SAN FRANCISCO — Just two weeks following the announcement by Ignatius Press of the creation of Campion College, Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio has been barred from having any role with the college. The Provincial of the Society of Jesus has reassigned him to be assistant chaplain for a hospital nearly 400 miles away.
The college was looking to become a new success story for the priest who founded Ignatius Press, the St. Ignatius Institute, Catholic World Report, Catholic Dossier the Adoremus Society. Before it has even opened its doors, three schools have agreed to accept Campion credits; Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, editor of the Catechism has praised it; and it is attracting students and donors.
The news of Father Fessio's transfer comes on the heels of the controversy that began at the University of San Francisco's Great Books program, the St. Ignatius Institute, just over a year ago. That's when Jesuit Father Stephen Privett ended his first semester as University of San Francisco president by firing longtime St. Ignatius Institute Director John Galten and assistant director John Hamlon. In protest, all six core faculty members of the Institute resigned and an appeal was made to the Vatican about their concerns.
The University of San Francisco then created a new, revamped St. Ignatius Institute. San Francisco Archbishop William Levada agreed to lecture on the campus at a forum of the new Institute. Then, this January, the Congregation for Catholic Education sent a letter to the university listing conditions under which the Institute should proceed. Father Privett claimed that the letter was “Vatican approval” of his actions.
Less than a month after the Vatican sent its letter, Father Fessio and Ignatius Press announced that Campion College would open just a half-block away from the University of San Francisco campus.
In a March 11 letter, California Jesuit Provinicial Father Thomas Smolich told Father Fessio, “Campion College was not and is not part of your assignment from the Society of Jesus, as determined by me as your provincial. You are to have no role, public or private, in Campion College, just as Campion has no relationship with the Society of Jesus.”
It reassigned him to Santa Teresita Hosptial in Duarte, Calif., effective May 1.
Father Fessio will remain director of Ignatius Press, but “f your work as director of Ignatius Press cannot be kept separate from the affairs of Campion College,” the provincial's letter stated, “I likely will not permit you to continue with Ignatius Press.”
Father Fessio founded Ignatius Press with Carolyn Lemon in 1978, and saw it grow every year of its existence and become a top Catholic publisher.
The reassignment “will not stop Campion College in any way,” said University of San Francisco philosophy professor Raymond Dennehy, formerly of the St. Ignatius Institute and a faculty member of Campion. “The curriculum is set up, the faculty are in place, the Web site is up, the money is there, and they already have had many inquiries from interested students.”
At Santa Teresita hospital, Father Fessio will be assistant to Father C.M. Buckley, a friend of Father Fessio's who was himself assigned to the hospital three years ago after a controversy over a student Mass he was offering off-campus.
“We had been looking for someone for about a year,” said Carmelite Sister Michelle, associate administrator of Santa Teresita Hospital. “Father Buckley has been very busy. He says two Masses daily and handles code blues. Having an associate will allow one to be here while the other is away.”
“I doubt that [Father Fessio's] reassignment is punitive,” said Father Buckley. “The provincial probably feels he is doing me a great favor.” At the same time, he added, “no one's motives are as pure as Ivory soap.”
Father Fessio told the Register that he was not given a reason for the reassignment, even when he pressed for one. He added that it is the first time he has been given an assignment that he did not personally desire.
Father Smolich, the provincial, didn't give a reason either. “If people want to link it to [the founding of] Campion they can go ahead and do that,” Father Smolich told the Register. “I'm not going to make any comment.”
Canon law instructs religious priests to be obedient to their legitimate superiors “who stand in the place of God when they command according to the proper constitutions” (Canon 601).
But it adds that superiors must exercise their power “in a spirit of service.” Superiors are to dialogue with those they direct and “are to listen to them willingly and foster their working together for the good of the institute,” says Canon 618.
The reassignment of Father Fessio, known nationally for his frequent talks and appearances at Catholic events, took many others by surprise.
“I was shocked,” said Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, chairman of the Ave Maria Foundation, and a colleague of Father Fessio's on many projects. “I just don't understand it. … Here you have one of the most famous Jesuits, with the possible exception of Cardinal Avery Dulles, and he is practically being silenced.”
Stanley Kurtz, a non-Catholic contributing editor of National Review Online, and George Neumayr, a Catholic writing for the American Prowler, both denounced the provincial's decision within two days of the news.
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, saw the decision as antithetical to his own organization's aims — his group promotes Catholic identity at Catholic universities.
“From this day forward, Father Fessio will be known as the martyr of the renewal of Catholic higher education,” said Reilly.
At the University of San Francisco, theology professor Jesuit Father Francis Buckley was not surprised at the news of Father Fessio's reassignment. “I don't see anything sinister in this,” he said.
But Aileen Alonzo, a St. Ignatius Institute student from Los Angeles, said “a lot of students are upset,” by the news.
Ignatius Press’ Mark Brumley will see his own managerial duties increase at the company when Father Fessio leaves, but says Father Fessio will be able to do much even from his new post.
Brumley said that he is perplexed by the reassignment, though. “I personally have to question the judgment of a superior that would take someone with Father Fessio's abilities and make him an assistant hospital chaplain when he has God-given gifts that would be far more effective for the Church.”
‘I Am a Jesuit’
Tom Monaghan said he has been surprised by Father Fessio's willingness to take on the new assignment.
“I am at peace,” Father Fessio wrote to his provinicial. “I am a Jesuit. I will obey. I will strive to fulfill both the letter and the spirit of this new mission.”
Said Monaghan, “It's amazing to me that he can be so obedient and faithful to his vows. He probably feels that he is married, for better or worse.”
Father C.M. Buckley explained Father Fessio's reaction. “It is the vocation of the Jesuit to move any place,” he said. “You can find God anywhere, especially in the suffering and dying.”
Catholic apologist and Ignatius author Steve Ray said that the emphatic “I am a Jesuit” part of Father Fessio's response says a lot about the priest.
“People see Father Fessio as this Italian stallion, yet he has a real tender spot,” said Ray. He recalled driving Father Fessio to dinner after a talk the priest had given. During the drive, Father Fessio realized that it was his 40th anniversary of his installation as a Jesuit and so called up a friend who had helped bring him into the Jesuits.
“Do you realize what today is?” Father Fessio asked on the cell phone. “This is the 40th anniversary of my initiation as a Jesuit.”
And then, said Ray, Father Fessio wept.
But isn't it a terrible thing to let his unique talents go to waste in an assistant chaplaincy?
No, said Father Fessio. “It's a very good thing,” he said. “I have a chance to do something that I didn't want to do. I'm looking forward to doing what I have been asked to do as a Jesuit. That will make me a better Jesuit and will be pleasing to God.”