Kindling a Fire: Jesuit Education and Jesuit Vocation
Mr. Garrett Gundlach, S.J., Jesuit Scholastic in the Wisconsin Province
It was just past midnight. A freshman wandered the campus alone, somewhere between awe and prayer, admiring the lights falling on College Church and the song of the fountains and streams in the quiet night. I was home. But I wasn’t: I was a freshman at Marquette University, simply on a fall break road trip stopover at Saint Louis University (SLU). It was October 2005. Hurricane Katrina had just swept New Orleans, and I was one of an eager Marquette dozen to answer a campus ministry e-mail invitation to jump in a van and see what we could do to help, if anything.
I was supposed to be sleeping that night, of course, but how could I? An overly enthusiastic 18-year-old, I had just chosen Marquette for its proximity to my home, for its Catholic identity alive in retreats and liturgy, and for the adventures it offered in local, national and international service. Very soon after arriving at Marquette, I found just what I had sought: a sense of possibility, a sense that God was alive and daring, and a sense that this God was inviting me beyond myself into a servant love without borders, in Milwaukee and beyond.
Ten years later, those moments of excited possibility at SLU or beside Marquette’s Joan of Arc chapel still form the authentic core of my prayer, but now with a more balanced sense of the challenges that service brings. It wasn’t long before Marquette’s service opportunities cut sharp to my core, demanding something more of me. It wasn’t long before I studied abroad with Santa Clara’s Casa de la Solidaridad program in El Salvador and I saw that service wasn’t about heroism but about learning, accompaniment, solidarity and sacrifice. Spending afternoons with men and women experiencing homelessness, struggling to learn English, or rebuilding relationships with their families after war or immigration has a way of humbling one’s ego and opening one’s eyes.
In between weekly service engagements, break-time immersion trips (and classes), retreats and daily liturgies kindled the fire behind all this activity. In these vibrant spiritual communities, my faith grew. I began to recognize and name God’s loving voice in my life. Naturally, I began to ask how I might respond. I thought about ministry. I thought about writing. I thought about community. Gracefully, Marquette not only provided the fuel, the programs and opportunities for these desires for faith, community and service, but it also provided the venues for their parallel vocational inquiry: What does all this mean for me moving forward?
It was around this time that I met the Jesuits, not just abstractly as some international, 500-year old pioneering religious order, but concretely as resident priests and unassuming professors, spiritual ‘Yodas’ and compassionate listeners, each vowed and variously surrendered to a religious life, to the discipleship of Jesus, with all the journeys and serving that entails.
I immediately recognized the gravity and the privilege of such a life, of such a call. And Marquette’s Jesuit community provided a forum for me and other discerners to talk it out, weighing fears against possibility, hope against ambivalence. It was far from an automatic yes; indeed I didn’t enter the Jesuit novitiate until after new, heart-opening relationships, a year of volunteer service, with significant challenges and self-doubts along the way.
But on the more enthusiastic days, Jesuit life seemed the perfect blend of surrender, challenge, and community: I began to daydream, to imagine myself in a life where I could ceaselessly and unlimitedly pursue these newfound passions, my relationship with God and relationships with others, particularly those who are forgotten on the fringes of our society. I dreamed of active ministry, of pastoral visits and of spiritual writing. I imagined myself among other fiery lads, challenging one another to become yet more authentic, yet more humble, yet more committed to love’s breaking into the world. While my peers daydreamed of unfolding careers with professional credentials, creative service and families, I pictured myself differently – in community, professing perpetual vows and, the next day, traversing the furthest frontiers of the world with a gospel of love and healing, the furthest frontiers of the human world, the human heart and even the far-flung media frontiers of the internet. These days, I’m no less enthusiastic, just more aware of my limitations.
Ten years later, I am five years into my Jesuit formation toward priesthood. Marquette daydreams are becoming realities, and I cherish diverse work that includes everything from the clinical accompaniment of refugees to writing for The Jesuit Post (TJP), the website of the Society of Jesus at the intersection of culture and faith, revolution and relevance, pop music and mysticism. In my Marquette daydreams, writing was just another way to share; in TJP reality, it’s the same formation in a new forum, reflecting and praying, editing and Jesuit-collaborating to shape a single voice reflecting spirit, service and how, as humans, we’re trying to become more human.
Looking back, I sing the praises of my philosophy professors who invited us to read the exotic Tao Te Ching, the campus ministers who pushed me, pulled me and then asked even more of me, and the administrators and residence life staff who worked behind so many scenes to create the environment for all this growth. Jesuit education provided, first and foremost, a safe place for me to wonder and wander. From there, it provided programs and possibilities for cultural immersion and reflective service. It provided places and structured times to meet God in living community and finally, it offered me a graduate’s dare: Can you unify all this newfound passion into a single path, a single voice uniquely your own? Can you find the courage to share that voice? Can your voice find its place in a chorus?
Above: (L-R) Mr. Garrett Gundlach, S.J., Mr. Leo Stüebner, S.J., Rev. Kevin Flaherty, S.J. Photo courtesy of Mr. Garrett Gundlach, S.J. Mr. Gundlach is a graduate of Marquette University (2009) and the Casa de la Solidaridad program (spring 2008).