By Becky Sindelar
July 17, 2015 — When newly ordained priest Fr. Lukas Laniauskas, SJ, reflects on his 11 years of Jesuit formation, he notes: “They weren’t kidding when they say it takes a village to raise a child, and I think it takes the world to raise a Jesuit.”
Fr. Laniauskas, a Lithuanian-American born and raised in Cleveland, is especially aware of the world. He’s experienced the international Society firsthand, joining the Jesuits in Lithuania after studying abroad in Rome.
Growing up in Cleveland, Fr. Laniauskas and his family had close ties to the Lithuanian community, and the Catholic Church was central to it. His grandparents had come to the United States after World War II, and, along with other Lithuanian immigrants, built Fr. Laniauskas’ parish church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, in Cleveland brick by brick.
For Fr. Laniauskas, who spoke Lithuanian growing up and didn’t learn English until he went to school, his Catholic identity was central to his upbringing. “I remember being a little boy and going to church and going through sacraments,” he recalls. “It was there that I began to develop and grow and see the world through the Catholic lens. It was a real gift for me.”
Catholic education was a priority in the Laniauskas family. After Catholic grade school, Fr. Laniauskas attended Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland for his freshman year, where he first met the Jesuits, and then attended a diocesan school, Lake Catholic High School in Mentor, Ohio, after his family moved to the suburbs. During high school, Fr. Laniauskas was drawn to campus ministry and worked on Kairos retreats and liturgy planning, as well as staying involved with the Lithuanian community through sports, folk dancing and other activities.
Fr. Laniauskas with his parents on his ordination day.
When it came time for college, Fr. Laniauskas chose Loyola University Chicago, although he could have attended Case Western University, where his father worked, tuition free. “Going to Loyola was a real gift from my parents,” he says. “Something was pulling me to Loyola. I think part of that was the Catholic and Jesuit identity of the school.”
During college, Fr. Laniauskas began to discern his vocation in earnest, exploring different religious orders. While studying at Loyola’s Rome Center as a junior, he met the provincial of the Jesuits’ Lithuanian Province in 2004, who asked Fr. Laniauskas, “What does God want for you?” That simple question proved to be earth-shattering for Fr. Laniauskas.
“All the brakes, everything just stopped in my life. And for the first time I asked God that question. ‘What do you want for my life?’ And I listened to the answer. It became clear to me that I was called to be a priest and to be in the Society of Jesus.”
Because he was living in Rome and had met with the provincial of Lithuania, joining the Society’s Lithuanian Province seemed like the natural fit. “Instantly, my experience of the Society was international — that is the greatest gift that I received from doing my novitiate in Lithuania,” Fr. Laniauskas says. “I understood you don’t enter a province, you enter the Society — and the Society is the world. That’s Ignatius’ vision.”
Fr. Laniauskas on a mission trip to help teach English and work construction on a school in the slums of Guatemala City.
Although it was an exciting time to be in Lithuania in those early years following the country’s secession from the Soviet Union, Fr. Laniauskas struggled with being so far from home. Through discernment with his novice master and provincial, he decided to continue his formation in the United States. After two years in the novitiate, he pronounced First Vows in the Lithuanian Province and then transferred to the Jesuits’ Chicago-Detroit Province and headed back to Loyola University Chicago for studies in 2006.
“It was a blessing for me to return to Loyola as a Jesuit and to be able to finish my degree while representing the Society,” he says. “The Jesuits who were there when I was an undergrad were formative for me.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and was then assigned to St. John’s Jesuit High School and Academy in Toledo, Ohio, for three years, where he served as chair of the theology department and taught junior high and high school students.
“St. John’s was one of the most powerful experiences of my formation: where the rubber meets the road. We enter the Society to work and be active. So this was the first step after five years of formation, where we enter into the work and roll up our sleeves,” Fr. Laniauskas notes.
Fr. Laniauskas preaching at St. John’s Jesuit High School and Academy.
It was also there that he realized that his main formatores, along with the Society, are the people of God. “They were the ones who called me to be a priest and to serve and give my heart and soul to them every day — from the kids to the parents to the faculty to the staff.”
In 2012, Fr. Laniauskas headed to the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California, where he completed a Master of Divinity degree. While there, he also served as a chaplain to the Berkeley Fire Department. “Those men and women taught me so much about priesthood — what it means to unselfishly care for someone above yourself, which I think is the essence of priesthood. Someone who runs into a burning building to save a stranger and puts their own life in danger — what a great example for me to see in them. I’m really thankful to God for them and that experience.”
Fr. Laniauskas served as chaplain of the Berkeley Fire Department during his formation.
Fr. Laniauskas is also thankful that he’s been able to stay connected to Lithuania during his formation in the U.S. During theology studies he hosted a bi-weekly radio show that aired in Lithuania where he’d talk about his vocation and take questions from callers. He will also celebrate his first Mass as a Jesuit priest at Camp Dainava in Michigan, a Lithuanian summer camp he attended growing up.
Fr. Laniauskas teaching a Lithuanian Saturday school class in Los Angeles.
Now that he’s ordained, Fr. Laniauskas will work part-time at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago as the chaplain of the school and assistant to the president, and at the same time pursue a doctorate in ministry and liturgy at the Catholic Theological Union.
As he looks back on the many years of training leading up to his ordination, Fr. Laniauskas sees the genius of St. Ignatius, founder of the Society, who carefully outlined every step of Jesuit formation. “We have time for intellectual growth; we have time for apostolic and missionary and international growth. I wouldn’t be half the priest I hope to be in the next years of my life if I hadn’t had this formation. I feel so blessed and so enriched by it.”
Fr. Laniauskas with his friends' children, whom he baptized.
And as he looks ahead to serving the people of God as a priest, Fr. Laniauskas is thankful for “the double aspect of our lives — being available and free — that hopefully my priesthood will be defined by. My priesthood does not belong to me and my job is to love people.
“Not that I haven’t been able to do that before, but I think formation has been about preparing me for availability and freedom, and now it’s like, here it is. Now the world waits. I’m ready and excited — let’s go!”
Fr. Laniauskas at his ordination on June 13.
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.