By Cheryl Wittenauer
August 8, 2014 — As Jesuit Father Ron Mercier talks about his life, a pattern emerges.
The 60-year-old Jesuit, a product of working-class Holyoke, Massachusetts, keeps getting asked to do things, and he always says yes, even when he’d rather say no, not now.
He agreed, as a young Jesuit graduate student of Russian history at Harvard University, to help out at a Ukrainian Catholic church in Boston.
Years later, he said yes to similar requests from churches of the same Byzantine Rite in Toronto and St. Louis.
Nearly a decade ago, he accepted an invitation to be the first executive director of the Jesuit Collaborative, a three-province network linking ministries in Ignatian spirituality from North Carolina to Maine.
And when Missouri Provincial Jesuit Father Doug Marcouiller asked him four years ago to run a house of formation in St. Louis — where he had just accepted a teaching job at Saint Louis University — he responded with the same spirit of obedience and availability that’s in the Jesuit DNA.
A little over a year ago, Fr. Marcouiller asked the tall, lanky Fr. Mercier to facilitate a meeting of Jesuit superiors at Lake Dallas, Texas. They gathered to discuss, reflect and pray about the necessary qualities of the man who would lead one of the nation’s largest Jesuit provinces, more than one million square miles, when the Missouri and New Orleans Provinces combined their men, ministries, institutions, assets and cultures in late July.
“He said, ‘You should know your name has been mentioned as a possible candidate,’” Fr. Mercier recalled Fr. Marcouiller saying. He laughed and didn’t think much about it.
One day, as he was driving between home and Saint Louis University where he taught ethics, his cell phone rang. He pulled over, picked up the call from Fr. Marcouiller and learned that he’d been chosen to lead the Jesuits of the new U.S. Central and Southern Province, starting on July 31, the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus.
“My first reaction was simply shock,” he said. “‘Oh, dear God, with everything that that entails,’” he remembers thinking.
“That lasted a little while.”
But over time, he’s made peace with it, trusting in the grace that he’ll be provided companions to help him.
“It is daunting in a very real way,” he said. “There is a lot to do. At the same time, I really do get a sense that I have extraordinarily good support. Daunting as it might be, it certainly is going to be a burden shared with others.”
Not least among his challenges is the sheer vastness of the new province, which stretches eastward from Colorado and New Mexico to Florida, and south from Kansas and Missouri to the Mexican border and Gulf Coast, and along the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans and beyond, to Belize, in Central America, each place with its own distinctive culture, dialect, tradition and natural resistance to let go of the past to make way for the new.
Fr. Mercier grew up in a place with its own distinct culture.
The Holyoke he knew in the 1950s and ‘60s was an old industrial city made up of ethnic enclaves of Irish, Italians, Poles and French Canadians drawn to work in its paper mills. Everyone knew each other in his small section of the city, where English and French were spoken at his Catholic grade school, and where sisters from French-speaking Quebec taught. As working-class families aspired to middle-class life in the suburbs, their ethnic identities were diluted and lost.
The immigration issues of today are, in many ways, his family’s history, he said.
“All four of my grandparents (and mother) were from Quebec and had to migrate to the U.S. for economic reasons,” he said. French was the only language spoken in the Mercier home for a time.
His parents placed a high value on education for its own sake and as the ticket out of Holyoke, and he and his two siblings made it their life’s work.
Young Ron, a stellar student, attended Yale University, where he briefly pursued pre-med until a roommate suggested offhand that he study Russian to meet an elective requirement, which surprisingly lit a love of the Russian language, history and culture and led to a degree in Russian and East European studies. Fr. Mercier assumed he would teach Russian history and language or work in diplomacy or international law during what was then the height of the Cold War and detente, but a chance meeting and friendship with Jesuit doctoral students at Yale provided an image of priesthood that he had not experienced before. “I was used to a traditional type of Catholicism,” he said. “This was a very different way of being a priest, in my way of thinking.”
Further exposure to Jesuits during graduate studies in East European history at Columbia University led him to enter the New England Province at age 22. A relative newcomer to the Midwest, Fr. Mercier is on his way to seeing a whole lot more of the country.
Fr. Mercier’s father, who was a truck driver, hated to drive, but his son loves the open road. “Growing up in a small area made me want to see the rest of the world,” he said.
Music helps keep him company on the road, and his eclectic taste runs from jazz to classical to rock. He’s also a film fan, and his integration of films in homilies earned him a reputation as “the movie priest.”
His top priority is meeting the province’s men and visiting its institutions, and to “listen and give people a sense of being cared for,” he said. So far, he’s been struck by the number of men who are willing to take on new challenges.
“He’s a Jesuit, a real Jesuit, and he will embrace it. He would not have looked for this. Jesuits don’t aspire to this, but I think he will embrace it,” said Sr. Clare Walsh, MHSH, a friend and colleague from his Jesuit Collaborative days.
Fr. Mercier will miss the formation house, the classroom and an academic career in ethics. For 15 years, he was dean and professor of ethics at Regis College, the Jesuit theology school of the University of Toronto, where he earned a doctorate in theology.
At SLU, he taught ethics, health care ethics and a course in public health and social justice. His area of expertise was access and justice in health care as well as informed consent, especially at end of life.
Fr. Mercier knows his new job will leave little time for retreat work, spiritual direction and parish sacramental ministry, which he loves. Still, he said, “the work of a provincial is very much pastoral.”
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