by Fr. Eduardo Fernandez, SJ
A Mexican-American Jesuit lists reasons for his love of the Society.
I can't say why, but I've always liked lists. Summers when I was a kid I'd list the fireworks I hoped to buy for the Fourth of July. As school approached, I not only made my list of school supplies but sometimes drew pictures of them. Other lists-those who had batted on my team or those who were altar servers any one week-accompanied me into adolescence. To this day, I carry around a list of to-do's, que-haceres, written on a white index card. So here's another list, more profound an fireworks, pencils and pens, more like the lists we make on retreat enumerating graces, gifts, even pious resolutions. This list is an attempt to explain a love affair, about falling in a love with a vision, a way of following Jesus that to this day has not left me in peace, if peace means conformity, status quo, just enough to get by. Now on to "the list."
1. I met model Jesuits who trusted that God would have his way with me if they just sowed a few seeds.
Growing up in El Paso, I met Jesuits full of life and humor. Jesuits of the Mexican Province, some of whom had been born in the United States, staffed our parish in Ysleta, a mission town founded in 1682. There I met a very zealous Mexican Jesuit who had been a good friend of my great grandfather. I remember my dad telling me that los Jesuitas mueren al pie del cañón, Jesuits die with their boots on.
Priests from Jesuit High in El Paso would occasionally take weekend masses at our parish, give us talks, or even teach at our school. They seemed really smart and were very approachable.
In high school I worked at the rectory to pay my way through the Christian Brothers' school (by then Jesuit High had closed). I cannot remember any of the Mexicans who often came to the church office to beg being sent away without something. Often I poured out my heart to one of the Jesuits, knowing he would listen.
I also remember Jesuits visiting our home. They had been numerous in the area since the late nineteenth century, and our family was well acquainted with them.
My sister at age fourteen was running youth dances thanks to the confidence the pastor put in her and her youth group. When I was seventeen, this same Jesuit took me to visit the interior of Mexico so that I could get to know my ancestral roots. That trip helped me realize the monumental culture achieved by my forebears.
Growing up in an area where most of the manual laborers speak Spanish, you unconsciously wonder if the Spanish language characterizes the less educated. And you wonder if your people are not as cultured as those in the U.S. mainstream.
But the Jesuits and the Christian Brothers and other teachers taught me that along with a William Shakespeare there had been a Miguel de Cervantes. Likewise, years later, as I pore over writings about Catholicism in West Texas penned by a French Jesuit who baptized both my dad and me, I feel affirmed that, as this wise historian and pastor observed, our Latino spirituality is a gift for us and also for others.
At Loyola University in New Orleans I met Jesuits of the same caliber: competent, affable, and fun-loving. I was quite surprised one day when a Jesuit sociology professor said something to this effect: "Mr. Fernandez, since you are the expert in Latin American affairs, tell us something about comunidades de base.""Comunidades de what?" I asked myself. "Why do I have to come up with an answer while these slobs sit, anticipating beer night in the quad?"
Years later I realized what my professor knew: growing up in a bicultural world gave me a sensitivity to issues south of the border whether I wanted it or not. My background was an advantage, not a handicap.
Another wonderful Jesuit, Fr. C. J. McNaspy -- we used to call him abuelo, grandfather, but never to his face, of course -- would invite students to his office to listen to classical music. An overall Renaissance man, he awoke in me an appreciation for the fine arts and afforded me opportunities to speak the Spanish with which I had grown up.
When I was a senior and he was 65, he told me over a pitcher of beer that he had been accepted for ministry in Paraguay; in turn I told him that I had decided to enter the Jesuit novitiate at Grand Coteau, Louisiana.
2. The Society taught me that God had given me gifts and helped me develop them.
One question I struggled with at the time was whether I, the son of an auto mechanic, could thrive in a Society that seemed very comfortable in a white, middle-class world where I was not comfortable. But as Jesuits later shared with me their family histories, I saw that some had come from working-class backgrounds, as I had, and others from rural backgrounds, as had my grandfather.
The Society gave me the means to grow. Superiors understood how important it was that I steep myself in my cultural identity. I improved my Spanish, got an MA in Latin-American studies, visited those regions, and worked with comunidades de base in Mexico. (Now I could answer that Jesuit sociologist's inquiry!)
In Mexico I discovered that I was not Mexican the day a Jesuit affectionately called me a "gringo"! Me? A gringo? That term referred to others, not me. But I realized that in many ways I was very North American. Since God had arranged for me to be born there, I had to embrace that cultural heritage too.
3. By sending me abroad for studies, the Society helped me expand my horizons.
When I was in studies in Rome in the early nineties, I'd often hear that I did not seem to come from the United States. On occasion I was introduced as someone from Mexico. So I found myself with another identity crisis. Who was I?
The wisdom I had received as a child helped a lot. I had been told I was both Mexican and North American-- I could draw from the riches of both. The Jesuits living at the Collegio Bellarmino with me came from over twenty countries, and I could converse with almost everyone in Spanish or English. With a second glass of wine, my Italian (actually, my Spanish with a few more vowels) became amazingly fluent. I realized that my heritage could be a great bridge builder. If I sometimes felt anxious because of my identity, God seemed to send me people from all over the world who had been forced to navigate even deeper intercultural waters, who taught me that there is always a situation, cultural or otherwise, more difficult than mine; I heard stories of clandestine Spiritual Exercises told by Jesuits from the Soviet Union; I heard a young Central American Jesuit describe how he and his fellow Jesuits cleaned up the blood after the slaughter of the Jesuits martyred in El Salvador.
4. Having been challenged by the Society, I also feel called to humbly suggest some places where I, a member of an ethnic minority, feel that Jesuits need to be challenged.
I sometimes meet a young Latino who seems a great potential Jesuit candidate except that he is not college material now and maybe too old for some of the education I received in my early teens. Should I encourage him to consider joining the Society? By holding too rigidly to what constitutes the ideal candidate in terms of age of education, are Jesuits unaware of how members of other cultures view life and thus lose possible candidates? In cultures where family is central, life choices involving marriage or career are often made much earlier, and simply because of economic and familial responsibilities some young men are forced to mature sooner than those in the dominant culture. By the time Jesuits evaluate them as college material, they have embraced other vocations.
Also, the majority of Jesuit apostolates and resources in this country are dedicated to the middle and upper classes, not the poorer sectors of society. While the Nativity-style grade schools, Cristo Rey High School in Chicago, the Jesuit Volunteers, community-service programs in high schools, inner-city parishes, and refugee ministries demonstrate insertion among the poor, Jesuits still have a long way to go.
I end with a call for more compassion. That a Jesuit happens to be a member of a racial or ethnic minority does not mean that he represents that group or will necessarily be conversant in that culture. Many second- or third-generation Latinos no longer speak Spanish. Sometimes we first-generation hyphenated Americans ask these men to measure up to "what we are supposed to be like if we hold on to our culture." This ignores our need to assimilate in many ways to the U.S. culture in order to be able to function in it. This assimilation isn't necessarily bad; after all, all cultures are dynamic, adapting themselves to different times and circumstances.
We have a saying in Spanish, Dios sabe lo que hace -- God knows what he's doing. I consider it providential that God invited me, through the men I have mentioned and the support of my family and parish, to become part of the Society of Jesus. At times when it seemed as though fear, lack of self-confidence, mediocrity, ethnocentrism, or hopelessness would swallow me, the Society has been a formidable companion, assuring me, in the words of Ignatius, that God will never be outdone in generosity. Gracias, O Dios, por estos fieles compañeros, Thank you, Lord, for these faithful companions.