Rev. George A. Aschenbrenner, SJ, was born in Reading, Pa., on November 22, 1932. He attended Reading Central Catholic High School, and after graduating from Saint Joseph’s College in Philadelphia with a degree in English, he entered the Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues in Wernersville, Pa., in 1954. He received his Licentiate in Philosophy from Loyola Seminary in Shrub Oak, NY, and his Licentiate of Sacred Theology from Weston College in Weston, MA, where he was ordained a priest on June 12, 1965.
In 1968, after a year of teaching religion at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, Fr. Aschenbrenner became novice master where his own journey as a Jesuit began—the Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues in Wernersville. He served for ten years, and the impact he had on the young men entering the Society of Jesus is legendary. Fr. John Dennis, SJ, former president at Loyola Blakefield and current chaplain at Loyola University Maryland, was one of Fr. Aschenbrenner’s last novices at Wernersville. “George Aschenbrenner was everything you would imagine a master of novices to be: prayerful, experienced, insightful, disciplined and virtuous. He cultivated a prayerful novitiate environment through his talks, homilies and spiritual direction; yet, I believe he accomplished this most perfectly through the example he set with his life.”
Fr. Kevin Gillespie, SJ, pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Washington, D.C., who also had Fr. Aschenbrenner as a novice master, remembers him as a “Friend who inspired us.”
It was while guiding these men through the novitiate that Fr. Aschenbrenner penned the article Consciousness Examen, an in-depth editorial that explores the how and why of practicing the Examen which is still widely used today.
Following his decade leading the novices of the Maryland Province, Fr. Aschenbrenner served for six years as a retreat director, first at the University of Scranton for three years and then at Saint Joseph’s University, where he was also assistant to the academic vice president.
In 1985, Fr. Aschenbrenner took his calling as a spiritual director to Rome, where he served for six years as director of spiritual formation at the North American College. He then returned to the States, and to Wernersville, where he directed the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth for 11 years, remaining on its staff for an additional year. During this time, he also co-founded with Fr. John Horn, SJ, the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University, for which he was recently awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Fr. Horn says of his colleague, “George’s heart burned with the affectionate Heart of Jesus! His life in faithfulness to rediscovering and teaching The Examen Prayer for the Society’s international mission assisted in immeasurable ways to set the world ablaze with the Spirit’s loving presence.”
In 2003, Fr. Aschenbrenner returned to the University of Scranton to serve as rector of its Jesuit community, where he remained for six years before moving to St. Aloysius Church in Washington, D.C. In addition to pastoral ministry, he continued writing. A book of his collected essays is titled, The Hidden Self Grown Strong.
Wernersville always seemed to come full circle for Fr. Aschenbrenner, and it is where he returned in 2012 to live and serve pastorally. Fr. George Bur, SJ, who was superior of the Jesuit community at Wernersville, remembers his spirit and love of preaching. “After suffering a stroke, despite being conscious of his weakened abilities, George kept up his spirit. He continued to preside at Mass, especially for his brother Jesuits.”
When the health wing at Wernersville closed in 2018, Fr. Aschenbrenner moved to Manresa Hall in Philadelphia, where he died peacefully on November 27, 2021, less than a week after his 89th birthday. Manresa Hall’s minister, Fr. Tom Pesci, SJ, who had been a novice under Fr. Aschenbrenner himself, was there with his mentor during his last days. “I will always remember the four words that were George’s tagline and the way he lived his life every day,” said Fr. Pesci. “It’s all about Jesus.”