fr_mark_headshot_150x150The Jesuits are best known for two particular ministries: their schools, especially their universities and high schools, and their parishes. The irony is that in the beginning, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, did not want the Jesuits to be engaged in either of these works. Indeed, neither parish work nor education were part of the Pope’s original charge to the brand new Society.

When Pope Paul III formally instituted the Society in 1540, and when Pope Julius III later confirmed the Society’s existence in 1550, they asked the Jesuits to undertake only limited and specific work: 1) preaching, including catechizing young children, and giving the Spiritual Exercises, a series of meditations developed by Ignatius that were designed to free one to make a whole-hearted choice to more fully serve God and God’s people; 2) offering the Sacraments, specifically Eucharist and Reconciliation; and 3) undertaking works of mercy, including ministry to the poor and sick, to prostitutes, and to persons in prison “according to what seems to be for the greater glory of God and the common good.”

Nevertheless, Ignatius quickly became convinced of the importance of schools to the success of the Society’s
mission. Indeed, the Society started its first school of general learning for boys in 1558, only eight years after the Society was established. But Ignatius never warmed to the notion of Jesuits’ serving in traditional parishes. In fact, the idea of Jesuits’ working in traditional parishes was officially disfavored by the Society until recently. Ignatius’ rationale was that standing parishes required a steady income, and he saw this as incompatible with the Jesuit vow of poverty. Furthermore, Ignatius believed that diocesan clergy were quite capable of staffing traditional parishes. He wanted Jesuits to do work that others did not want to do or were unable to do. If the Jesuits did staff parishes, these parishes tended to be in mission territory where there was a dearth of diocesan clergy. Finally, in Ignatius’ day, pastors tended to be assigned to a parish for life, and this was incompatible with Ignatius’ desire that Jesuits be highly mobile, ready to go wherever they were sent whenever they were sent.

Although officially frowning on Jesuits in parish ministry for virtually all of their existence, Jesuits have nonetheless been deeply and widely involved in standing parishes within a diocesan structure, at least in the United States and in recent years. Over time, Jesuits came to understand that parishes are wonderful bases from which we can offer more traditional Jesuit services, like preaching, giving retreats, and promoting the Spiritual Exercises. In Jesuit “lingo,” parish work serves the magis, that is, “the greater good.” Finally, in 1966 and again in 1995, a General Congregation of the whole Society declared that the Jesuits “affirm that ‘the parish apostolate is not contrary to our Constitutions,’ and…that, under certain circumstances, it is an appropriate apostolate for carrying out our mission of serving the faith and promoting justice.”

According to a recent statement by American Jesuits involved in parish ministry, a parish that is an appropriate apostolate of the Society will do certain things. First, a Jesuit parish will celebrate the sacraments of the Church, especially Eucharist, “in a spirit of creativity and with a willingness to adapt to the cultural realities of the community it serves,” e.g., racial, ethnic, economic, etc. Its liturgical celebrations will be characterized by “prophetic and spirit-filled preaching which consoles and challenges and which results in a deeper understanding of God’s love.”

Second, a Jesuit parish will evangelize not only of those who have not yet heard the Good News of Jesus Christ, but also those within our existing Catholic communities who may benefit from a new hearing of the Gospel. Such an evangelization will constructively and courageously critique what is contrary to the Gospel in our modern culture.

Third, ministry in a Jesuit parish will be collaborative, that is, will involve meaningful sharing of responsibilities between Jesuits and lay people, even parish governance. A Jesuit parish will collaborate with other Jesuit-sponsored works, with other Catholic parishes, with persons of other faiths, with civic institutions and political structures, indeed, with all people of good will to further the common good.

Fourth, Jesuit parishes will demonstrate in concrete ways a “preferential love for the poor.” This love will extend beyond almsgiving, and will include sharing directly in the lives of the poor and those others at the margins of society and working to change unjust political, economic, and social structures.

And fifth, a Jesuit parish will teach, promote, and practice that distinctive spirituality that is rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which finds God in all things, which understands creation as a gift from a loving God, which is characterized by a profound gratitude which, in turn, frees one for greater service of one’s brothers and sisters.

For much of the past year, the Parish Council and I have been preparing a draft statement of parish identity and mission that tries to incorporate into STM these and other characteristics. We will be presenting this draft to STM parishioners in a few weeks, seeking your feedback.