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Joy has accompanied Archbishop Prendergast’s 50 years as a Jesuit

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Archbishop Prendergast with his father and nieces at his graduation from Fordham University. Photo courtesy of CCNArchbishop Prendergast with his father and nieces at his graduation from Fordham University. Photo courtesy of CCNSociety of Jesus has been a lifelong inspiration
By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News

OTTAWA (CCN)--When Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast left Montreal for Toronto August 13, 1961 to begin his novitiate in the Society of Jesus 50 years ago, he admitted shedding some tears aboard the overnight train.

“I think it was just leaving my parents and my friends,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be back for some time.”

But he awoke the next morning to a new adventure and a sense of joy that has accompanied him, with a few exceptions, ever since. His life as a Jesuit has taken him from Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Regina, and Ottawa, along with sabbaticals in Rome and Jerusalem. A scripture scholar, he has taught high school students, university students and seminarians in Toronto, Halifax and Regina. He eventually moved up in the episcopacy, first in Toronto as an auxiliary bishop then to Halifax and Ottawa as archbishop.

“My life has been very happy,” he said. “Even with a few crisis places, basically it’s been happiness every day. I get a good night’s sleep. Get up in the morning and I have new energy, ready to take on the day.”

Entering at age 17, he said he did “go through some affective issues,” but he waited them out and “they resolved themselves.”

As a high school graduate, the Montreal-born archbishop said he did not have many life experiences to draw on when he entered the novitiate. He had a paper route while in elementary school and later delivered beer for a small store in his neighborhood. In the winter, he skated every day he could in the park across the street from his home.

“I played hockey,” he said. “I wasn’t very dexterous. I wasn’t a star but I could get up and down the ice.”

He early on found a Eucharistic spirituality that attracted him to serving at Mass. “I knew my way around the altar,” he said. He could understand the Latin and often acted as M.C.

A diocesan priest asked him when he was in the 7th grade whether he had considered the priesthood, and he said no. But that question got him thinking about it. In high school, the young Jesuit scholastics who taught at Loyola high school attracted him to join the Society. He thought he would end up a Jesuit high school teacher.

“I really loved my teaching,” he said. “I was kind of sloppy in my Latin and Greek,” he said. “The way I learned it was when I taught it. In Scripture, too, you learn so much from your professors but when you have to explain it yourself you have to go back and rethink it.”

Jesuit spirituality and religious life has not only given him a rigorous academic formation—he obtained a doctorate in Scripture from St. Mary’s University in Halifax-- it has deepened his faith and shaped his character.

The second of five children in a devout Catholic family, he joked that maybe he was a bit like the old Avis “we try harder” commercial. “I was passionate about things.”

“Religious life knocks some of the rough edges off,” he said.

When he started out, he, like his Jesuit brothers, wore the distinct cassock that had given the Jesuit missionaries the name “black robes” until they began studying theology. Once he made his first vows in 1963, he began wearing the clerical collar. Ordained to the priesthood in 1972, Archbishop Prendergast, 28, was younger than the usual age 30-33 age for ordination in the Jesuit priesthood.

Every Jesuit is both member of community, with a common vision and common approach, and an individual, he said. The Society has been described as “a long black line, suggesting that we’re all the same, but when you looked at the way the cincture [the belt on the cassock]was held: some wore it high, some wore it low, some wore it kind of nonchalant.”

“Once you get to know a Jesuit, they are as various and as different as anyone else,” he said.

Jesuit spirituality, especially the Spiritual Exercises of Society founder St. Ignatius, has shaped his daily life over the past five decades.

The Exercises provide a way to get to know Christ through a reading of the Scripture that interiorizes the texts and makes them personal, he said. The closing meditation or contemplation of the Exercises is about “finding God in all things,” the archbishop said.

Jesuits are expected to ask himself at different times of the day, where has God been in the morning, where has God been during the rest of the day; where have they noticed him, where have they failed to notice him, he said.

In Archbishop Prendergast’s last annual retreat, he focused on the passage from Mark’s Gospel about Jesus asleep in the boat while a storm raised wind and waves that swamped the vessel and terrified the disciples.

“In the Ignatian way, when you find the Lord in a biblical moment, biblical scene or a particular word, you don’t try to move on,” he said. If the Lord is speaking to you in a particular story, you stay with it until it is time to move on.

“Sometimes you are focusing on the fear: Can I handle the choppy waves of this particular diocese or moment or particular things inside of me?" he asked. "Am I overconfident, am I fearful, am I peaceful? Can I find peace because, the hope we always have, is that after next month, next week, things will quiet down?"

“They never do,” he said.

Challenges are a constant. But as a minister of the Gospel, he has realized he can only do what he can and cannot regret what he does not have time for as long as he is doing his best in finding the Lord’s will and doing it.

