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Fr. Todd Kenny, SJ: Encountering Jesus Each Day

By Becky Sindelar

June 3, 2014 — As a retreat and spiritual director at the Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center in Atlanta, Jesuit Father Todd Kenny gets to do what he loves best: talk with people about Jesus every day.

“The privilege of being a Jesuit is being able to find out from people what God’s doing in their lives and when they’re encountering him,” he says.

Fr. Kenny, who grew up in Belmont, Mass., met the Jesuits at Boston College as an undergrad. He got to know them better during his two years with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Micronesia after graduation. There, he taught and coached at Xavier High School, while living in the Jesuit community.

Fr. Kenny always thought marriage and a family were in the cards for him, but the Jesuits’ service on the frontiers captured his attention — and led him to explore Ignatian spirituality.“I was curious as to what drove these men to go out to places like Belize, Micronesia, Jordan and Jamaica. Why were they so willing to offer themselves to these places where it wasn’t their culture, it wasn’t their home? What was drawing them there?”

After he returned to the U.S., Fr. Kenny began graduate studies in international development, but his heart wasn’t in it. “I asked myself, ‘Where have I been most alive, most on fire?’ And that was working with the Jesuits. But I thought it was crazy because I had this conflicting desire of wanting a family,” he says.

He began to read about the lives of Sts. Ignatius and Francis Xavier and then did an eight-day retreat that solidified his desire to join the Jesuits. Fr. Kenny entered the novitiate in Boston in 1998, figuring that he had two years there and if he hated it, he could leave. “But God duped me, and I let myself be duped,” he says.

Fr. Kenny

“I had my 30-day retreat when I entered the novitiate and each step deepened my understanding of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and the gift they call the frontiers comes with this place of depth, of meeting Jesus who calls me to more, to be generous and to respond to the love I receive.”

After the novitiate, Fr. Kenny studied philosophy and theology at Loyola University Chicago, and then he was sent to Brazil — which proved to be one of the most memorable experiences of his Jesuit formation. He spent a year working with parish youth groups in the Amazon and learning Portuguese and two years at the Seeds of Tomorrow in Salvador, a Jesuit-sponsored orphanage where he did whatever was needed, from teaching catechism to fixing bicycles to finding godparents for the children.

It was a graced time for Fr. Kenny, who was profoundly grateful to be a Jesuit at the frontiers. One Christmas he went out into the Amazon with other Jesuit novices from the region and had Eucharistic services where there were no priests. Bringing the children from the orphanage to Mass each Sunday was also transformative.

“It was a great joy to be with them there and see God through their eyes and to listen to their questions,”Fr. Kenny says.

Fr. Kenny returned to his home state for theology studies at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology and was ordained in 2009. He then served at Boston College in campus ministry and at Boston College High School in the religious education department. After completing retreat training at Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Mass., Fr. Kenny spent a year in Australia for tertianship, the final phase of Jesuit formation.

In Australia, Fr. Kenny again had the chance to do spiritual ministry on the frontiers. He worked in the outback, giving retreats and helping out with pastoral ministry in Mount Isa and its surrounding communities, including Walkabout Creek (home of “Crocodile Dundee”).

“I once said a Mass for four people that drove an hour and a half to get there and I drove two hours, passing wild camels and kangaroos on the side of the road,” he recalls.

Since returning to the States last year, Fr. Kenny has served at Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center, where he has the privilege to listen to and walk with people on their faith journeys. His work strengthens his own faith, he says.”You really get a sense of what God is doing in their lives, and it keeps me grounded and focused on Christ in a very real way.”

Fr. Kenny says the staff at Ignatius House has been encouraging the use of imagination to engage Scripture.“Trust God with your imagination, that God will use that,” he says.

“That’s one of the tools we give here. There’s a lot of silence, but we also invite retreatants on guided meditations, and we encourage them to take that and do it on their own — to use their imagination to enter into Scripture. It’s something Pope Francis is doing in his homilies, offering guided mediations, and we’re following his lead. And he’s following Ignatius’ lead.”

Fr. Kenny says through his work he’s always surprised by how close Jesus is to those who are suffering, isolated or abandoned. “I always find myself surprised by the strong sense of his presence that I get in spiritual direction and in ministry and his option for those who are poor or suffering,” he says.

He’s also surprised that God wants to use him in some way, even as a witness to His goodness. “Every day I give thanks for the way that God loves us and the way God heals us and then asks us to trust Him and then trusts us.

“My life as a Jesuit has been a constantly unfolding ‘yes,’” says Fr. Kenny. “I take it one day at a time — serving God joyfully.”

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Situated on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River, Loyola Retreat House is located 35 miles south of Washington, D.C., in southern Maryland.