The Changing Face of Jesuit Priesthood: Q&A with Carlos Esparza, S.J.

Carlos D. Esparza, S.J., 35, is a newly ordained Jesuit priest from Richardson, Tex. A 1998 graduate of Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, he earned his B.A. in computer science from Harvard University in 2002 and worked two years for the Department of Defense before entering the Society of Jesus in 2004. As a Jesuit he earned an M.A. in philosophical resources from Fordham University in 2008, an M.A. in statistics from Columbia University in 2009, and an M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in 2015. He currently serves on the board of Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas.

During his Jesuit formation, Father Esparza worked in El Salvador and Belize. In addition, he taught mathematics at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory School in Houston from 2009 to 2012 and taught in the great books program at the St. Ignatius Institute of the University of San Francisco from 2012 to 2014. From 2014 to 2015, he worked as a deacon at St. Isidore Catholic Church in Danville, Calif., and will now spend the next year working as associate pastor at St. Ignatius Loyola Parish in Denver and as chaplain to Escuela de Guadalupe.

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Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans ordained Father Esparza and seven other Jesuits to the priesthood at St. Joseph Church in New Orleans on June 13. On June 23, I interviewed Father Esparza by email about his vocation and the Jesuit priesthood.

You’re a cradle Catholic from Texas. What made you want to be a priest?

During my childhood, my parents were a big influence on me. They were very involved with our local parish, St. Paul’s. My father was an usher and an active member of the men’s club. My mother was on the parish advisory council, and she played a significant role to get a Spanish language mass at our parish. Their actions showed me that my church was not only part of our community but also part of our extended family. From this, I came to know our parish priests. This coupled with my exposure to the Jesuits at Jesuit Dallas made me realize that priests were happy people. I thought to myself that I could also live this life, and God did reveal this to me as I grew up.

When you were growing up, what people had the biggest impact on your faith?

The Jesuits at my high school impressed me. They were committed, caring individuals who knew how to pray and how to laugh. To my classmates and me, the Jesuits seemed like normal people who were called to serve God. 

As a priest from a Mexican-American family, what does Our Lady of Guadalupe mean to you?

As a child, I remember my grandmother, Mamalia, having a strong devotion to Guadalupe. She would sit in her blue chair and tell all of us the favors she had received by Guadalupe’s intercession. When I was very young, I thought that Guadalupe must be a strong woman, and I immediately felt close to her because she looked after my grandma. 

OLG has a special place in my family’s history. My parents were married at the parish under her patronage in Wichita Falls. Guadalupe has been there throughout my journey. I made a pilgrimage to Tepeyac to see her the April before I entered the Jesuits. While there, I remember placing myself in her hands and asking her to help me keep close to her son. I have been very grateful for her protection. I am very happy to have been able to celebrate a mass of thanksgiving at Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Wichita Falls during my first week after ordination. 

What influence did attending a Jesuit high school have on your vocation?

I am the man that I am today because I attended Jesuit Dallas. The staff and faculty formed a warm community that allowed my classmates and me to mature into young men who fit the profile of a Jesuit graduate. Specifically, I recall the retreats that allowed me to develop and strengthen my faith. It was during these times I grew closer to Jesus, and I was able to share this experience with my classmates. When I thought about being a priest, the Jesuit order was the first religious community that came to mind because of my enlightening experience at Jesuit Dallas.

You attended Harvard and worked for the Department of Defense before entering the Society of Jesus. What would you say to people who think you were crazy to give up those things?

If you had told me before I had my call that I would enter the Jesuits, I might have said that you were also crazy. I now would say to those who might think I am crazy that I had an authentic religious experience that led me to reevaluate my life. This occurred before my senior year in college. During an ordination mass, I had a profound sense that God was present. The presence was so strong and so freeing that I had the sense God was inviting me to consider the priesthood.

This experience caused me to begin my discernment to the priesthood. Jesus has asked me to live the life of ordained service, and I must say that I have been very happy throughout my formation. In other words, God has continually confirmed my choice to enter the Jesuits.

