By Becky Sindelar
June 30, 2015 — From the time he was a young boy, Fr. Ike Udoh, SJ, was drawn to the celebration of Mass — the vibrant music, being with family and friends. Born in California, Fr. Udoh moved with his family to Benin City, Nigeria, when he was just 2 years old, to grow up experiencing the culture of his parents’ homeland.
The practice of faith in Nigeria was joyful and alive, and the priests Fr. Udoh met influenced his vocation. They were more than just priests at Mass; they were also family friends who would drop by the Udohs' home to visit. “They were the rare combination of being very approachable and human and also at the same time, in the context of the liturgy, they were very reverent,” Fr. Udoh says.
In Benin City, Fr. Udoh became familiar with the Society of Jesus through the Jesuit parish, St. Joseph’s. Though it wasn’t his family’s parish, Fr. Udoh would often visit. The pastor at that time was an American Jesuit, Fr. Ed Debany, SJ, and Fr. Udoh was struck by how much he loved the people and cared for them. “I felt he became a part of the culture and people there,” says Fr. Udoh.
Later, when an African-American Jesuit, Fr. George Quickley, SJ, became pastor, Fr. Udoh attended Mass and remembers seeing Fr. Quickley preaching with great enthusiasm and, after Mass, taking time to greet and talk to each person. Through these moments, Fr. Udoh saw the Jesuits as missionaries close to the people. “They planted the seed for my vocation.”
After graduating from high school, Fr. Udoh returned to the United States in 1997 with an interest in biology and medicine, as well as the beginnings of a vocation. He completed a medical assisting program at Western Career College in San Leandro, California, and then worked as an optometric assistant at InVision optometry in Oakland while also completing his associate’s degree in biology at Alameda Community College. He then transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in integrative biology in 2004.
Fr. Udoh surrounded by his family after his diaconate ordination.
During this period, Fr. Udoh was also discerning his vocation as a Jesuit. In 1999, he contacted the California Province Jesuits, and while he pursued his education, he kept in touch with the Society. He began meeting with Jesuit spiritual directors and upon completing his degree, entered the Society in 2004.
As a novice, he remembers a Sister of St. Joseph showing him around on his first day as a hospital chaplain. When Sr. Jean came to a dying patient, Fr. Udoh was struck by the ease and grace with which she ministered. The patient looked directly at him as he stood at the foot of the bed, and that gaze stayed with him throughout the rest of the day, moving him to pray for her. He later learned that the patient died the next day. “It was one of my first experiences of apostolic ministry — to see how we’re called to hold people in our hearts and care for them deeply.”
Fr. Udoh at the 2011 Ignatian Family Teach-In.
After the novitiate, Fr. Udoh went to Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, where he spent three years and completed a master’s in philosophy. During the first summer, he taught English in China, which proved to be one of his first experiences of the grace and challenge of the vow of obedience.
“I wasn’t anticipating going or wanting to go. I didn’t speak the language. I thought, how will I carry on?” He was sent with two of his classmates to teach English to teachers and it proved to be a great experience, where he witnessed “the goodness of the people and their openness, as well as learning to depend on one another as Jesuit brothers.”
Fr. Udoh (center) at his ordination on June 13. (Photo by Doris Yu)
Through this and other formation experiences, Fr. Udoh came to understand the concept of Jesuits being available for the mission and the sense that “God will be there with you, even if it seems uncertain at first.”
In 2009, Fr. Udoh headed to Loyola High School of Los Angeles, where he worked in campus ministry, taught theology and was assistant coach of the JV soccer team. “Meeting a lot of dedicated people through the ministry was fantastic,” he says, “and seeing all the amazing programs at the high school, both academic and extracurricular — particularly the senior service project, opportunities for advocacy and direct contact with the poor and creating the space for an encounter with God through campus ministry — was a great experience.”
During that time, he also had the chance to travel to Guatemala to learn Spanish with four other Jesuits, where he got to experience the Society internationally. “We were able to spend time with three Jesuits who worked at Universidad Rafael Landivar, and there was an automatic bond we had as members of the same community through our shared experience of the Spiritual Exercises. Their hospitality was a wonderful gift and a grace.”
For the past three years, Fr. Udoh studied at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California, where he completed a Master of Divinity degree while serving as a deacon at St. Joseph’s Church in Pinole, California. He also spent time working with a new young adult Jesuit ministry, Christus Ministries, based in Los Angeles. It was “a great experience of what is possible in terms of the church’s engagement with the faith life of young people,” Fr. Udoh says.
Fr. Udoh was part of a Christus Ministries immersion experience in Tijuana, Mexico, where they helped build a home for a family.
As ordination approached, Fr. Udoh reflected, “I am just amazed that this is my 11th year as a Jesuit. When I started, formation seemed like an eternity and now it seems like I blinked and 11 years have passed by. I’m excited and I feel the wonderful joy of the gift of priesthood I’ll be given.”
After ordination, he will continue his studies at the Jesuit School of Theology, working toward a Licentiate in Sacred Theology. He looks forward to serving in even more ways through the liturgy and sacraments.
Fr. Udoh with his family after celebrating his first Mass as a priest at Loyola High School of Los Angeles.
Fr. Udoh is grateful for the opportunities he’s had to journey with the people of God throughout his formation and for how they’ve shaped him. “My greatest joy is helping people encounter Jesus — facilitating that encounter in any way.”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.