Why Pete Frates is a model for Jesuit-educated students

Pete Frates participated in the “Ice Bucket Challenge” to raise awareness for A.L.S. research at Fenway Park in Boston, Mass., on Thursday, August 14, 2014. (Photo credit: BC Athletics)

I met Pete Frates in the fall semester of 2012, when I addressed the Boston College baseball team as their new chaplain. It was my first day attending practice, and I also met the team’s staff: coaches, volunteers and a tall, athletic man who was introduced to me as “Pete.”

After I talked to the team, Pete kept telling me how he liked my speech. “You hit the nail right on the head,” he said a couple of times. As practice unfolded, I witnessed how, after an at-bat or a drill, the players would come to Pete and talk about their swing or footwork. Pete offered them feedback and lots of encouragement, too.

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Since the announcement of Pete’s passing on Monday, his life story has been featured everywhere from local news outlets to The New York Times, to the BBC and ESPN. Rather than rehearse Pete’s biography—you know him as the inspiring young man who helped make the “Ice Bucket Challenge” go viral in 2014—I want to present his life through the lens of Ignatian spirituality. More to the point, I see Pete as a model for the Jesuit-educated student-athlete, the Jesuit-educated student and all students of Ignatian spirituality.

Deep Desires

The goal of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is to make an election—that is, to find a sense of where God is calling the retreatant in his or her discernment. This election is about a big decision, one that stems from the retreatant’s deep desires, that which brings forth the greater glory of God.

I see Pete as a model for the Jesuit-educated student-athlete, the Jesuit-educated student and all students of Ignatian spirituality.

Pete was a person of deep desires. At Boston College, he was a student-athlete with a double major. His foremost passion was baseball, and his skill, enthusiasm and leadership led him to the role of team captain. When graduation came, he still loved the sport he grew up playing. So he left family and friends and headed to Germany to play baseball in the land where soccer is the king of the sports. It must have taken some serious desire about playing and teaching the game, to pack everything and head overseas.

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When I first met Pete, he had already received his A.L.S. diagnosis, but he mentioned nothing about his condition. The illness had not progressed too much yet. I could notice a subtle slur in his speech, and his step seemed a bit off. That day, Pete simply introduced himself, told me how much B.C. and its baseball program meant to him and made sure I felt at home in the program. Pete was not the kind of person to draw attention to himself. He was there for a deeper purpose: to help those around him.

Through all this, and for the years to come, he shared his passion for the game with the players, one by one. Above all, he had a great desire to educate, to be of service to the program, to give back to a place that gave him so much and to make everyone feel they could reach their full potential. He would do this even after he was in a wheelchair. When he could not speak anymore, he texted players to give more advice and encouragement. Pete’s deep desire was to see others be their best selves.

“The glory of God is humanity fully alive,” St. Irenaeus said. Pete, in his constant attention and care for those around him, wanted to bring forth this glory.

“The glory of God is humanity fully alive,” St. Irenaeus said. Pete, in his constant attention and care for those around him, wanted to bring forth this glory.

Learning Humility: Leave It Better for the Next Guy

Collegiate athletic programs have slogans that sum up their uniqueness. The motto of the Boston College baseball program is “Leave it better for the next guy.” In Jesuit-speak, this translates to “Be a man for others.” The B.C. baseball program is a school where young men learn to be men for others, and Pete was its master student. Pete’s career as a student-athlete, as a member of the B.C. baseball staff and as an A.L.S. advocate embodies the selflessness of “Leave it better for the next guy.”

Of course, his parents’ example and his high school years with the Xaverian Brothers contributed to Pete’s apparently effortless altruism. His time at Boston College propelled him to ever greater heights in the realm of living to make things better for those around him.

On the toughest day of his life, Pete Frates turned to what was at the core of his being: How can I make this situation into something better for the next A.L.S. patient?

Yet it is Pete’s post-college career that shows how fully he understood and lived the principles that form the core of Jesuit education. What 27-year-old, just told he has about five years to live, calls his former coach to say he sees his diagnosis an opportunity? The very day he received this awful diagnosis, Pete gathered his family. The meeting’s purpose was to brainstorm ways not only to tackle his illness but to help build a systematic approach to A.L.S. research so future patients would be given a fair fight against the disease.

On the toughest day of his life, Pete Frates turned to what was at the core of his being: How can I make this situation into something better for the next A.L.S. patient? The essence of this impulse was a spirit formed to be a man for others, to be selfless in humility. This was not just a pipe dream: It was the fuel for a $200 million fundraising campaign for a disease that had been neglected for decades.

The Difficult Path to Ignatian Indifference

In his attitude toward his diagnosis and his disease, Pete made good on his claim to have been given an opportunity. He continued to educate for as long as he lived, to make others’ lives better. He did not let his condition hinder his deepest desires. This is a lived testimony to what St. Ignatius calls “indifference.” The first meditation of the Spiritual Exercises is called “The First Principle and Foundation.” It sets the tone for the whole retreat. In this meditation, we read:

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things as much as we are able, so that we do not necessarily want health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long rather than a short life, and so in all the rest, so that we ultimately desire and choose only what is most conducive for us to the end for which God created us (No. 23, emphases added).

Pete had, as a young man, achieved this indifference, this sense of complete freedom between health and sickness. In his fight against A.L.S. and his advocacy for all current and future A.L.S. patients, he came to take every day as a gift rather than worry about how long or short the rest of his journey might be.

Pete’s passion for learning and sports, his desire to share his gifts and talents to make the world better for those around and after him model the true humility of Ignatian indifference. Pete’s ever-selfless and other-oriented stance in the most unexpected and greatest struggle of his life show us the fruits that Jesuit education can yield.

For those of us current or former students of Jesuit schools, Pete should not just become a remote inspiration. Pete’s life is a modern-day canvas of the Spiritual Exercises and a concrete example of the Ignatian call to “set the world aflame.”

For those skeptical of the role of religion and spirituality in our day and age, Pete’s journey should be a window into the power of God’s peace and power, discerned and lived for the betterment in the world.

Rest in peace, Pete, but do not let us rest until we take seriously the lessons you taught us.

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