Including high school, you’ve now graduated with degrees from five different schools, including both Jesuit and non-Catholic institutions. As many Jesuits do, you may also pursue doctoral studies at some point. What have been some of your favorite memories as a student?

I have loved going to school, but it has its challenges. Somewhat jokingly but also seriously, I must say my favorite memory as a student was college graduation. I remember when I received my degree, I had the great feeling that I will never have to write a paper, complete a project, or take a final again. It was freeing. Of course, two years later, I entered the Jesuits and began 11 years of formation, which included six years of formal schooling. School is great, but what’s even better is being able to minister to the people of God. Now, all of us who were recently ordained are here.

Looking back at our long Jesuit formation, it took you 11 years to get ordained. How have you changed or grown as a person during this time?

Eleven years is a long time. Yet, looking back on my formation, I am extremely grateful for it. I have learned quite a bit, and most of it has occurred outside of the classroom. There are too many areas to cover, but I would like to mention two. First, I have learned how to live in community with my Jesuit brothers. Jesuits are very diverse. There’s a saying that if you have met one Jesuit, you have met one Jesuit. So, at times, there are challenges when you have 16 men from multiple countries and different age groups living under one roof. I believe that I have grown more patient and understanding; of course, there is still much more for me to learn.

The other area I would like to mention is prayer. When I entered the novitiate, I knew how to pray Our Father, Hail Mary, and other traditional prayers. I had some experience with the Jesuit examen and contemplation. But I really was a novice when it came to prayer! My novice master, Fr. Huete, taught me how to pray in a Jesuit way, and this has organically become the way I have prayed throughout my formation. One thing that really helped my own prayer was receiving formal training in spiritual direction. I believe this has given me the tools to be of help to those who are seeking to understand how God works in their lives.

As a Jesuit, you’ve already taught at a high school for three years and at a university for one year. What do you love most about teaching?

I taught math at both levels, and I know not all my students have a natural aptitude for mathematics. I always get a great feeling when a student finally comprehends a difficult concept. There is look of awe in their eyes when this occurs. 

Also, I really enjoy seeing my former students achieving their dreams. When a student succeeds after graduating high school or college, I am very proud of him or her.

What kind of priest do you want to be?

I hope that I am priest who is available. I pray for the grace that I willingly, with an open heart, go where my superiors mission me in the future. Besides this, I pray that I am a holy priest who stays close to Jesus and the people of God.

Although the priesthood is one, there are many different ways of being a priest in the Catholic Church, both within religious orders and outside of them. What’s distinctive for you about the Jesuit way of being a priest?

I believe what is most distinctive about the Jesuit way of being priest is our vow of obedience. Jesuit priests are willing to be sent wherever their superiors see fit. We belong to a worldwide order, and, as such, it is important to consider the needs not only the local churches but also the Universal Church. I have admired several older Jesuits who have exceptionally modeled this vow.

How do you pray? (Any favorite prayers, methods, intentions, etc.)

During different stages of my formation, a variety of prayer methods seemed more attractive to me than others. Currently, I am drawn to Ignatian contemplation. I usually invite Jesus to join me, and I imagine him sitting next to me. We have a conversation. What has also been helpful is music. I have created a “prayer” playlist on Spotify. When I want a little change of place, I play this music while I pray. It allows me to enter into a sacred space much more easily. 

What’s your favorite Scripture passage and why?

Matthew  11:28-30; “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This is one of my favorite passages, and I included it on my ordination prayer card. The reason is that throughout my journey I have found Jesus always by my side. When I have acknowledged this and given him my concerns and burdens, this has given me deep consolation. I hope that others will experience this also.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Robert O'Connell
2 years 4 months ago
Re Matthew 11:28-30: When I turn to Him, I too find Him "present" and responsive. This is equally true with regard to the Father and the Holy Spirit. All I have to do is ask, knock, seek -- and something helpful always, yes "always" occurs.

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