'Tall, Thin, Dark, Foreboding' ... and 'Tremendously Happy'

Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio has gotten attention because he knows Pope Benedict XVI.

But Father Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., and founder and editor in chief of Ignatius Press, would rather talk about the priesthood. Having almost married when he was young, he has advice for men who think they might have a vocation to the priesthood.

Father Fessio spoke to Register correspondent Valerie Schmalz.

What is your main work? You founded the St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco, founded Ignatius Press, and now serve as provost of Ave Maria University. What do you see as your call as a priest?

The call is to be a follower of Christ, and as a Jesuit to serve the Church under the standard of the cross, and particularly to support the Holy Father and the Church's teachings. That is the traditional Jesuit rationale.

Ignatius founded an order that was both missionary and educational. And even in the mission work it has done, it's often educational. The great glory of the Jesuits in the 16th and 17th centuries was to become the schoolmasters of Europe by their schools and by the ratio studiorum, which was a plan of studies, but still is very viable and still is used in some places.

As a Jesuit, my being an educator is something quite consistent with my vocation. I originally wanted to be a missionary and go to South America — before I had discovered my priestly vocation — to work with the poor as an engineer and do lay catechetical work. After entering the Society of Jesus, I wasn't given that assignment but I think I'm doing something similar; it's a kind of spiritual engineering: St. Ignatius Institute, Ignatius Press, and now working for Ave Maria University.

How did you come know you were called to the priesthood?

I went to public grammar school, and then I went to my first Catholic school, a Jesuit school, Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, Calif. The one thing I was certain of was that I was not going to be a priest.

In high school, I realized that I couldn't be a Catholic just because my parents were Catholic. I had to find out whether this was true — whether there was a God and whether he had revealed himself.

So, in my high school way, I did that, pursued that, and I came to the conclusion that, yes, there must be a God. Looking at all the different claims that he had made himself known, it seemed to me that the Catholic claim was the most persuasive of all, most all-embracing of one's experience of history.

So that confirmed me in my conviction that the Catholic Church was the Church established by Christ and that Christ was the Son of God.

I went on to a Jesuit University — Santa Clara University — to study engineering, and it was there that I read a book which was very important for me called The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. It was about a retired engineer who went to Southeast Asia and by the very simplest means helped these people who were really struggling without benefit of a lot of what we would call technology — labor-saving devices.

In college, I developed a simple version of a personal philosophy. A man needs three things to be happy in life: a good religion, a good job and a good wife.

I had come to the conclusion that Catholicism was the true religion, and I was an American educated in the United States, and I knew I’d be able to find a job, and so the final piece of the puzzle was finding the right woman.

I had this idea of going to South America as an engineer and doing lay catechetical work, and I met a woman who I thought might be a good companion for that, and then found out that before I’d met her she’d decided to enter the convent.

At first, I thought I would change her mind about that and talk her out of it. But I came to the conclusion that, no, she would be a nun and I would become a priest, and that was my vocation. It just seemed like the only possible type of priest would be a Jesuit. So I entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1961 in Los Gatos, Calif.

I've come to recognize that God does act through what apparently are chance circumstances — as in choosing the Apostle Matthias by casting lots.

Looking back on my life's path, I see that I was born to be a Jesuit. My personality, my temperament, my way of thinking and acting are just something that is very consistent with the classical image of the Jesuit: you know, tall, thin, dark, kind of foreboding. Not all are that way, but that certainly fits the image.

What would you say to young men or not-so young men, who are considering a vocation as a priest?

Well, I would say that certainly God is calling many more young men than are responding. One should really trust God. The temptation is to think that you're giving up so much and to wonder whether you would find fulfillment or be happy or achieve your goal, whatever it might be.

The surprising thing is that once you've made what appears to be this great sacrifice of intimacy with a woman and a family and the choosing of your own profession and so on, you find that on the other side of that choice is tremendous freedom and happiness.

The important thing is to find out what God wants you to do. To be truly open. Ignatius calls it indifference. Not indifference in the sense of apathy, but saying to the Lord, “Whatever you want, Lord, not what I want. Your will be done, not mine.”

I think that if a young man has a question in his mind, whether perhaps he's called to be a priest, he really owes it to God and to himself to discern God's will.

At Ave Maria University, we have a wonderful program in which college students who are discerning live on a floor together with priests and a spiritual director, and they're able to be ordinary college students and at the same time discern a vocation. It works wonderfully because if a young man finds he is called to the priesthood, he's found his vocation. If he finds he's not, he still has very good spiritual formation for being a parent and for being a professional.

And it's also good because, sometimes, as you go through your life, you can have this nagging suspicion: Should I have been a priest? If you never really gave it a try, that can be a burden on your conscience. But if you really are open to God, and you try to let him speak to your heart, and you find that he's not calling you to the priesthood but rather to marriage — well, then you know you've generously opened yourself to him, and you can be confident that what you are doing is what he wants you to do.

What is your greatest joy as a priest, as a Jesuit and as an American?

My greatest joy as a priest, of course, is the celebration of Mass. I have come to appreciate especially a way of celebrating the Novus Ordo Mass, which is very much in continuity with the Mass that had been celebrated before the Novus Ordo.

I was happy to find that as I was coming to see this, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was writing his book on the liturgy, The Spirit of the Liturgy. And his views on the Mass and how to celebrate the Mass turned out to be the same as what I had come to, although he expressed them there in a much more beautiful and profound way.

So, celebrating Mass facing the Lord, with the Roman Canon, in Latin, Gregorian Chant and a congregation which is deeply prayerful, is a great joy for me. We do that at Ave Maria University. It's one of my joys, both at Ave Maria University and Ignatius Press. So that's my greatest joy as a priest.

As a Jesuit, I guess my greatest joy is knowing I have been called to a society of such giants of the faith, such great heroes, even though I think at the present moment the society as a whole has fallen somewhat from that extremely high and noble standard. I still think that being a Jesuit is a great privilege.

My joy as an American is the realization that while no political system or order is going to be the Kingdom of God, we do have many freedoms here and the opportunity to become one's self and achieve one's destiny.

Even though our culture is in many ways a degraded one, still when you look at the main forces and powers in the world today and for the future, you see China which is enormous, and Islam which is growing, and you have what — the West. And the West is basically North and South America. Europe is on the decline and is going to become perhaps, if nothing else, an Islamic federation over time.

So I think as an American there is an opportunity through education to form the next generation, many of whom are Hispanics, for leadership in the society and in the Church. And this is really the last chance of preserving the glorious tradition of Western civilization, which is the greatest cultural artifact that mankind has ever produced, a civilization that owes its greatness to the culture forming and transforming presence of the Catholic Church.

Valerie Schmalz writes from San Francisco.