“If I am trying to find him in all things, then I just carry on.”

Ignatius also has spiritual mental exercises such as asking what I would want to do at the time of my death---if I knew I was going to meet the Lord next week or next month, how would I resolve something, or what would I choose, he said.

“If I make decisions that are very cogent, and perhaps humanly responsible, still the Gospel may be calling me to take up the cross, the Gospel may be calling me to be thought poorly of by people, like Jesus was,” he said.

It is not important to come out like a “shining star in a Business Man’s Quarterly, who has achieved many results, he said. Instead, we are called to be faithful.

“Sometimes the most important thing is to be associated with Christ who is humiliated, a position a lot of our bishops are in right now,” he said. “Even if they themselves are not responsible for abuse or mishandling or incompetence it’s being laid at their door today because they’re in charge”

“In a theological and spiritual perspective, am I identifying with Christ crucified? Didn’t I want that? Didn’t I ask for that in my prayer?”

“We’re supposed to ask for reproaches with Christ reproached, and mistreatment with Christ mistreated because I want to be like him,” he said.

“Our hope is that being nurtured in the Spiritual Exercises, having a common vision of trying to find God in all things, and being an instrument in God’s hands, trying to want what God wants, that’s what distinguishes us when we’re at our best,” he said.

At a special ceremony at the Canadian Martyrs Shrine in Midlands, Ontario, Archbishop Prendergast and two confreres will celebrate a 50th anniversary Mass at the memorial to the eight Jesuit missionaries to Canada who were slain in the service of the Gospel. The celebration will follow a four and a half day congress. The Jesuit Superior General Adolfo Nicolas will be present for a day and a half.

Archbishop Prendergast said he has always appreciated the great Canadian Jesuit Martyr Jean de Brebeuf who prayed for the gift of martyrdom. “He knew that living the way he did was going to stir up animus.”

“If he happened to suffer martyrdom because of his attachment to Christ, that would be for the good of the people and for Christ’s glory,” he said. “So for him, after all, he began to desire that thing that humanly speaking he would have shrunk from, not because he was a masochist but because he wanted to be like Christ.”

“To me that personal identification with Jesus goes beyond just walking the hills of Galilee and smiling and talking about the kingdom,” he said. “It also means being rejected.”

But these days being ignored can be the form the cross takes, he said. At least if people are rejecting your message they are interested and engaged.

Archbishop Prendergast celebrated his anniversary in his diocese on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart July 1, and in his homily tied it in with this year’s 400th anniversary of the Jesuits’ arrival in Canada. He noted then how the Pope had entrusted to the Jesuits the mission of promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart.

“To enter the Heart of Christ is to know the depths of his love,” he told the congregation at Notre Dame Cathedral. “And this knowledge, like fire, cannot be contained, it must spread.”

“In their zeal for the Kingdom, Jesuits are called to be ready to move on, or to wait, to return and to stay, but in every circumstance to proclaim, ‘not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.’”

Jesuits have been on the forefront of movements for social justice, particularly in Latin America, and the archbishop said the media focus has often been on people on the extremes.

“I think in every group there are always going to be people who err on one side or the other, whether this is typical of the Jesuit order as a whole I don’t know,” he said. “Obviously, there have been people on the extremes, some who so spoke about justice that they lost the fact that it’s in service of the faith. Other people who so spoke of the service of the faith that they weren’t interested at all in justice.”

“The tension is always to keep the two in harmony. The promotion of justice that is required by the service of the faith is not some kind of justice that is apart from it.”

Finding that balance was brought home in a personal way April 1, when Archbishop Prendergast canceled the visit of a brother Jesuit Father Luis Arriaga of the Centre PRODH, a Mexican human rights NGO to his diocese. Subsequently, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace cancelled funding to the Centre, which had been a long time partner, when the Cardinal Archbishop of Mexico City wrote the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops of the Centre’s support for pro-abortion groups and a woman’s right over her body, against unborn life.

Jesuit Provincials in North America, without naming Archbishop Prendergast, wrote an open letter protesting the funding cut and praising the Centre’s human rights work.

The archbishop said the signing of the letter by his own provincial has not created a barrier between them.

Meanwhile, he hopes young men who feel a call on their lives will consider the Society of Jesus.

“It’s a great life and I’m very confident in the young people that we have,” he said. “We still have young men who come who desire to serve God as a brother or a priest and want to have a different kind of experience than a parish priest.”

It’s the charism of the Jesuits to go anywhere in the world where there is a need for particular projects, whether it be in Arabic studies, or Chinese history that some new Jesuits are pursuing, he said.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 12 July 2011 08:32  

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