By Brendan Coffey, SJ
The Gospel of the day, I believe, was the calling of the first disciples. I knew the story intimately: Jesus is on the shoreline; he calls the fishermen; they drop their nets and follow him. It was the fall of 2015. I was sitting in the chapel of St. Andrew Hall, the Jesuit novitiate in Syracuse, N.Y. Every Jesuit starts out at a place like this.
And that is why this Gospel is tantamount to liturgical catnip. Every novice in this chapel has left behind his job and home and bank account to be here. We all feel deeply immersed in what we are hearing.
And I can sense that. Palpably. Heads lift up, and the hum of deep breathing is audible. Eyes are alert, dancing with memories of a personal stake in the narrative.
The moment is ripe for our novice director, Fr. Jim Carr, SJ, who also senses the energy in the room. Jim is a master homilist, and he is not about to let the moment pass. But rather than address each man individually, he seizes the opportunity to reflect on the call of a community.
“Look around the room,” he begins. “Had you all been on the same college campus, few of you would likely have been close friends.” We do look around. And then the laughs come. First slightly, and then heartily, loudly. He has tapped into something rich.
Melvin Rayappa, SJ, John Pignone, SJ, Brendan Coffey, SJ, Christian Verghese, SJ, Chris Smith, SJ, Jake Braithwaite, SJ, and Ken Tompkins, SJ standing in front of the famous “God Alone” gate at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Ky., in February 2016.
On the feast of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, 1534, seven men gathered in a small chapel in Montmartre, France, to profess vows of poverty and chastity with the hope of becoming disciples—that is, contemporary equivalents to the fishermen Jesus called in Biblical times. They referred to themselves simply as “friends in the Lord.”
Among them are names we know well: Iñigo de Loyola; his college roommate, the plucky Francis Xavier; and Pierre Favre, the sole priest among the group. There too are Diego Laínez, Alfonso Salmerón, Nicolás de Bobadilla and Simão Rodrigues.
Though we think of them as a single entity, these men, the first Jesuits, were incredibly diverse. They were Spanish, French and Portuguese. Some came from nobility, some from humble homes. Some were mere teenagers; others were aging men. Some came educated; others, less so. Some were life-long devout Christians; others were mischief-makers who had recently converted to more pious ways.
They were a checkered quilt of temperaments: Ignatius the O-captain-my-captain romantic, Xavier the zealous adventurer, Favre the country priest, Laínez the flashy brain, Salmerón the quiet writer, Bobadilla the notorious contrarian, and Rodrigues the recalcitrant administrator.
Yet, for all their differences, something united these seven men. They were like planets orbiting a single point of gravity, not solely bound by a familiar, everyday friendship. What stitched their hearts together was a common friendship in the Lord.
It is another one of those mid-summer Syracuse evenings. Clouds soak up the colors of the day as the air calms and cools. Fr. Rich Zanoni, SJ, elder statesman of the house, is out on the driveway in an old lawn chair with a serene smile on his face and a cup of decaf coffee as Mahler plays from an old radio plugged into the wall of the garage.
We are cleaning up from dinner, but the signs of the evening—the vibrant colors, the cool air, the smile on Rich’s face—tell us exactly what will happen next.
Since our very first week in the novitiate, it has been the habit of my class to take post-dinner walks to Le Moyne College, the small Jesuit college across the street. Chris, good scientist that he is, was the first to name our ritual: the Le Moyne stroll.
And so we are out and walking. Christian, energetically bouncing a tennis ball, starts a walking game of throw-and-catch with Melvin. Just ahead of them, I hear a sonic boom of laughter. Ken! Chris has got him doubled over again, and Jake is laughing now too, as much at Ken’s delight as at Chris’ story.
John and I are walking slightly behind them. John, ever grateful, reminds me of the goodness of it all: “Bro. What a day.”
For a moment, I stop and take stock in the miracle of our coming together. Our backgrounds are divergent enough that if we ran a small school, we’d have every subject covered. We are a veteran, a computer scientist, an economist, fresh-to-the-party college grads, teachers. We are New Yorkers and New Jerseyites, Marylanders and Carolinians (with the accents to prove it). And our names and faces betray roots that vary from Irish to Indian, Italian to African-American.
Some of us sit at the breakfast table, trading in loud self-deprecating humor. Others sit at the can’t-you-see-that-I-just-woke-up breakfast table, quietly digesting bagels. Some of us sing along to Beyoncé in the shower. Others have their 1980s I-know-all-these-songs-by-heart playlists on the ready for every road trip.
And so it goes on.
And yet each of us distinctly heard a call to come to this place. And when we arrived, each of us found out that, yes, there is a place for us after all.
On August 12, 2017, seven men gathered in a not-so-small church in Syracuse, N.Y. Like those seven companions in 1534, Ignatius in their midst, we desired to profess vows with the hope of becoming closer friends in the Lord.
Months later, as I think back to that day, to the moment when we joined the Society of Jesus together and took first vows, I still well up with emotion. But as I recall the faces of my brothers—Jake and John, Chris and Ken, Mel and Christian—at the beautiful, wild, gritty texture of our class, I cannot help but laugh.
And I think that Jim Carr had it right all along: Only God could have pulled this off.
Brendan Coffey, SJ, began First Studies this year at Ciszek Hall, on the campus of Fordham University. Upon completion of his program, he will move on to the regency stage of his Jesuit formation.
To learn more about how to become a Jesuit, visit www.BeAJesuit.org.