Friday 17 June 2016

The Lives of Jesuits

If the starting point of Jesuit formation is a spirituality of “finding God in all things”, then one ought not be surprised at the way the lives of Jesuits will pan out.  These recent times, for me at least, have provided two cases in point.

One of the Society’s firebrands from the New York Province departed this world recently, aged ninety-four. Daniel Berrigan SJ had been a priest, poet and anti-war activist for decades.  Now he rests in peace after challenging his order, his nation and his Church in the ways of those prophets of old who clamoured for peace.  These last weeks, Berrigan has been receiving many accolades, but in life he was regarded almost as ‘public enemy number one’ by Cardinal Spellman of New York and by J Edgar Hoover of the FBI.  At one time ‘on the run’, Berrigan was the first-ever priest on the FBI’s most wanted list.  And I am sure he caused his Provincials not a few sleepless nights.  At various times Berrigan was “missioned” to France and to Latin America but his spirit was never dampened.  He made the cover of Time magazine.

The years of the Vietnam War witnessed the zenith of Berrigan’s action on behalf of peace.  A pacifist, he protested against the war and against the conscription which was the war’s life-blood.  Between 1970 and 1995 Berrigan spent one quarter of his life in federal prisons for his disruptive activities.  It was said he liked to think that his prison denim garb was “the vestments of a new Catholic church”.

It was as early as 1968 that Berrigan made his first mark publicly when, with his brother Philip (a diocesan priest) and a number of other religious, he set fire to 378 stolen files of young men about to be drafted to fight in Vietnam.  Appropriately, the fire was fuelled with Berrigan’s home-made napalm.

Post-Vietnam saw no quenching of his passions.  Inspired by the hope of the prophet Isaiah that in time the world would “beat swords into ploughshares”, Berrigan and others in 1980 broke into a General Electric plant and began to attack with hammers the warheads of missiles.  Half-measures were never his style.  “Love is expressed in deeds more than words,” suggested Ignatius.  For Berrigan, there were also principles to be so expressed.

The latter years saw Berrigan find new causes.  In his 80s he took part in Occupy Wall Street and marched against war in Iraq.  He fought against the death penalty and worked with the dying in an AIDS hospice in Greenwich Village.  Berrigan took our mission statement of “a faith that does justice” seriously and fearlessly.  Though quirky and uncompromising, he was, to the end, a member of the Society of Jesus – a companion of Jesus.  And he knew the implications; he knew the cost.  Berrigan spelt that out in one of my favourite quotes of his:  “Before you get serious about Jesus, first consider how good you’re going to look on wood.”

On the other side of the globe and in our own Province, we celebrated another Jesuit this week: Br John May SJ, the Jesuit Winemaker Emeritus at Sevenhill.  In the Queen’s Birthday Honours list he was created a Member of the Order of Australia (AO) for services to winemaking, regional tourism and the Catholic Church.  John May is a local, a “Cammeray kid”, who was a student at St Pius X and became a carpenter before joining the Jesuits.  He was first sent to Sevenhill in 1963 as an assistant to the then brother winemaker.  A decade later he was to become the seventh Jesuit winemaker at our vineyard, begun by the Austrian Jesuits in 1848.  The winery flourished under him, with a growing export industry.  With Br John’s vision, the winery currently boasts twenty-three varieties of table and fortified wines, to say nothing of three versions of altar wine.  Perhaps the most sought after product is the very limited Brother May Reserve Release Shiraz, first bottled to commemorate John’s forty-fifth vintage at Sevenhill.  A drop much sought after!

Along the way, Br John has been recognised with many awards from his peers in the wine industry, for contributions to tourism, from landcare organisations, and even membership of a Hall of Fame.  But Br John is to be seen as much in our Sevenhill parish church as at the cellar door.  His Jesuit identity is strong and his faith robust.

“We are all given gifts by God,” Br John reflects, “and, when I was sent to Sevenhill, my commitment was to exercise all my talents for the greater glory of God.  Being a Jesuit, ad maiorem Dei gloriam has been my guiding light.  Having devoted my life to the Lord, I do not expect to be honoured for my work which, for me, has always had its own rewards.”

Two such very different lives.  One in the bustle and hub of New York.  The other toiling and tilling the land, as the seasons come and go.  Both Jesuits and both honoured.  One challenging men’s hearts; the other gladdening them.  Each seeking where God may be found.  Working for that greater glory.

Fr Ross Jones SJ