Canadian Jesuit Embodied
Bracing Power Of Joy

Michael Higgins
president of St. Jerome's University, Waterloo, Ont.

from  OPINION, Toronto Star, July 17, 2004

           It is difficult being a Roman Catholic these days without being chastened. Again and again as a community we are reminded of the sins, miscalculations, blunders and egregious faults of our leaders, and indeed, of ourselves. Most prominent, as you might expect, are the sex scandals that never seem to go away.

          A spate of new books on the sex abuse malaise, easy and often cheap commentary by ill-informed and righteous critics, fearful leadership by Catholic bishops who are either tepid in their response or overly aggressive and defensive, and a demoralized clergy and laity wondering why the heavens have fallen on us, all combine to make for a hobbling, maimed, and timid community of faith.

          But it needn't be like this. In fact, it shouldn't be like this at all. Anger, zeal for reform, compassion and forthright leadership are called for and should be activated. But above all, there must be joy. A Catholic community bereft of joy is a directionless body of use to no one, including itself.

          I was reminded of this while attending a remarkable memorial service for a genuine spiritual leader, John English, who was a member of the Society of Jesus for the Upper Canadian Province for more than half a century. English's true claim to fame is not longevity, but witness. And what a witness he provided.

          Known throughout Canada and a good part of the English-speaking world for his intelligent and original reading of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and for his willingness to make this great classic of the Christian spiritual life available for Catholics and non-Catholics, lay and ordained, Christian and non-Christian.

          In the late 1960s, English, along with many like-minded Jesuits, spearheaded some remarkable developments in the : whole area of Ignatian spiritual direction. The results of this kind of leadership are with us still, fermenting, generating and inspiring. English liked to remind people that the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are not an arcane collection of unworldly maxims, nor a manual for the gnostic or spiritually elite.

          For English, they're like "a Shakespearean play which is always being interpreted and then reinterpreted, changing and adjusting to different cultures and times. The key to the exercises, it seems to me, can be found in its internal dynamic of experience, reflection, articulation and interpretation."

          The spirituality of Ignatius as crystallized in the exercises is a spirituality for everyone. It is egalitarian, accessible, and non-esoteric. It is there for the taking, or perhaps more precisely, for the doing. No Jesuit in Canada laboured more assiduously, creatively, and energetically for the "doing" than English.

          The deep appreciation for his labours in this field of spirituality, for his persistence and integrity, was amply provided by the large crowd that attended the memorial service in Guelph. The ceremony spoke beautifully and appositely to his predominant passions: his love of nature, his great good humour, his openness to others, his ecumenical sensitivities, and his spiritual resilience.

          As I watched the gathered remember him with tears, anecdotes, and laughter, I recalled my own brief encounters with him: research interviews, casual conversation, shared concerns. Although he was never my spiritual director, I read his work, probed his thinking, and shared his jokes. Most important, I tasted the joy of his life. And that's my point.

          Catholics are not a bunkered people, and such a posture should be foreign to our very nature. The demands of discipleship, the liberating power of joy, and intelligent discernment are the components that make for an active and informed Christian witness.

          English reminded us in his writing, in his life, and through his evolving legacy that the spirituality in which he had been schooled the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola is, in the end, a spirituality of right-knowing and of making things just. It doesn't so much proscribe experience, which sometimes other spiritualities tend to do, as much as it invites one to sift and gauge its true measure. He spent his life trying to sift and gauge the true measure of the spirituality he had made his own, but he didn't hoard his insights. He harvested them.

          English is one stellar reminder that a meaningful and integrated spirituality is the foundation for reform, the raison d'etre of Roman Catholic structures of governance and institutions of evangelization. We need to get that right. We need to get it as right as English did for, in the end, atrophying structures will only give way to the luminous credibility provided by the likes of Fr. John J. English, S.J.

The Details Of John English's Death And Funeral

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