Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., from his earliest days as a Jesuit in 1961. This year marks the Ottawa archbishop’s 50th year with the Jesuits.

50 years of Jesuit joy for Prendergast

  • July 27, 2011

OTTAWA - When Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast left Montreal for Toronto on Aug. 13, 1961 to begin his novitiate in the Society of Jesus, he admitted shedding some tears aboard the overnight train.

“I think it was just leaving my parents and my friends,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be back for some time.”

But he awoke the next morning to a new adventure and a sense of joy that has accompanied him, with a few exceptions, ever since.His life as a Jesuit has taken him from Toronto to Montreal, on to Halifax, Regina and Ottawa with sabbaticals in Rome and Jerusalem. A Scripture scholar, he has moved from teaching high school students to teaching university students and seminarians in Toronto, Halifax and Regina, and to teaching the faithful at large in the episcopacy, first in Toronto as an auxiliary bishop, then to Halifax and Ottawa as archbishop.

“My life has been very happy,” he said. “Even with a few crisis places, basically it’s been happiness every day.”

Entering the novitiate at age 17, he said he did “go through some affective issues,” but he waited them out and “they resolved themselves.”  

As a high school graduate, Prendergast said he did not have many life experiences to draw on when he entered the novitiate. He had a paper route while in elementary school and later delivered beer for a small store in his neighbourhood. In the winter, he skated every day he could in the park across the street from his home.

“I played hockey,” he said. “I wasn’t a star but I could get up and down the ice.”

A priest asked him when he was in seventh grade whether he had considered the priesthood, and he said no. But it was a question that got him thinking. Then in high school, the young Jesuit scholastics who taught at Montreal’s Loyola High School inspired him to join the order, which he thought would lead to him one day becoming a high school teacher. But it led him down another path.

Jesuit spirituality and religious life has not only given Prendergast a rigourous academic formation — he obtained a doctorate in Scripture from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax — it has deepened his faith and shaped his character.

The second of five children in a devout Catholic family, the archbishop joked that maybe he was a bit like the old Avis “we try harder” commercial. 

“I was passionate about things,” he said. “Religious life knocks some of the rough edges off.”

He made his first vows in 1963, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1972. The then 28-year-old Prendergast was younger than the usual age of 30-33 for ordination in the Jesuits.

Jesuit spirituality, especially the Spiritual Exercises of founder St. Ignatius of Loyola, has shaped his daily life over the past five decades. The Exercises provide a way to get to know Christ through a reading of the Scripture that interiorizes the texts and makes them personal, he said.

Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., meeting with Pope Benedict XVIAt a special ceremony at the Canadian Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont., at the end of July, Prendergast and two confreres will celebrate a 50th anniversary Mass at the memorial to the eight Jesuit missionaries to Canada who were slain in the service of the Gospel. The celebration will follow a four-and-a-half-day congress marking 400 years of the Jesuits in Canada.

Prendergast said he has always appreciated St. Jean de Brebeuf, one of the martyrs, who prayed for the gift of martyrdom.

“If he happened to suffer martyrdom because of his attachment to Christ, that would be for the good of the people and for Christ’s glory,” he said. “So for him, after all, he began to desire that thing that humanly speaking he would have shrunk from, not because he was a masochist but because he wanted to be like Christ.”

Prendergast celebrated his anniversary in Ottawa on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart July 1, and in his homily tied it in with  the Jesuits’ 400th anniversary in Canada. He noted then how the Pope had entrusted to the Jesuits the mission of promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart.

“To enter the heart of Christ is to know the depths of His love,” he told the congregation at Notre Dame Cathedral. “And this knowledge, like fire, cannot be contained, it must spread.

“In their zeal for the Kingdom, Jesuits are called to be ready to move on, or to wait, to return and to stay, but in every circumstance to proclaim, ‘not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.’ ”

Jesuits have been on the forefront of movements for social justice, particularly in Latin America, and Prendergast said the media focus has often been on people on the extremes.

“I think in every group there are always going to be people who err on one side or the other, whether this is typical of the Jesuit order as a whole I don’t know,” he said. “Obviously, there have been people on the extremes, some who so spoke about justice that they lost the fact that it’s in service of the faith. Other people who so spoke of the service of the faith that they weren’t interested at all in justice. The tension is always to keep the two in harmony. The promotion of justice that is required by the service of the faith is not some kind of justice that is apart from it.”  

Meanwhile, Prendergast hopes young men who feel a call on their lives will consider the Society of Jesus.

“It’s a great life and I’m very confident in the young people that we have,” he said. “We still have young men who come who desire to serve God as a brother or a priest and want to have a different kind of experience than a parish priest.”

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