Marty McHugh, Company's editor, stopped in my office a while ago. We talked about his vacation in Italy -- two weeks with wife and sons and two other families; they had a great time. And we had a little business to discuss. But mostly, I think, Marty just wanted to hang out a bit before he finally said, "I can't believe this is happening."
"I can't either," I sighed. "It's hard to believe somebody thought this was a good idea."
Tomorrow is my last day at Company. As Marty explained in his column in the Summer issue, in February I was appointed provincial of the Jesuits' Chicago Province. Later in the issue there I was, a news item! My whole relationship to Company had started to shift. In the months since the appointment, I have tried to get used to the idea. And the getting-used-to process has been a whole smorgasbord of thoughts, questions, and emotions.
Most provincial appointments come as a surprise -- and this was no exception. One knows, of course, that one is under consideration. The official province consultors look at a number of individuals, then present their findings to Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, in Rome, who makes the appointment. Speculation floats around, but the process is usually remarkably free of leaks and hints. When the appointment comes, people comment, congratulate, and wonder, and then go back to work.
People have been wonderful in their support and encouragement. Jesuits tell me this is a great opportunity for service, a chance to do a lot of good. I am sure they are right. But I have to be honest: when family or friends ask what a provincial does, I am not sure how to answer. I have hung out with enough provincials to know that they are very busy and sometimes worn out. A provincial has a yearly conference with each member of the province, and he attends a lot of meetings. He has ceremonial duties and gets a spell at the microphone at most events. I have been working on a schedule for October to January, so I know I will at least look busy.
But what is this job? How is the job well done? I am afraid that will have to wait for a future column. And the great opportunities to do good -- which I am sure are true -- are not specific enough to register just yet. For now, as the day slips by, I stab away at the stacks on my desk and plod through files so I can pass them on, instructing my successor, Fr. Dick VandeVelde, SJ, in the ways of Company finances, lining up endless tasks that our unflappable and ever-capable Becky Troha can put to rest, and try hard not to think about how much I will miss this work, so much of my life for some very good years.
I got involved with Company before it even existed. In 1982 Fr. Leo Klein, SJ, our provincial, phoned me with news that the national Jesuit office had decided to push ahead with an idea that had been floating around: a new national magazine. Its aim was to bring together friends of the Jesuits, students and graduates of Jesuit schools, benefactors, the interested public at large. It was not to be academic, to argue opinions, or to serve up hot news. (Twenty years ago I wrote the left column of the inside front cover to describe Company's purpose for our first issue.) Fr. Ned Mattimoe, SJ, was going to be the editor, and he was looking for help. Was I interested?
At the time, I was in pastoral work at Bellarmine Chapel parish and Xavier University in Cincinnati. I loved my work, but it was time for a change. I knew Fr. Mattimoe from my high school days at St. Ignatius in Chicago. I helped him out when I was a senior and he a first-year teacher and moderator of our school paper. He was always full of creative ideas and fresh approaches. Was I interested? Interested and grateful!
The next year we learned how to publish a magazine. Loyola Press in Chicago helped us with space, expertise, companionship, and encouragement. We threw a big party there when Company's first issue appeared in September 1983. During the sixteen years our offices were at the press, I met many great people, and I still hang out with some of them.
Meeting people and telling their stories are the heart of Company, and that is what I will miss. Through Company I have worked with an amazing array of interesting, inspiring citizens of "the world of Jesuits and their friends." When we came up with that line for the front cover a couple of years ago, it was not some empty slogan. It describes the reality of good people with a real connection rooted in a spirituality of finding God working in this world and of serving others because that is how we find happiness during our short span on earth.
Sometimes meeting people is as simple as opening a hand-written envelope containing an unsolicited manuscript. A young Jesuit, a Jesuit's sister, a retreatant, a veteran teacher -- someone has put his experience, her insight into words and sent it in, hoping for our acceptance. Sometimes it means spotting a lead in an alumni magazine, following up with e-mails and conversations, maybe finding a connection between a story in San Jose and one in Portland or St. Louis. It always means entering people's lives for a short time, getting to know them, telling their story, and moving on, richer for the time spent together.
