Jesuits put vow of poverty into action

  • October 2, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - There are 17,000 people living in 19 high-rise buildings crammed into just two city blocks in St. James Town — Canada’s most densely populated neighbourhood. Two of those 17,000 chose St. Jamestown over an historic, six-bedroom brick home in a quiet, leafy neighbourhood near High Park.

Jesuit provincial superior Fr. Jim Webb, and his right hand man, or socius, Fr. Peter Bisson have been living in a three-bedroom apartment in one of Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods for 10 months.
Webb believes the Jesuit vow of poverty has to be more than a theory.

“If you say that material things are not important but then there’s no sign of it, it lacks credibility,” he said.
Greater credibility translates into vocations, said Webb.

“Our commitment to social justice and solidarity with the poor is very strong,” he said. “In terms of vocations, I think that is one of the things that is attracting younger people to the Jesuits.”

The Jesuits have nine novices in the two-year program at their Montreal novitiate.

“I think a significant part of their motivation is their commitment to the poor,” said Webb.

Young Jesuits enter an upside-down world — one where people work hard to achieve poverty. It’s a contradiction that delights Webb. He fondly remembers the day he and Bisson moved into St. James Town. Riding the elevator at the end of the move, one of the movers said to Webb, “It must be really hard to have lost everything and have to move here.”

Few people choose St. James Town. Two-thirds are recent immigrants. Unemployment is a problem, but so is the pattern of people holding two or three jobs to make ends meet. For Webb, St. James Town represents the same choice as  the one he made as a young Jesuit waiting for ordination.

In 1973 he asked for permission to live among the poor of the then-blighted Toronto neighbourhood of South Riverdale.

“It was the pre-gentrification era,” Webb recalls.

For 13 years he and a number of Jesuits lived in an area associated with skid row. He left there to work in Jamaica, where he chose to live in one of the poorest, most violent neighbourhoods in Kingston.

After Kingston, St. James Town seems rather placid.

“I have come back numerous times at midnight and I roll my suitcase down from the subway. I don’t have any sense that anybody is going to do anything,” said Webb.

Being Jesuit provincial means travelling across Canada to meet with Jesuits, plus frequent trips to Rome. All the travel has made it difficult for Webb to get to know the neighbours and the neighbourhood. Over time he hopes to form those bonds.

In the meantime, just being there is important.

“In an age of materialism and consumerism, it’s an important statement,” he said. “It has an apostolic value. People see that you could have something and you’re choosing not to. It says something.”

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