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Novice "Experiments" in Kansas City: All Part of the Jesuit Experience

By Moira Cullings, The Leaven

March 20, 2018, KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sullivan McCormick was tentative when he was told to put his cash and credit card in an envelope and hand it over.

“It wasn’t the quantity of the money,” said McCormick.

“It was that initial shock of realizing that you’re not going to have ownership of things and that your idea of possessions is going to change,” he added.

McCormick wasn’t the victim of a random holdup.

He was a new novice studying to be a Jesuit priest.

And as he laid his money in front of a statue of Mary, it was not without some emotion.

“At first, I was kind of angry or just resistant to it,” he said. “Eventually, it became more freeing.”

McCormick and his fellow novices from the Central and Southern Jesuit Province in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, spent seven weeks ministering in the Kansas City metropolitan area as part of their two-year novitiate formation.

The group of 12 stayed with Father Harry Schneider at the rectory of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Kansas City, Kansas, and a rented house down the street.

This was the eighth year men from the novitiate have come.

Jesuit Novices at the Kansas City (Kan.) Cathedral

Central and Southern Province Novices at the Kansas City, Kansas (Kan.) Cathedral

Why choose the Jesuits?

The novices offered many reasons for choosing to enter the Jesuit order over other orders or even the diocesan priesthood.

“A big thing for me was community,” said Kevin Kuehl.

The men live, work and take part in retreats as a group.

“Jesuits have Ignatian spirituality,” added Kuehl. “We have a spiritual structure that’s going to help give life to our prayer, to our communal life, to our work and in ministry as well.”

For Hunter D’Armond, the Jesuit lifestyle was most appealing.

“We don’t have cellphones,” he said. “We retreat from the world a little bit more than a regular seminary would ask for.”

Another major aspect that attracts many aspiring Jesuits is ministering to those in need.

The novices’ two-year novitiate includes interspersed service opportunities in both local communities and those far away.

“Having the opportunity to do different types of ministry, travel [to] different places and bring those experiences back to the community rather than be in one place permanently was appealing to me,” said Philip Nahlik.

Eric Couto with students at Resurrection School, Kansas City
Novice Eric Couto, SJ, with students at Resurrection School, Kansas City
During outreach, the Jesuits come to understand their own talents and interests, which helps them determine what assignments they might enjoy after ordination.

“One of the things Jesuits talk about is having this sense of availability as part of our charism, just going wherever we’re needed,” said Kuehl.

“That was appealing to me,” he added, “being able to discern what my gifts and talents are and go where I’m most needed.”

Kansas City connection

The formation team of the province was first drawn to Kansas City because of the urban setting and ministry opportunities here.

The novitiate in Grand Coteau is located in a rural part of the deep South, explained Father Drew Kirschman, SJ, assistant director of novices.

“One of the challenges [of the location] is it’s a more rural, isolated setting,” he said.

Almost a decade ago, the priests in charge of the novices contacted Jesuits they knew in Kansas City and decided it would be a good urban area for the men to work in.

In addition to serving at the cathedral, the novices work at multiple agencies each day of the week.

The agencies that hosted this year’s group included Cross-Lines Community Outreach, Keeler Women’s Center, Catholic Charities’ Mobile Resource Bus, Bethany Prison Ministry in Leavenworth and more.

Because the men are Jesuits, their perspective is different from that of an average volunteer.

“My big question that I started off the experiment with is: ‘What does it mean to be a Jesuit?’” said Nahlik.

Whether working with kids at Resurrection Catholic School in Kansas City, Kansas, or helping the homeless, the novices’ work is built on a foundation of spirituality.

Justin Kelley’s favorite part of the experience was working at the soup kitchen at Cross-Lines.

“It’s a good mix of behind the scenes grunt work,” he said, “cleaning showers and making soup.

“It’s also real ministry — one-on-one. I get to sit and eat with the homeless and get to know them.”

Justin Kelley, nSJ, at Cross-Lines

Novice Justin Kelley, SJ, lunches with members of the local community at Cross-Lines Community Outreach, Inc.

Father Kirschman sums up their purpose with a little help from St. Ignatius.

“Ignatius calls us to accompany the crucified Christ in the world today,” he said. “The invitation for these guys,” he continued, “is every day to go into the various social settings and find themselves with folks who are struggling in our world.”

Unique growth

Whether Jesuits become teachers, foreign missionaries or serve as parish priests, their extensive spiritual and hands-on experiences give them much to draw on.

One of the most pertinent times for novices is a 30-day silent retreat in which they practice The Spiritual Exercises created by St. Ignatius.

“For me, one of the things I got is a great zeal, and it was a grace I was given later in the exercises,” said Kelley. “It was a zeal to teach people or show people all that I learned in the ‘Exercises.’”

“I felt sincerely God’s love,” he continued, “and that was so sincere and so profound that I wanted everybody to feel that same love.”

When Nahlik struggles with his prayer life, he’ll reflect on those 30 days.

“It was so good for me, growing in that relationship with Jesus and wanting to keep that up,” he said. “I feel more committed to that prayer in my own daily life.”

Kuehl agreed.

“I think there’s a greater certainty that God communicates with us through prayer,” he said.

When you pray that deeply, added Kuehl, you know God’s love is real.

Nick Blair mans the grill at Morning Glory Ministries
Novice Nick Blair, SJ, mans the grill at Morning Glory Ministries in Kansas City. 
Many times, the impact of experiences like the silent retreat comes later on, said D’Armond, who was surprised by how well he was able to minister to a homeless person during his time in Kansas City.

“I went back to one of my prayer periods during the exercises in that moment and was able to reflect on that,” he said.

“God gives us this great gift and it doesn’t come into effect immediately because we can’t even grasp it,” he continued.

Another unique opportunity for the novices is when Father Mark Thibodeaux, SJ, director of the novices, will send them on a pilgrimage.

“This is when they get a one-way bus ticket and five dollars,” explained Father Kirschman.

“They spend 10 days tapping into the abundant generosity of God as seen through the world around us,” he said.

The experience teaches the novices to give themselves over to God and completely trust that he will provide, he explained.

Father Kirschman and the novices are grateful for the time they were able to spend in the Kansas City community and the impact it had on their formation.

“Father Harry has been an intricate part of that,” said Father Kirschman.

“The diocese, the bishop and the parishioners here have been incredibly welcoming,” he added, “very warm in their hospitality and very gracious.

“We just want to affirm the extraordinary work this diocese is already a part of.”

This article first appeared in The Leaven, the official newspaper of the Kansas City, Kansas, archdiocese. It is gratefully used by permission.

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