The world of Jesuits and their friends is rich in good people and good works. Through some of the stories I have worked on I have come to know refugee work -- Jesuits Mark Raper, who headed up the worldwide Jesuit Refugee Service, and Francesco de Luccia, who runs the Centro Astalli in Rome that gives food, shelter, and hope to immigrants in Rome (Summer '99).
I have watched the rebuilding of Eastern Europe through people such as Fr. Georg Sporschill, SJ, whose work gives a future to street kids in Rumania (Winter '00). I have talked to John Dear, SJ, and his venerable mentor, Daniel Berrigan, SJ, and tried to make sense of standing up to give witness where that witness is not welcome (Winter '00; My uncle let me know that he did not like that story at all!).
I have entered the art world, as in a story of the Jesuit caves in the Netherlands, which preserve a curious artistic heritage under the enthusiastic guidance of Peter Houben (Spring '02). I have gotten to know scholars such as Robert Godding, SJ, and his fellow Bollandists in Brussels, who maintain a venerable scholarly tradition (Summer '02). At the Jesuit center in Amman, Jordan, I encountered a small but vital focus of respect and understanding in a world where these are rarer than water (Spring '97).
I met some of these people where they live and work -- one Jesuit wryly notes that I may be the first provincial who will cut down on his travel when he takes over the job. Some I have known only by phone -- I remember one midnight trip to the office to talk with a provincial in Hong Kong and an Easter Sunday morning call to the head of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, whom I tracked down at his sister's home in Madrid. Some great characters from Jesuit history -- saints and otherwise -- I have met only in libraries and museums.
I have felt the eager promise and hope of the new Jesuit novices every fall and winter issue, and the new Jesuit priests in every summer issue. Our short death notices only hint at the mystery and the thanks that we feel.
We have had our share of martyrs, and of all the stories I worked on, the one that touched me most deeply was one on three Jesuit martyrs (Winter '99), a veteran American in Nepal, a middle-aged Indian in India, and a young Filipino in Cambodia. They left family, parents, friends to mourn and to remember. Company became part of their lives and their deaths.
I love these people and their stories; I am grateful for them. They say to me that the Jesuit enterprise in all its facets is vibrant and needed. It finds depth in a throw-away world. It makes significant connections in a click-and-move-on society. It helps individuals see their worth beyond their capacity to buy and consume, to fight and win. And I am privileged to be one who can bring their stories to a wider world.
I have been grateful through the years for the Jesuit officials who have supported us, for the board members who kept us running, for young Jesuit writers and editors whom Company has brought together. Brigid Barry came on as a new Marquette journalism grad in 1985, and Company was never the same. Doug and Jodi and Rafael brought more youth and energy through the years. Rita George arrived in 1996 with her theological education and intense commitment. And when Becky took over for Rita in 2000, she brought her quiet competence, computer skills, and ability to survive Marty's lunchtime jokes.
When Marty McHugh showed up for a job interview in March 1988, he was eager, respectful, and a bit nervous. He is still eager. He became editor when Fr. Ned Mattimoe left in 1994, and Company felt his new energy, insights, and enterprising creativity. Storytelling in that world of Jesuits and friends is in great hands.
Earlier this morning a photographer for Chicago Province's magazine Partners came to take some photos of Marty and Becky and me for a "new provincial" story. Whatever else my new job demands, it will include getting over any discomfort at being the story rather than the teller. That will take a while.
And it will take a while to get used to a schedule set months in advance rather than the frantic deadline crush and the tense wait while the printers do their job. The big issues that face the Church and the Jesuit order today will not disappear with the pace of a quarterly magazine. In the publishing trade we use the term "kill fee" -- payment to a writer for work done on a project that we are abandoning -- well, let's not imagine that as a provincial's option. The issues are big, but the talent and generosity of the Jesuits and their friends in the Chicago Province reflect those of the larger world. I have nothing to worry about.
And there is a horizon. A provinical's term is usually six years, and if these six pass as quickly as the twenty I have been at Company, it will seem as no time at all. Maybe I can find the time to write an occasional article just to keep in touch. And when I leave tomorrow, it may not be forever. Marty did say I could always come back. I am going to hold him to that.