From Agnostic to Jesuit: Fr. Ted Penton's Spiritual Journey

By Fr. Ted Penton, SJ

Fr. Ted Penton, SJ, who currently serves as Secretary of the Office of Justice and Ecology at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, was ordained to the priesthood on May 11, 2019.

August 7, 2019 — My moment of spiritual awakening occurred in 1997 at Wat Suan Mokkh, a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. I was 22 years old and agnostic, but had an interest in world religions. At the suggestion of someone I’d met while traveling, I signed up for a 10-day introductory meditation retreat.

The retreat was difficult — after being woken up by a gong at 4:30 a.m. and spending numerous sessions in silent meditation, with only two small meals of brown rice and steamed vegetables, by the early evening most of my own meditation centered on food. But God broke through my hunger and on the seventh day I had a brief, sudden sense of overwhelming peace, love and joy, far beyond anything I’d experienced before. In that moment was contained the seed of the rest of my life since then.

Fr. Ted Penton, SJ, (fourth from left), with family and Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, SJ, (third from right) after being ordained to the priesthood on May 11.

Born then were, among other things, a desire to follow a spiritual path, a desire to work for justice with those on the margins and the knowledge that my own spiritual home is in the Roman Catholic Church, in which I had been raised, but which I had left several years earlier.

Fr. Penton (center) with fellow Jesuit novices after finishing the long retreat in Guelph, Ontario in 2009.

A couple of months following my retreat, I began graduate studies in philosophy. More importantly, I had begun regularly attending Mass and working with the campus Pax Christi chapter. Over the next two years, while I enjoyed my classes, I increasingly found more life and energy in my volunteer work, notably in visits to a Franciscan soup kitchen or a Catholic Worker house.

I left my graduate studies behind to pursue full-time volunteer work through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. My work placement was with Legal Aid of North Carolina, in a special unit offering legal services to migrant farmworkers.

Fr. Penton during the ordination Mass.

Our outreach efforts aimed to let them know that, even though they were not U.S. citizens, they still had rights here — they could, for example, file a complaint if pesticides were being sprayed while they were working in the fields or if they weren’t receiving their full wages. Generally, people were reluctant to take action, given the concern over employer retaliation. However, in those cases where people did have the courage to stand up for their rights, it was a blessing to witness the awakening of a stronger sense of their own dignity.

The Jesuit Volunteer Corps also introduced me to Ignatian spirituality. Ignatius’ way of bringing together his mysticism with a pragmatic approach to engaging with the world resonated deeply with me. Thoughts of a religious vocation started to surface. I only pursued them several years later, though, after I’d gone to law school and worked for a few years as a lawyer.

I entered the Jesuit novitiate in 2009, drawn to the Society in particular by Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuit commitment to living a faith that does justice. Both of these aspects of my life have been deepened considerably throughout my years as a Jesuit, notably in my formation in spiritual direction and in the three years I spent working with the Ignatian Spirituality Project (ISP).

Fr. Penton (front row, second from the left) on an Ignatian Spirituality Project retreat in Michigan City, Indiana in 2014.

ISP offers weekend retreats for men and women experiencing homelessness and in recovery from addiction. The retreats draw on the wisdom of both Ignatian spirituality and the 12-step traditions, which complement each other well. As on a more ‘typical’ Ignatian retreat, it was always a tremendous joy and blessing to walk with people on ISP retreats as they came to a more profound awareness of the depths of God’s love for them, a love that is manifested so uniquely with each individual.

Fr. Penton (holding the paddle) with fellow Jesuits at Villa St. Michel in Quebec.

In August 2018, I was assigned as the new Secretary of the Office of Justice and Ecology of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. Our mission is to advocate, network and educate for social and environmental justice, and our work is grounded in Ignatian spirituality and Catholic social teaching, placing at its center the voices of marginalized communities. I am excited by the many opportunities to share in the great work that is being done in these areas in our own Conference and around the Jesuit world.

Fr. Penton gives a blessing during his ordination Mass.

Having been born together so many years ago in Thailand, my religious faith and desire to work for justice are one. Trying to imagine either without the other seems empty. Representing farmworkers who are awakening to a fuller sense of their God-given rights, going through the rigours of Ignatius’ spiritual exercises, accompanying others in their own spiritual journeys, amplifying the voices of people on the margins through advocacy with government and business leaders: These are all ways that I have myself grown closer to God and shared in the journeys of others.

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