When I was growing up in a mostly Irish Catholic neighborhood of Philadelphia, my best friend and I practiced saying Mass in his basement. We not only imagined ourselves as priests, we talked about someday becoming saints.
My calling to ordained life dissipated before high school, but I remain fascinated, and wistful, about friends who enter the priesthood or become nuns. When Brendan Busse ’99, M.A. ’11 told me a few years ago that he was about to enter the Society of Jesus, I felt envy.
Brendan now teaches at Seattle University, but he was an LMU campus minister when I met him about seven years ago. One day he told me about an unusual retreat: He took a group of students to a Skid Row shelter in downtown Los Angeles for a weekend-long encounter with homeless people and poverty in America. I asked him to write an article about it, and, secretly, I desired his job.
That first piece of writing led to several more: a reflection on his Jesuit pilgrimage, a meditation on the meaning of Advent and, most recently, his commentary on World Youth Day. I don’t see Brendan often these days. I’m not his closest friend, but I do feel an important bond with him, rooted in the common experience of trying to write about religious experiences.
Fortunately, I can keep track of Brendan’s adventures, and his writing, through a blog he maintains. He and other Jesuits started a website called The Jesuit Post, which, says Paddy Gilger, S.J., editor-in-chief, is about “Jesus, politics and pop culture.” Brendan is one of several contributing writers. His best stuff is thoughtful, wise, descriptive, self-deprecating and inviting. The world needs writers like Brendan.
My friend is several years along his path toward ordination. I sometimes wonder how the mantle that is the choice he took upon his shoulders now feels. (If it’s causing mild discomfort, Ignatius would probably say that’s a good sign.) Brendan’s choice could present him with decades of dedicated service to others, grace-filled entry into lives of hundreds, in catastrophes and epiphanies, and countless opportunities to find God in anyone. Such a life — if well-lived, I think — would give you a smile on your deathbed.
That’s the kind of life I imagined when my friend and I pretended to be priests, when receiving and accepting a call wasn’t a rare event, at least not in my Saint Anne’s neighborhood. But conditions have changed since the mid-1960s. The number of priests and nuns has plummeted, as we know. The workload of the Society of Jesus, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary is no lighter than before. Yet, there are fewer to shoulder it. Living out the religious vocation today seems to carry an added responsibility: to transmit the vocation — including the work — to those with no call to ordination.
It is often said that the heart of Ignatian spirituality can be found in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Randy Roche, S.J., director of LMU’s Center for Ignatian Spirituality, will tell you that the exercises were never intended for the sole use of the ordained; they’re intended to be useful to anyone. I think religious orders rooted in Ignatius’ view of the world have an advantage in transmitting the vocation, because they do not call a few to enjoy a rare honor or exclusive status in the world. I imagine them saying, “Take what we, somehow, have been given, and receive it yourself.”
Brendan’s writing at The Jesuit Post will intrigue me because the site is another place where he will live out his choice, comfortably or not. If Brendan had come to me 40 years ago to ask what I thought about his joining the Jesuits, I would’ve replied, “Can you meet the standard?” Today I’d answer, “Can you make Ignatians of the rest of us?”
(Photo by Joe August ’13)