October 13, 2014 — Next year, Adam DeLeon, SJ, will be ordained a Jesuit priest, the culmination of a journey that began a decade ago. DeLeon’s formation involved years of study and service to the poor and marginalized, including work in Nairobi at St. Aloysius Gonzaga High School. He currently studies theology at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California.
Eric Immel, SJ, began his own formation as a Jesuit when he joined the Society of Jesus as a novice in 2011. Prior to his current philosophy studies at Loyola University Chicago, Immel served on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
In the following reflections, DeLeon and Immel recall formation experiences that changed the way they looked at themselves and looked at the world.
By Adam DeLeon, SJ
“Mzungu! How are you?” While walking through Kibera, considered the largest slum in Sub-Saharan Africa, many children greet me with this phrase. In Kiswahili the word mzungu literally means “white person,” derived from a word that means “someone who wanders around aimlessly.” This word aptly described the way East African tribes viewed the first European explorers who looked lost and also captures how I have felt as I walk through Kibera on my way to St. Aloysius Gonzaga High School, a school serving AIDS orphans from this slum. The sights and sounds and smells of Kibera are overwhelming and disorienting at times. In some moments I feel like an outsider who is wandering around the slum. I am a long way from the familiar streets of my hometown Cleveland, Ohio. Yet, I never walk alone.
When I look back over the almost 10-year journey as a Jesuit scholastic who is in the formation process for priesthood, I can see how the people along this road have led me to Kibera and will keep leading me along the way.
DeLeon had the opportunity to meet Pope Francis while in Rome earlier this year.
After taking vows of perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience in the Society of Jesus, I worked with the men’s rugby team and in campus ministry during my three years of philosophy studies at Loyola University of Chicago. This was followed by my regency stage where I spent three years teaching, coaching and working as a campus minister at Christ the King Jesuit College Prep on the west side of Chicago. All of these experiences taught me to listen with my heart and be aware of the many ways God is at work in people’s lives.
As I walk the paved and dirt roads of Kibera, a student from St. Aloysius Gonzaga always accompanies me. These students are from Kibera — they look out for me as we walk and act as my guide.
And so, as we walk, they teach me Kiswahili, they explain Kenyan culture and customs to me, they share their life stories and what life in this slum is like, they share their hopes and dreams and fears, they share their passion and faith with me, and they bring to life the theology I read in books. They help orient me on my journey. Because of their guidance and support, along with all of those who have walked with me on my journey toward ordination, I can always answer, “Mzuri sana! Asante sana!” which means, “I am very good! Thank you very much!”
By Eric Immel, SJ
For four months, I’ve been offering a Communion service at the tribal elders’ living facility in Rosebud, South Dakota. The elders I visit are women of a deep and lasting faith; their knowledge of the Catholic Church on the Rosebud Indian Reservation is all-encompassing, they know and love the Jesuit priests that have come and gone from these small towns and long roads, and they deeply desire to continue growing in their love of Jesus Christ.
During one of these services, I discovered that many of these women have friends and family buried in the cemetery near St. Charles Parish in St. Francis, just seven miles down the road. Due to their fragile state, however, they have not been able to visit graves for many years and feared that they might not get the chance again in this lifetime. And so, I offered to take down the names of their loved ones, walk through the cemetery myself (I had not yet visited it), and offer prayers at the graves on their behalf. I saw it as a way to make their day and to deepen the bond we have been forging since I came to the Reservation in January.
When I arrived at the cemetery, however, I was immediately confronted by a group of other visitors. They had been drinking and waved me over. As I approached, I was berated with a series of quick insults and criticisms of the old Mission school, of the sex abuse scandal, of the state of the Church today, and I was called a few nasty names. Looking for a way out, I redirected by asking, “So, what brings you all to the cemetery today?”
“We’re visiting our kids that have passed,” one mother choked.
“Well, may I join you?"
Immel celebrated with a young family member following his First Vows ceremony.
Such began one of the more remarkable afternoons of my time on the Reservation. Together, this rag tag group of mourners moved slowly and prayerfully among the tombstones, stopping to pray at the resting places of those we knew. I stopped at the graves of their kids, grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and friends. They joined me at the graves I promised I would visit not an hour before. It was an afternoon of sadness, joy, peace, reconciliation and reality.
As I look back on my discernment to come to the Reservation, I realize that part of it rested in the fact that I would face great difficulty — the broken homes, the addiction, the death, the poverty, the lack of hope that life on the Reservation sometimes offers. I wanted to know that in spite of the difficulty, I could maintain a desire to be a Jesuit. What I have come to realize, though, is that my vocation hasn’t been strengthened “in spite” of anything — from this or any other novitiate experiment. It has been strengthened because of it all. In considering the vows, I can look back to thousands of moments, places and faces and say with certainty that I desire to proceed.
Reflections courtesy www.midwestjesuits.org.
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.