Through the pages of a Jesuit life

By  Kelly Walker, Catholic Register Special
  • May 24, 2007
{mosimage}The Greater Glory, Thirty-Seven Years With the Jesuits by Stephen Casey (McGill-Queen’s University Press, hardcover, 243 pages, $34.95).

The immigrants to Canada in the mid-1800s brought with them their skills, dreams, fears, languages, customs, foods and their religions. As they clung to their heritage and memory from the Old World, they implanted what they considered to be the best of what they had known in Europe. This immigration married their religious expectations and traditions, for better or for worse, with those of the French Canadians who had preceded them in the flight from Europe.
For Roman Catholics in Upper Canada and the West, this immigration was met with hatred and anti-Catholic rants by the Protestant majority who hosted them. Perhaps as a result of isolation, much of the religious practice in Canada was frozen in time with strong memories of how it was back home, and evolved slowly into a North American religious culture. The religion that was formulated in the 18th and 19th century in Ireland and the United States was influenced by the Jansenist strain that was introduced into the English-speaking world through seminary training at Maynooth, in Ireland, and in the French-speaking world at Saint Sulpice in Paris.

{sa 0773532439}Every religious order, society and congregation was tainted with this quasi-Gnostic movement with a thin Christian veneer. It was characterized by self-abnegation, denial of pleasure, escape from the world and sentimental pietism. The Coutumiers of the religious orders and the Imitation of Christ of Thomas à Kempis were given an equal place in ordering life inside religious houses with the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.

Stephen Casey’s book serves as a template for the swan-song of this religious movement that still manifests itself in the Roman Catholic Church in the 21st century. His book describes how the Society of Jesus lived its religion in the middle of the 20th century. His book serves as a valid document on the life of one member of a religious group which sometimes viewed itself as a tool of the papacy to fight the demons and challenges of an urbanizing and industrializing Western world — science, technology, democracy, sexuality, foreign cultures and other styles of European Christianity.

This very kind, strong and wise man takes the reader through the pages of his life — from an upper middle class family in Winnipeg, through his years in the Jesuits to his final resolution to lead a life that better suited his personality and dreams as a married man and grandfather, still involved in the mission of transformation that led him to make his initial steps into the Society of Jesus.

The book will interest those who lived the religious life in the period from the pre-Vatican II years up to the present. He represents the majority of those who entered the religious life from the late ’40s till the ’70s, when life inside their houses differed little from the life in the century before. Out of this generation, there are more who have left than remained in ministry, so there will certainly be a readership who will appreciate this journal. It will resonate with thousands of Canadian former religious. It has the power to stir up tears, happy memories, melancholy and rage.

The Greater Glory serves as a very graphic photo-journal of life in an all-encompassing institution in the mid-20th century. It shows how the struggle for relevance and respect for the individual can often be forgotten in favour of religious dreams locked in another time. Casey’s body and soul were captured by a way of life that a group of imaginative, brave and holy young men embraced in their youthful zeal before the wisdom of the human emotional, sexual and deep spiritual issues clicked in and would call them to make new, adult life decisions. For a few, it was a choice to remain. But most left the groups they joined in their 20s or even younger to better follow the Master.

We see so many parallels today in the life of the fundamentalist Muslims who have come to this country. Veiled, controlled, stripped of their individuality, they reflect in many ways the “strangeness” of our ancestors who came here 150 years ago. The world in Casey’s story does not differ significantly and offers the reader a replay of the past.

Casey’s respect and, indeed, love of his companions in the Society of Jesus shows how a generous and forgiving man can move into a new life without deep rancour. His stories about his companions and life in their schools will delight his former confreres and students. His personal journey can bring hope and courage to those who are engaged in similar life struggles. His experience could serve as a memo to those in positions of power within the church that every person’s story is individual and sacred.

I wish he had devoted more time to the process of leaving. It would have served as an account of the terror of the choice to leave, how he handled the process personally, how the church and order really helped him or not and how he dealt with his new beginnings on a fragile ark. The search for a new identity is a huge issue, especially in the life of a man in his 50s who needs to re-invent his life for the last gift of time.

Some stay. Some leave. God is faithful to each person’s journey. As Casey concludes: “I am very grateful for these years of happiness and looking back, I have no regrets over that life-altering decision taken over 20 years ago.” It is clear that his time in the Society of Jesus served to form a gracious, generous and happy gentleman.

That is what religious experience should do.

(Walker, an author, was for 20 years a Dominican Friar.)

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