The Long Black Line: What I learned from three good men
On the wall of my room, just below the windowsill and above my dusty homemade altar, I have Scotch-taped three memorial cards. These cards are not rare in Jesuit life. A few weeks after a brother Jesuit dies, I find in my mailbox one of these roughly 3- by 5-inch cards. On the front is a photograph of the man, usually in black-and-white, with his name printed at the bottom. On the back is a prayer—sometimes a passage from the Bible but often the “Suscipe” of St. Ignatius—that attempts to summarize the guiding spirit of the man’s life.
When I entered the Society of Jesus 10 years ago as a bright-eyed 21-year-old, a brother novice and I used to joke that instead of prayers we wanted our memorial cards to have statistics on the back: Father So-and-So performed 1,033 baptisms, had an 83 percent good-homily average and was a three-time campus ministry all-star. In those first few years of learning to live with an “S.J.” behind my name, each time I pulled one of these cards from my mailbox I felt a little like a kid opening a pack of baseball cards. But now these are cards from a team I belong to.
Whether lamented or celebrated, it is well established that the formerly tight bonds of U.S. Catholic culture are unwinding quickly. Like many others, I often describe my family as “nominal Catholics.” On Sundays when I was young, my parents took my two younger sisters and me to Mass, and that was about it. We were and still are a tightly knit, loving family, but we did not talk “Catholic talk” at home or pray the rosary and the like.
I had never considered being a Jesuit before I showed up at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and met some men who made me think, there is something living here that I have never seen before. Those three cards are taped to my wall because I learned to pray the rosary not from my family but in a parking lot in college. I learned the Hail Mary from my best friend (also a young Jesuit), who wrote it on a Post-It note and slipped it into my jacket pocket. The cards are there because I grew to love these men as they gave me roots in the Jesuit family. I loved their stories of that family, stories of playing baseball in cassocks in summertime and storied complaints about being sequestered in the countryside for studies. I learned to love them not for any great homily stats they might have put up but for welcoming me in.
One of the cards is of Bill Pauly, S.J., who would interrupt my slow nights of studying by knocking on my door to ask if he could sit down and read me a poem by Mary Oliver. Another is of Jim Egan, S.J., who could hold all your hurts in his spindly hands. The last is of John Lynch, S.J., who told me when we first met that he knew my Uncle Mark, who had gone to Creighton too; it was the first time I had heard that anyone in my family knew Jesuits. Each of these three Jesuits, their careworn faces still breathing out from their death cards, has sparked in me something I did not know was there, something that said: this is how I want to live.
I met Father John on a paddleboat in the summer of 2005. I had been a Jesuit for a few years by then, and we talked in good Wisconsin Jesuit style, with a beer in one hand and cheese in the other, while the boat paddled on. That day and afterward I found him to be a quiet man, one of those good listeners who waited just a little too long between phrases in a conversation, so that I never quite knew whether it was time for me to reply or not. He never minded if I interrupted. When he died in April 2011, I wrote to my uncle to let him know.
“Thank you,” Uncle Mark responded, “John was a good friend and mentor to me during my years at Creighton. He used to let me study in the back of St. John’s Church where it was quiet. He’d bring me snacks to keep me going.” As I read my uncle’s note I could see John in my mind, smiling, apple in hand, making his way to the student hunched over his books in the rear pews. I felt stabbed by the scene. “I have never forgotten what John did for me,” my uncle concluded, “and I’ve always felt that I still serve as a man for others.” Apparently my life has roots of which I was unaware, growing in surprising places.
Father Jim Egan was a solemn scarecrow of a man. I met him one summer when I was taking care of the old Jesuit vacation house we still use in the middle of Nowhere, Wis. It was an easy job most of the time, just going for doughnuts and the paper early in the morning and making sure there were two new movies to watch every night. So Jim and I had time to sit and talk. Or really, Jim had time to listen, and I had time to speak to him from my heart. His body looked old then, and tired. But when we spoke, it was as if some invisible chasm opened up below his chest and above his stomach to reveal a safe space. It was like being swallowed up by somebody who knew how to hold pain, how to let hurt bring him closer to God.
Jim was beginning the end of his life that summer. I found out later that he had returned home from Uganda for treatment of the cancer that would kill him in the fall of 2008. At 63, Jim had moved to Uganda and learned a new language so he could work with the young African Jesuits studying there. I also learned how much he loved Uganda and how hard it was for him to leave, but he never dwelt on the difficulties that summer. That summer he was all ears, all soft, safe heart. I am grateful to him, and I hope I can do the same sometime.
Father Bill Pauly’s is the only card on my wall printed in color, an exception that seems fitting given the vibrancy of his life. Bill was boisterous, funny and deeply vulnerable, with a humility that came from suffering. His energetic face turned red when he laughed. These were all great qualities for life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where he served the Lakota Sioux people as a priest for nearly 20 years. It was a shock for the community to learn, just after Thanksgiving in 2006, that he had died of a sudden heart attack at 59. Hundreds of Lakota people turned out for the two-night wake and the funeral Mass held on the reservation. Years before, he had been honored with the Lakota name Wacin Yanpi, “Depends on Him.” It was a perfect name for Bill, a name that said everything about how the people felt about him—how he would always be there for them and how he depended on Jesus in everything.
One evening during philosophy studies, I sat at my computer, working on some obscure paper with my shoulders tensed up, when Bill knocked on my door. Pushing his bald head through the doorway he asked, “Can I read you a poem?” He sat down and read his current favorite, Mary Oliver’s “The Summer’s Day.”
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is” he intoned. “I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down/ into the grass.” His voice trembled just a touch, and his eyes held the memory of the South Dakota grasslands as he asked Ms. Oliver’s lovely question: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” That moment was over too soon. As I went to bed that night I asked myself: Who is this man who stopped by my room just to read poetry? How can I become someone who does things like that?
Ministry Loves Company
On Oct. 22, 2011, seven young Jesuits were ordained to the diaconate in Oakland’s Cathedral of Light. They lay prostrate on the floor as the choir and congregation sang the familiar Litany of the Saints, calling down upon them the blessing of the whole holy community of the church, living and dead. “St. Ignatius,” we begged, “pray for us. St. Thérèse, St. Augustine, all you holy men and women, pray for us.” Through some mysterious plan, the long black line of the Society of Jesus continues in these men, in these brothers of mine and in the lay men and women who walk before and beside us.
Ministry—whether one is ordained or not—is a challenge in the confusing, fractured world that faces us today. It is a different world from the one in which Jim and Bill and John sought God. In this world it is hard to know which ministry stats I would even think to put on the back of my own memorial card.
But I can say that the great joys of my Jesuit life come in those unearned but long-prepared-for moments when people give me the sudden gift of helping them to let God come close. The long preparation I have needed in order to fill such a fragile role has been much helped by the particular men whose careworn faces I have taped to the wall of my room, men who ushered me into this family’s tradition in their own quiet, whimsical, poetic ways. Also sustaining me are my newly ordained brothers, committed to our fallible, tissue-paper-thin church and to Jesus. They carry me along with them in my weaker moments, buoy me up with their own quiet, whimsical, poetic lives.
They rose up, those new deacons, from the cathedral floor when the litany ended. They were consecrated, vested and sent forth into our fragile, confusing world to proclaim Jesus, the Word of God. They, like each of us, were sent into a world that, when you try to love it, leaves stretch marks on the heart. Neither they nor we go forth alone.
John, Bill, Jim, pray for us.