Destinations of Faith

Jesuit Parishes Assume a Distinct Role

By William Boyle

It was an early evening in March of 2013, and the world was learning that an obscure cardinal from Argentina had been elected pope. In Richmond, Va., members of Sacred Heart Church—an overwhelmingly Latino congregation—were sending up cheers. A woman strode up to the pastor of this Jesuit parish and exclaimed, “Father, Father, one of us made pope!”

“Yes,” replied Fr. Shay Auerbach, SJ, thinking he knew what she meant. “A Latin American.”

“No,” said the parishioner, correcting him—“a Jesuit!”

Fr. Auerbach relates this anecdote about the election of Francis, the first Jesuit pope, and he does so to illustrate something else. Whether they’re serving immigrants in Richmond, young professionals in New York, or others in settings ranging from Toronto’s inner city to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Jesuit parishes are different. They share a particular sense of identity, stemming from the distinct blend of religious sensibilities and spiritual practices that Jesuits refer to unassumingly as “our way of proceeding.”

The Society of Jesus and its institutions are widely known, but as Fr. Dan White, SJ, points out, “People don’t think of Jesuit parishes. They’re not what we’re known for.” Fr. White is pastor of St. Francis Xavier College Church, a full-service parish at Saint Louis University. “When most people think about Jesuits, they think of teaching at high schools and universities,” he notes.

Still, there are 67 Jesuit parishes in the United States and Canada, and increasingly the Jesuit provinces are looking to their parishes as one way to animate the contemporary Jesuit mission. That mission includes, among other priorities, collaborating with the laity, sharing Ignatian spirituality and practicing a “faith that does justice” through solidarity with the marginalized and other forms of advocacy. Fr. White has a straightforward explanation of what a Jesuit parish does and how it’s different from other parishes: “It’s one that is doing the mission of the Society of Jesus in a parish setting. That’s the difference.” He also adds lightheartedly that the parishes are different from the famed Jesuit universities in this way: “You don’t have to pass a test to get in.” The parishes are open to all.

Conventionality is not in the operating manual of these parishes. In a 1979 document titled “Some Guidelines for the Parish Apostolate,” the beloved Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Society of Jesus from 1965 to 1983, stressed that a Jesuit parish “should not merely be a place where sacraments are administered to a small number of practicing Christians. Rather, it should be a center where the Word of God is preached and inspires deep probing; where there is a sense of openness to local social, economic, and cultural problems.” Fr. Arrupe, whose cause for beatification and canonization opened recently in Rome, added: “The parish should be a meeting place for everybody in the district.”

It’s no surprise, then, that some members of Jesuit parishes tend to be parishioners by choice, not by geography. Some travel long distances, much like those at St. Francis Xavier College Church—who travel from no fewer than 60 zip codes in metropolitan St. Louis  to reach their destination parish. Many of these seekers already have some familiarity with the  Jesuits, typically as alumni of Jesuit schools rather than as parishioners of other Jesuit  churches. And, one thing they’ll notice early on is that Jesuit parishes have a different pastoral  feel.

“Homilies inspired by the experiences of the Spiritual Exercises are often cited among the reasons why worshippers make the extra effort to attend our Jesuit destination parish,” says Fr. Joseph  Costantino, SJ, pastor at St. Ignatius Parish in Chestnut Hill, Mass. “It is not unusual to hear  Jesuit presiders relate the readings to the graces of the Exercises.”

“Someone once said that you never hear a bad sermon here, and I agree,” adds Bill Plante, a  parishioner and lector at Holy Trinity Parish in Washington, D.C. “There is a presence of the Spiritual Exercises in everything.”

Fr. Kevin Gillespie, SJ, pastor at Holy Trinity emphasizes that engaging parishioners is the key.  “We strive to make sure parishioners are engaged—engaged with scripture, with the Eucharist, with  each other, and with our greater community. We want to encounter Christ in everything.”

Likewise, Catherine O’Hagan Wolfe, of the Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York City, says that  when she was first introduced to the church close to a decade ago, she felt a pull toward the kind  of place “where people introduce themselves to whoever is sitting next to them, at the beginning of  Mass. Everyone sings—it’s infectious. Folks applaud.” Wolfe, an attorney in Manhat-tan who graduated  from the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and is now chair of Xavier’s pastoral council,  referred to these and other qualities as “threshold manifestations of a healthy spiritual community.”

