men told of having felt totally inadequate through their entire time in the course: "Could I ever survive and make it as a Jesuit when I was surrounded by brilliant men like these?"
Others had been easily passed over in our adulation of more charismatic personalities. (One wonders what psychic destruction might have been wrought by institutions like grades and the long course and ad-grads.) One man, long since a very happy and effective pastoral minister, told of his institutionalization after a breakdown. Another described the three times in his life that he was told by a Jesuit administrator that he was being fired because he was no longer needed.
We all enjoyed a quiet, knowing laugh at the story of a deceased member of the group. Plagued with alcoholism and depression for years, he found in the final years of his life the ministry that suited him perfectly, moving from parish to parish, filling in for a month or two in different places for a diocesan priest who needed to get away.
There were many wounded healers. Today they do ministries undreamt of 50 years ago. One travels across the United States preaching every week in a different parish to raise money for an organization that distributes food to the poor. Another is the mediator of labor-management disputes in a large city. Yet another goes every day to a drop-in center, where he sits and listens to the stories of drifters, providing simple human empathy with no expectations of any great transformation. He offers presence, the greatest human gift for the deepest human need.
An amazing fact emerged: all of these men, I think I can say without exception, are today happy, fulfilled Jesuit ministers. There is in all of them a — what? — "serenity" might be a good word.
Some have indeed attained high visibility and achievement. Others are still unassuming; but solid, effective and obviously treasured by the people they serve. Some had been at the same institution for as many as 35 years, while the Society had asked others to move in and out of many places. They are modest men of great achievement who recall the phrase in the old common rules, the title John LaFarge chose for his memoirs: “The Manner is Ordinary."
All seemed finallyto be in the place that was right for them and their gifts. How does one explain the patent sense of resolution?
Two interesting themes surfaced without any prompting. The first was the transforming effect that many of these men had experienced through a mid-life sabbatical or renewal program. It is probably one of the U’S’ church’s best untold stories: how a Notre Dame or Berkeley or Menlo Park or Weston program revitalized the lives of so many men in their late 40s or 50s or 60s, running in place with little sense of their worth or their human — or intellectual — potential.
When one of these men would reach that point in telling his story, his face and body would becor animated, as if in the telling he were reliving the excitement of the discovery that had taken place. To a man they were extremely grateful for the rebirth. Going out beyond the confines of Jesuit interaction, they had clearly returned with a new confidence in themselves and an enthusiasm for life and ministry that obviously colors the quality of their service.
A second theme, mentioned not by everyor but often enough to be noticed, was the positive significance that several of these men attributed to deep and intimate friendships they had experience with women in their lives. They spoke quite matter-of-factly of these relationships. It was clear that you could not understand them or their lives without this piece of the picture. A woman met as co-worker on a staff; a woman who was the man's spiritual director or directee; a woman who went through the same renewal program and with whom the fellow fell in love. Many of these bonds were of long standing, great mutual supports. Perhaps a secret legacy mysteriously transmitted from Fathe Ignatius?
At the end of the day there was too much rich material to hope to account for it with neat, rational explanations. That would have been like trying to use a spectrometer to explain a rainbow. Mystery was present, and grace and miracle. God stuff.
Father George B. Wilson (MAR) does church organizational consulting with Management Design Institute out of Cincinnati, Ohio.