On Monday evening my wife Ann and I watched a Zoom event sponsored by the John Carroll University Office of Alumni Relations and featuring Fr. Timothy Kesicki, S.J. Fr. Kesicki, an alumnus of John Carroll, was asked to speak as part of the Founders Day Celebrations commemorating the 135th anniversary of the agreement between the Diocese of Cleveland and the Jesuits in Buffalo to sponsor an all-boys school in the then-suburb of Ohio City.
That school, St. Ignatius College – as it is still engraved in the stone above the front doors, began on the academic model of the German Gymnasium, and over time transformed into two schools – John Carroll University and Saint Ignatius High School.
The stories of these two schools are many, and so often are associated with legendary Jesuits who dedicated their lives to the service of their students. He may not think so, but Fr. Kesicki is one of those legendary men, and he proved it again with both the quality of his talk and his work as the President of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.
In a different moment this might be seen as a cushy appointment to a presidency with no pressure, where one gets to live (and dine) in Washington, D.C., and where one has a quasi-celebrity status as the face of the Jesuits in America on CNN. But in these times of national division Fr. Kesicki had found himself in the middle of a challenge that goes back to before the Civil War, and has found his name in newspaper articles with headlines like this one in the Washington Post: “Jesuits pledge $100 million for descendants of enslaved people the Catholic order once owned.”
As he has always done, Fr. Kesicki approached this issue with the perspective of a Catholic priest and a member of the Society of Jesus – his focus was on the dignity of each person whose life was adversely affected by owning and selling of enslaved people at Georgetown University and other Jesuit communities. The outgrowth of these efforts by Fr. Kesicki and others, some representing the families of those who were involved in these tragic events, has been that aforementioned pledge to the approximately 5,000 known descendants of those who were owned and sold by those Jesuit communities.
Joseph Steward, a spokesperson for the families and himself a descendant, was quoted in the Post as saying, “We were looking for an approach that would engage in a positive way a partnership between all men of good will on changing the future, since we can’t change the past.” It is that sort vision, fully endorsed by Fr. Kesicki, which makes such work so valuable. We certainly can’t change the past, but we can make our best effort to engage in work like this, work that Fr. Kesicki called “a bold undertaking.”
In the style of the homilies for which he was so famous while in the role of President at Saint Ignatius, Fr. Kesicki moved seamlessly from the specific discussion of reparation to that of the more general focus of the work of the Society of Jesus in the 21st Century. Quoting from one of the most recent Jesuit documents he pointed to the three areas of concern in the ministry of the Society: Man’s separation from God, Man’s separation from Man, and Man’s separation from Nature.
These separations are as old as humanity (see Genesis, Chapter 3), and, despite so many efforts in the past to rectify the situation, we stand on the brink of civil war over so many issues, not least of which is racism. There are many who believe that through some sort of political action racism – and the rest – can be eradicated from our institutions and our communities.
Others, including Fr. Kesicki, know better. He, of course, placed the issue within the framework of the Catholic and Jesuit vision when he said, “We betrayed the very Name of Jesus.” We do that every time we sin, and history shows that those who believe in a political solution to a spiritual issue only end up exacerbating the problem.
As we make this year’s journey through the Easter Season it is more important than ever for us to ask of ourselves, “When and how have I, personally, betrayed the very Name of Jesus?” But answering that question is only the beginning, just ask Fr. Kesicki as he works his way through this most important issue. In addition, we must do some pretty heavy lifting – in our relationship with God, with our sisters and brothers, and with our planet – before we can find true peace, peace that can come only from the One Who is the Prince of Peace and the Lord of Life.