The spiritual journey goes to the heart of parish ministry, Ignatian-style. It’s what people are seeking when they find a Jesuit parish. “I wanted to live my faith life with a little more intentionality—that whole magis thing,” explains Wolfe, using the Latin word for “more” or “greater” popularized by Jesuits. Her faith became more intentional partly by her joining the Church of St. Francis Xavier’s “Lay Spirits” program, in which groups of parishioners commit themselves to getting together regularly for nine months to explore spirituality and learn better how to discern God’s presence in their lives.

Fr. Mark Horak, SJ, remembers when he became the first Jesuit pastor of St. Thomas More Church outside of Atlanta. “When Archbishop Wilton Gregory invited the Jesuits to assume responsibility for pastoring St. Thomas More parish, he said that he wanted the people of his archdiocese to have options when they considered joining a parish, and he expected a Jesuit parish to offer something distinctive. Jesuit parishes may not do different things, but we are expected to do things differently. The Spiritual Exercises shape our way of experiencing God, of praying, and behaving.”

In Sacramento, St. Ignatius Loyola Parish took the bold step of launching the Center for Ignatian Spirituality two years ago. The center brings to the laity such robust Ignatian practices as the 19th Annotation, also known as “the Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life,” an eight-month version of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola that emphasizes daily prayer and weekly spiritual direction. Taking it a step further, the group is also training lay people to lead such programs at St. Ignatius, as well as in other settings such as retreat centers. This past May, 18 lay people earned their certificates in spiritual direction from the center, and one of them was Rufo, a retired attorney.

Although a graduate of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Rufo recalls that his prayer life “used to be hit or miss.” But then he joined St. Ignatius and signed up for a three-day silent retreat during the mid-1990s. “For me, it was a new kind of praying—the contemplation and the meditation. It just felt like a different way of relating to God, a different kind of relationship with Christ, and it got me enthused,” he says. “I’m now more aware of God in my life.” So are many others, he adds: “I think the Ignatian spiritual idea has kind of permeated the parish. It’s amazing to see lay people owning this.”

The inner journey is characteristic of the Ignatian way, but Jesuit parishes don’t leave it at that. Our Lady of Lourdes in downtown Toronto, one of North America’s densest neighborhoods, is connecting spirituality to urgent problems such as poverty, housing, addiction and mental illness. “We don’t separate all that from the life of the parish. It’s our normal way of proceeding,” says pastor Fr. John Sullivan, SJ. This year, as part of their ongoing spiritual discernment, the pastor and other parish leaders decided they were overly preoccupied with the everyday tasks of  parish administration, and needed to mix more closely with their urban environs. Among other  things, Fr. Sullivan started blocking out 45 minutes a day to roam this downtown district that contains both poverty and riches, new immigrants and affluent professionals. In his car one day,  he noticed a familiar face on the sidewalk: a young man who had passed his days inside the church,  homeless and addicted.

For decades, the Jesuit church has opened its doors to people with such afflictions, giving them a  quiet, safe haven from the streets. Recently, however, the parish decided to become more  intentional about this daytime outreach. In a spirit of “accompaniment” (a key word in the  contemporary Jesuit lexicon), parish ministers and others began finding out the names of these  people, learning their stories, encouraging them to get help and accompanying them to appointments.  The young man in question, who had attended the parish as a child with his immigrant family, no  longer lurks in the back pews on weekdays: he’s well on the road to sobriety, with an apartment of  his own. Fr. Sullivan spotted him walking down a street, well attired and interacting with others.  “You could see him now becoming his own person. You could see God’s fidelity to him, how God has  been working through him and others to get him out of a very difficult place,” the pastor says.

St. Peter Catholic Church in Charlotte, N.C., is unique in this way too— actually turning part of  their building into a homeless shelter one night a week during the colder months. “As a Jesuit  parish, we are committed to a faith that does justice,” says Fr. James Shea, SJ, pastor at St. Peter. “Our Room in the Inn program operates weekly from December through March and provides hospitality,  dinner, and overnight lodging for our homeless neighbors.”

Fr. James Casciotti, SJ, pastor at St. Ignatius Parish in Baltimore, views it as a calling. “We are  called to discover, respect, protect, and enhance whatever is humane and graced in every person and  in every culture. We believe that working hard to collaborate with and share God’s generosity and  compassion is one of the privileges of being human—and that what we owe to God,  to creation, to one another is gratitude, humility, reverence, and service.”

The call to collaboration runs deep in all Jesuit parishes. “We try to learn very hard from, and  with, the people we serve,” says Fr. Auerbach in Richmond, “rather than telling them what we’re  going to do. I think that’s typical of Jesuit parishes.” As to the struggling Latin American  immigrant community that congregates  at Sacred Heart Church, he says: “The parish is theirs.

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