On this feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I’m blessed to have spent a year officially in the Ignatian family. Although, I have spent a majority of my adult life around Jesuits, 2013-14 was the first school year where I drew a paycheck from an Ignatian institution as a professional campus minister. This past year at Canisius has been one filled with inspiration. Each day I look back there is much more to be excited about than negative about. It hasn’t been a perfect year, but Ignatius would remind us that life is never perfect and that we need not look at how we might prefer things to be, but that we should rather consider what has been and find where God has been for us in these experiences for better or worse.
A week or so ago I ran out to the airport to welcome home a Canisius contingent fresh back from Nicaragua. The group contained a few students I knew as well as some parents. Our President, John Hurley, also led the crew who did a lot of manual labor and learned much about land reform and redistribution in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Over the years I’ve gotten to know quite a few Presidents of Jesuit Universities. Also, one of my closest college mentors is now a College President of a school in New Hampshire. I’ve admired a great deal of them, especially the two Presidents I’ve known from my alma mater, Fordham, Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J. and Joseph McShane, SJ. Their keen prowess in leading the Jesuit University of New York has been nothing short of amazing.
As I was driving to the airport, I began to think about how centered our President is on mission, especially as a layman. It’s not every President of a University that would travel to places like Nicaragua or El Salvador as he’s done. He has a tough job and one that requires a lot of politicking and financial savvy and in this economic climate, it is a gargantuan feat to simply stay above water. It’s easy for us to complain about all the things that go wrong at a college, but I’m glad I got to see something very right about Jesuit education as I watched President Hurley and his family come through the airport with students and parents, including one parent recovering from cancer, who provided added inspiration for the journey. We’re indeed pretty lucky.
I too, travelled to Central America this year. I left for El Salvador just a few days after graduation with 9 amazing students and one of my favorite Jesuits, who never ceases to impress and inspire me. Frank LaRocca, SJ has been teaching business ethics and law for a long time and he’s also been a co-leader on many of our trips. He’s a fluent spanish speaker and has been to El Salvador many times, which gave me great comfort. But there were two moments during the trip that really brought me to tears.
The first was when we went to the Universidad Centro America, where in 1989, during my Sophomore year of college, 6 Jesuits and their cook and her daughter were killed in cold blood, by the Salvadoran government’s death squad, ARENA. The campus itself is fairly typical. We entered the chapel and saw where the Jesuits were entombed. These men were killed for standing up for the needs of the poor and criticizing the government as well as the rebel forces who both continued to fall short in caring for destitute people and in avoiding war and violence. I can remember when Fr. O’Hare came back in 1989 from his visit to El Salvador to investigate what went on with all the other Jesuit presidents in solidarity together. He came back profoundly changed and pretty angry. His anger resolved through dedication to the poor and continuing to call us into a greater concern for those in harm’s way. Now I was standing in that chapel wondering how different it must have felt to be there so soon after the murders. As we turned to leave the chapel, I watched Frank stop for a brief moment and pause by the tomb of his brother Jesuits. We both prayed silently, priest and layman, for men who were not much different from us–higher education professionals, sharing ideas, pushing people to think a bit more critically. And for that, these men lost their lives. I imagined how I would have felt if this has happened at Canisius. People shot in the quad and their murderers walking scot-free out on to the main road. It seemed unconscionable, and yet, this is what happened. Frank touched the side of the mausoleum wall and we exited together. It was a touching moment that I shall not soon forget.
The second moment was during one of our reflections. Frank has admired this blog for some time and has let me know that often enough. We had great conversations in El Salvador on some late nights. When we reflected with the students Frank was asked to affirm me in some way. My expectation was that he would have said something about my writing or our friendship. He very well may have focused on that, as well as some of my pastoral skills, but I can only remember one line from his treatise that night.
“Mike, you’ve made me a better Jesuit.”
And that is the best compliment I have ever received because the Jesuits have meant so much to me. They have made me much of who I am. Inspiring me from my college days to the present.
What most Jesuits and even most people don’t know, is that when I started Fordham in (good Lord!) 1988, I was having a real crisis of faith. I still believed in God and even still was going to mass, but I was having a tough time believing in the church and their priests. I was always active in the church and spent many weekends doing something around my parent’s parish. But one Saturday, it all changed. While I was sweeping the church steps of the rice from the afternoon wedding, an older black man approached me.
“Hey kid, I’m hungry! Do you think the Father might be able to give me a sandwich? I’ll help you sweep if you want.”
I told him to wait there and I’d go check with the Associate Pastor. I had seen our old pastor do this several times and even go far beyond a sandwich. Guys left with coffee thermoses and winter coats and a blessing. Now retired, there were new sheriffs in town.
“Father,” I said. “There’s a man out here looking for a sandwich and said he can sweep with me if you want.”
The associate pastor took off, nearly running to the church steps and then let out a yell:
“GET THE HELL AWAY FROM HERE! GO! NOBODY WANTS YOU AROUND HERE!”
Downtrodden the man left and I felt awful. I wanted to chase after him and bring him to the pizza parlor or something but I was young and afraid. It was then that the priest looked at me and said, “I’m not a racist, but I just don’t like those blacks!”
I thought I heard a record skip in my head. Did I hear that right?
If this was a man who dedicated himself to the gospel, I wanted no part of that scene. I had already settled on going to Fordham (which he was highly against me attending because of those liberal Jesuits) but there was no way I was planning on being as involved in the life of the church as much as I had been.
And then, I met the Jesuits.
And there I saw what true discipleship means. There I found men who ate and slept with the poor. Men who operated soup kitchens. Men who passed along ideals to help create men and women for others. Men who inspired me and invited me into the experience of loving those who had nobody to love them. I spooned out soup and cleaned pantries once in a while and became a lector, eucharistic minister and altar server. I went on my first retreat on my 20th birthday, because my resident director challenged me:
“You can go out to Clarke’s and drink any night of the week. Why don’t you come away and think about what the next 20 years will be like?”
Well, those next 20 years have been pretty good. I hope Ignatius and Peter Canisius can continue to allow me to be inspired by students, by faculty, by Presidents and of course, by my Jesuit brothers, including a Jesuit Pope who seems to inspire everyone he touches. I pray it lasts for another 20 years and beyond.
But for today, we celebrate!
Happy Feast Day!