Faith & Values
Celebrating 50 years as a Jesuit
Fifty years ago this week (Sept. 7, 1961), I entered the Jesuits at Sheridan, Ore., the novitiate for Jesuits in the Northwest. The years pass swiftly, but they have been full of grace and certainly much more joy than sorrow.
Special to The Seattle Times
Fifty years ago this week (Sept. 7, 1961), I entered the Jesuits at Sheridan, Ore., the novitiate for Jesuits in the Northwest.
A recent graduate of Gonzaga University, I was only 21, but my peers, most of whom had entered directly from a Jesuit high school, such as Seattle Prep or Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, considered me one of the "old men."
The years pass swiftly, but they have been full of grace and certainly much more joy than sorrow.
I was blessed with first-class opportunities for advanced education. After initial studies in spirituality, prayer, Jesuit tradition and a dose of Latin and Greek, I studied philosophy and English literature at Boston College.
Then came three years of high-school teaching at Jesuit High in Portland. I survived the trials and testing by high-school boys and grew to love the personal interaction and challenge of teaching English, creative writing and poetry and advising the high-school newspaper.
This "formation" period of teaching in high school probably accounts for why most Jesuits are such good teachers and homilists. Survival demands that you develop rhetorical skills and a flair for the dramatic — even though it's not native to your personality — in order to grab the attention of 28 sophomore boys for 50 minutes each day.
At the next stage of Jesuit formation, I went to Rome to study at the Gregorian University, one of the most renowned Jesuit universities in the world. Grazia a Dio, classes were in Italian, not Latin.
Of course, besides theology and pastoral formation, Rome was a jumping-off place for other educational opportunities: studying French in Paris and Besancon, visiting the ecumenical, monastic center of Taizé, France, where thousands of young people gather each summer for prayer and faith-sharing, making a pilgrimage to the home of Ignatius of Loyola in Basque Country, and, most important, exploring the history, culture and language of Italy itself. And I had a few personal encounters with Paul VI, who was pope in those years. What a rich opportunity and education!
Finally, after 11 years of preparation, I was ordained in my hometown in Lisbon, N.D. — the first Catholic priest to be ordained in that little town of 2,000. Worth another story in itself.
Not surprisingly, my ministry has centered on education: high school for 13 years, and then, after completing a doctorate in ministry at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., the past 26 years at Seattle University involved with the ecumenical development of the School of Theology and Ministry.
But another significant portion of my life has been spiritual care of those who have suffered severe mental illness.
All this arose as a surprise, when I suffered a psychotic breakdown myself at age 35 and then recovered through excellent psychiatric care and the good graces and support of family and friends. I recounted my experiences in my first book "Reducing the Storm to a Whisper: the Story of a Breakdown (Sheed & Ward, 1985).
This "grace" led to an amazingly rich ministry with people with mental illness and their families.
Years ago, Fr. Michael Buckley, S.J., in an address to Jesuit seminarians asked, "Is this man sufficiently weak to be a priest?"
Is this man weak enough, Buckley asked, "so that he cannot ward off significant suffering from his life, so that he lives with a certain amount of failure, so that he feels what it is to be an average man? Is there any history of confusion, of self-doubt, of interior anguish? Has he had to deal with fear, come to terms with frustrations, or accept deflated expectations?"
These are critical questions, Buckley affirmed, because they probe for weakness.
Why weakness? Because, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, it is in this deficiency, in this interior lack, in this weakness, that the efficacy of the ministry and priesthood of Christ lies. "For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted." (Hebrews 2:18)
I think, after 50 years, I can rejoice in being "weak enough" to allow the grace of Christ to shine through and carry the load.
Fr. Patrick Howell, S.J., is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to email@example.com
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