“Lord, I’m in over my head. I know it; don’t You? I’m 70 years old; I don’t know anyone or where anything is; and this place moves so fast.”
Anyone familiar with the great prophets of the Old Testament will recognize, if not the exact words, the theme of the above quotation. Feelings of doubt, trepidation, and unworthiness were common among those called to be the voice of God to the Chosen People of Israel. Anyone placed in a new job or in a new environment knows what it must have been like to be told by God that His plan for you is not the same as your plan for you.
When people make the religious vows of obedience, they are turning their lives over de jure to God, but de facto to their religious superior. The vow of obedience has a unique difficulty of the three (the other two being poverty and chastity) because its demands are so outside of one’s personal control and are so life-changing. When a superior sends you to a new assignment, your entire life is uprooted, and you must say goodbye to friends whom you might never see again.
In 2006, as an act of humble obedience, Fr. Frank Canfield, S.J., the quiet, unassuming septuagenarian, moved into the Jesuit residence at the corner of West 30th and Carroll and readied himself for his new assignment. He was not comfortable in this new situation, stating at the time: “I’m no Francis Xavier; there’s more fear in me than most of the world knows…I find change difficult.”
That sense of fear, combined with an honest concern about what God was thinking, was expressed so poignantly by Fr. Canfield in the words he prayed at the beginning of his time in Cleveland and quoted at the top of the page.
Little could he have known that over the next eight years, he would take on almost mythical status among faculty, staff, administration, and especially students at Saint Ignatius. When I received news that Fr. Canfield was called home by his heavenly Father, memory after wonderful memory flooded my mind. I am sure that my reaction was experienced by most of the adults in the Saint Ignatius community.
Among those memories, one - the very first one - stands out as the most indicative of the true nature of Fr. Frank Canfield. That first memory is of an occurrence at the very beginning of the 2006 school year. It might literally have been the day that I met him. Fr. Frank came up to me and asked if he could speak sometime with my freshmen classes. I heartily agreed, a little curious about what he might want to convey to these brand-new Ignatians.
During the first week of classes, he stopped by to chat with each of my five sections of freshman theology, and the message was the same each time: you guys are new here and are probably a little scared and intimidated; I’m new here too, and I know that I’m a little scared and intimidated; if you want to stop by my office sometime to talk about things or to just sit and catch your breath, I would love to have your company.
Almost immediately, lines began to form outside of his office.
As he looked back on those first days with us, he noted that they were the beginning of “eight richly graced years at Saint Ignatius. It was my joy, not my job. It was a remarkable experience, thanks to the teachers and students there. I can’t say enough about what a glorious gift it was.”
“Glorious gift” is exactly the phrase that we would use to describe Fr. Frank’s time with us. He became for the Saint Ignatius community the sacramental presence of the love that God the Father has for His children. The ubiquitous cup of black coffee, those eyes that exuded concern and compassion, that raspy - yet gentle - voice, that perfect melding of vulnerability and wisdom, humility and gravitas: every meeting with him checked all of those boxes.
Fr. Canfield left an indelible mark on the hearts of all at Saint Ignatius who were fortunate enough to know him. He taught us the importance of what the Holy Father calls the art or ministry of accompaniment. He taught us a lesson that he himself learned in the difficult school of experience: trust God and His grace, especially in moments of loneliness and regret. He was the embodiment of the wounded healer.
May God grant Fr. Canfield the beatitude he so much deserves: eternal peace of mind and heart, an endless line of companions leading into his office, and, of course, a bottomless cup of coffee that will never go cold.