Ignatius Press at 40 Years: An Interview with Fr. Joseph Fessio
“As long as there is a really robust faith, and good Catholic families and groups, there are signs of hope.”
As a frequent writer, I get to interact with various faithful Catholic publishing agencies at different levels — as an author, consultant, book reviewer, and in other realms of ministerial collaboration. I am privileged to be able to participate in this “fertile vineyard” of Catholic media publications, and one of my most sincere joys is being able to work with, and help promote, fellow Catholic authors who aim to take their faith seriously. Ignatius Press, which is preparing to celebrate its fortieth anniversary this November, is one such publisher, which has really become a Catholic media empire over the last four decades, and fortunately so. As a relevant aside, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is my favorite author (especially because of his iconic Jesus of Nazareth series, which is my favorite “trilogy”), and it is noteworthy that he chose Ignatius Press as the publisher of his English-language texts. I recently had the opportunity to speak by phone with Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., founder of Ignatius Press, about the journey of Ignatius Press during the last four decades, and the transcript of the interview appears below. I thank Fr. Fessio for his time and his candor.
1) How did you perceive God's call to the priesthood? To be a Jesuit in particular?
Well, it's a long story. The short version is that my girlfriend went into the convent. The longer version is that I was studying engineering in college, and wanted to do lay missionary work. I started dating a girl, but she said that she had already decided to go into the convent. So, I figured that was a sign that I should go into the priesthood. I figured you needed three things to be happy: a good job, a good religion, and a good wife. I thought that I had the first, at least potentially; and the second; then God put in front of me this lovely and intelligent woman who was the occasion for my recognizing that more important than these three things was finding the will of God.
In terms of becoming a Jesuit, I went to a Jesuit high school (Bellarmine College Preparatory), and then Santa Clara University. It felt natural to join the Jesuits.
2) What was it like to be a student of then-Fr. Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, when he was your professor and mentor at the University of Regensburg?
Well, the world now knows the kind of person he is. He is a wonderfully warm man. He is brilliant, but not proud. He has a keen sense of humor, and he has an immense knowledge base — theology, philosophy, history, and so many other areas; he knows how the world works. He is who he is: very transparent.
3) As we prepare to celebrate its fortieth anniversary, where did the idea for Ignatius Press come from?
As a Jesuit, you study philosophy, teach in a high school or university, and then study theology. I went to France for my theology studies and got to know Fr. Henri de Lubac. When it was time to continue my studies, I asked him what I should do my doctoral thesis on, and where I should study. He proposed Hans Urs von Balthasar as “the greatest theologian of our time, and perhaps of all time,” and suggested that I study under a young German theologian, Professor Ratzinger. Looking back, I realize that around the period of the Second Vatican Council — before and after — there were six major theological figures, three German speaking - Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Joseph Ratzinger — and three French-speaking ones — Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer, and Yves Congar. It was a blessing for me to know four of them well.
When I returned to the United States in 1974, I was a part of a reading group that discussed these theologians, along with Adrienne von Speyr, a mystic and directee of Fr. Von Balthasar. Since most of their works were not available in English, it was clear that something needed to be done to make their writings available to the English-speaking world. At that time I came to know Frank Sheed, who was the dean of Catholic publishing in the twentieth century, with his publishing company Sheed and Ward. I asked him whether we should consider establishing our own publishing company, and he said, “By all means. But be ready for ten years of grief.”
4) Ignatius Press has become one of the world's most prominent Catholic media publishers. How has Ignatius Press done over the years?
We sell about 2 million books per year. Since we had a software update recently, I had to export and import our historical data. I realized that we have sold 34 million books so far.
5) Why are you optimistic about the future of the global Church? Why are you hopeful?
I would say: Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Father. When you look at the history of the Church, you see that it waxes and wanes. In Europe, right now, there is not as much hope. I think that the African continent will be the future for us, just as Ireland once re-evangelized Europe. The United States has one bishops' conference, but there are fifty-one bishops' conferences in all the countries of Africa. Cardinal Francis Arinze and Cardinal Robert Sarah are brilliant men. So, one sign of hope for me is the vibrancy of the Church throughout Africa. Even in the United States, there are signs of hope. Our numbers are down, but what has happened? To name a few: the renewal of the seminaries... the pro-life movement... homeschooling families... faithful Catholic universities — older ones that were re-invigorated, such as the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and new ones such as Christendom, Thomas Aquinas College, and Ave Maria University. As long as there is a really robust faith, and good Catholic families and groups, there are such signs of hope.
6) I tend to ask this of my interviewees: what is your favorite scriptural passage, and why?
I love the Psalms. All Scripture is the Word of God, but the Psalms are God’s inspired way of praying to him. Different passages stand out at different times. Over the last couple of years, I have come to love this passage from Psalm 104: “I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will make music to God while I live. May my thoughts be pleasing to him; I find my joy in the Lord” (verses 33-34). Saint Paul is prolix, but I like what must be his shortest sentence: “And be thankful” (Colossians 3:15b), and from the Gospels, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
As we recently celebrated the Memorial of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who helped to spread the Catholic faith courageously during a similarly turbulent era in history, may Ignatius Press continue to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ for many more years to come! Saint Ignatius of Loyola, pray for us!
[Note: Tickets are available for the Ignatius Press 40th anniversary celebration at the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption on Nov. 2-3. More details are available here.]