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Fr. Mario Powell, SJ: The Making of a “Pope Francis Jesuit”
By William Bole

July 4, 2014 — Jesuit Father Mario Powell points out that he had “no idea” who Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was, when he, Fr. Powell, joined the Jesuits in 2003. He adds that he was only vaguely familiar with the man 10 years later, when Bergoglio emerged from a papal conclave as Francis, the first Jesuit pope.  And yet, Fr. Powell is quick to call himself a “Pope Francis Jesuit.”

Fr. Powell was ordained a Jesuit priest this month, after his long formation as a member of the order (usually lasting about a decade). For him, a Pope Francis Jesuit is one who embodies a “back-to-basics Christianity.”As Fr. Powell embarks on his ordained ministry, he sounds not unlike the Jesuit pope from Argentina.

Fr. Mario Powell“It’s not my ordination,” Fr. Powell said of the June 14 event at Fordham University in New York. “It’s a celebration of the church and, I would hope, a vocation, a life that’ll be spent attending to people, sharing with them, in myriad ways, God’s mercy, God’s joy, God’s love.”

Mercy, joy and love have been watchwords of the Francis pontificate. It is a most unlikely pontificate, considering that no Jesuit had ever been elevated to the papacy and that it wouldn’t have happened without the shocking resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

A “Crooked” Path to Ordination

And then there’s the unlikelihood of one young man’s vocation. “Sometimes I laugh, because it makes no sense,” Fr. Powell said, reflecting on his path in life. “There’s a saying, 'God draws straight with crooked lines.' And I think that’s been my journey.”

That journey began 32 years ago in Arkansas, where Fr. Powell was born into an extended family of Southern Baptists. He moved with his family to Hawaii and then, when he was in eighth grade, to Los Angeles, where his parents placed him in a Catholic K-8 school. That year, he stunned his family by announcing he was converting to Catholicism, and soon after, was introduced to the Jesuits at Loyola High School.

Fr. Mario Powell
Fr. Powell blesses his mother after his ordination. Photo by Doris Yu.

Fr. Powell went on to Boston College and, in his sophomore year, began wrestling with thoughts of a religious vocation. At that time, the history major happened to win a prized research and summer travel fellowship awarded each year by Boston College to an outstanding undergraduate of African-American descent. Fr. Powell chose to go to St. Louis and study the impact of inner-city Catholic education on both students and families. His exposure there to the Jesuit-sponsored Nativity School for middle school students made him think more about a life of service to the church. But he continued to wrestle.

Fr. Mario PowellIn fact, Fr. Powell recalls that he became “afraid of the question” of a vocation and kept thinking, “I can’t do this. I can’t do what God is calling me to do.” During his junior year, he confided in Jesuit Father Robert Barth, an English professor who died in 2005. Fr. Barth told Fr. Powell he was sure that, for the time being, God wanted him to be happy as a college student.“It was the best advice I could have gotten. I decided to be a normal Boston College student, but to be more intentional about my faith life,” he recalled, noting that he attended daily Mass and volunteered for a variety of service projects.

At the beginning of his senior year, Fr. Powell began discerning again, this time far less “afraid of the question.”

On a sunny day in October, he borrowed a friend’s car and drove to Boston’s South End. He arrived, unannounced, at the front door of the New England Province Jesuits (now headquartered in Watertown, Massachusetts). Fr. Powell pressed the intercom button and heard a voice from within: “Who are you here to see?” He replied, “I think I’m being called to be a Jesuit.” The secretary buzzed him in. Three months after graduation, he was a Jesuit.

Fr. Mario PowellOne highlight of his Jesuit formation was his three-year assignment as a history and theology teacher at Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine.

“I really didn’t want to teach high school,” Fr. Powell said, quickly adding with a laugh,“I went there and absolutely loved it.” He explained he found himself drawn especially to the“earnestness and honesty” of high school boys and girls who don’t mind telling a teacher that the lecture that was just given was dull. “And you could see them forming as young men and women from year to year. It’s amazing to see how they grow, learn, mature,” he said.

A Francis-like Future

Fr. Mario PowellMost recently, in May, Fr. Powell graduated from Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry with his Master of Divinity degree, which paved the way for his ordination. He plans to return to the school this fall to wrap up another degree, his Licentiate in Sacred Theology. In the meantime, he and his Jesuit superiors will reflect on his future permanent ministry. That could lead him again to a Jesuit high school or to a doctoral program for training as a historian of American religion, Fr. Powell said.

Regardless of the tasks he takes on, the young priest looks forward to ministering in the mold of his fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis. As he sees it, this means asking questions such as, “How do we create a Christianity that is inclusive, that goes to the margins in our neighborhoods and communities and pulls people in?” Fr. Powell was referring to the poor, the sick, the addicted, the imprisoned and others.

“People don’t want to be lectured to,” he added in a campus interview on a bench outside the School of Theology and Ministry. But he said what they do need is “a sense that Jesus is walking with them, in the good, in the bad, in the everyday normal stuff. … The priesthood is about service. It’s about accompaniment. And you don’t need a doctorate to do all that.”

Fr. Mario Powell
Fr. Powell blesses his father after his ordination on June 14. Photo by Doris Yu.

In that sense, Pope Francis is “an embodiment of the priesthood, of the Jesuit priesthood,” Fr. Powell observed. “He lives simply. The single most quoted word of his is‘mercy.’ He talks about mercy. He shows mercy. And you can see the joy in which he’s living it out.”

Likewise, Fr. Powell’s family — which turned out in force for his ordination ceremony — can see the joy with which he has embraced a priestly vocation.

“They don’t particularly understand,” he said, alluding to the journey that began with his conversion to Catholicism at age 13. “But they know I’m happy and that this is what I’m called to do. And that makes all the difference to them.”

Fr. Mario Powell
Fr. Powell on his ordination day. Photo by Doris Yu.

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