“An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”
Way back in 1841 when Ralph Waldo Emerson penned these words in his essay “Self Reliance” there is no way that he could have imagined how fitting they would be in describing the man who so gave of himself to Saint Ignatius that it is almost impossible to speak of one without the other.
When Principal Dan Bradesca ’88 got on the PA on Thursday to announce the passing of retired President Fr. Robert J. Welsh, S.J. ’54 it was to me – and I am sure my experience was not unique – a reminder of just how important that man was and is to every aspect of our lives at Saint Ignatius High School.
My first thoughts went not to the influence that Fr. Welsh had on the institution, but to my personal relationship with him: a relationship that spanned 44 years. He was my first spiritual director, beginning way back in 1974 when I was too young to even know what a spiritual director was. To my 14-year-old mind he was just a priest who I knew I could always go to whenever I needed to talk, a mentor who would always take my adolescent theologizing seriously, a friend who would say what needed to be said even if I didn’t want to hear it.
He was a part of my life in ways I could have never imagined. I thought of the time that I introduced him to my first (and only) girlfriend (and future bride). With a twinkle in his Irish eyes he said to her, “My dear Ann, you are such a pretty girl. You can certainly do better than this.” None of us could have known at the time that years later he would regularly go out of his way to seek me out on campus just to ask how our son Kevin was doing in the midst of his battle with cancer, and, what was just as important to him, to ask how I was doing, and how Ann and our daughter Mary Kate were doing.
My memories will be typical of those who knew and loved Fr. Welsh, for he was a man who cared deeply for each and every son of Saint Ignatius High School. His job title may have been President, but his vocation was the priesthood. All of his efforts to raise funds in his role as President sprang from his love of those whom he served as a Catholic priest in the Society of Jesus: his love for the students as well as for the benefactors.
He helped our many benefactors to answer the one question that was always at the forefront of his mind: “What does God want from me?” And through their overwhelmingly generous responses literally thousands of young men from modest means – young men like Fr. Welsh himself – have been afforded an education whereby they too can wrestle with that all-important question.
The improvements that Fr. Welsh made to the physical campus – improvements that have helped give our students the tools to help them in answering that question – are stunning, especially for those who attended the school prior to our centenary celebrations in 1986. A new library, a new chapel, a new science center, and a new intramural gym are the highlights of the physical growth of our school, but more than that Fr. Welsh brought to the forefront the importance of rooting all that we do in a truly Ignatian spirituality.
It was the sincere belief of Fr. Welsh that we should close our doors if we are merely a private school that has a lot of crucifixes on the walls. An Ignatian education is one rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and especially in those words found at the beginning of “The First Principle and Foundation”:
“Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.”
Armed with these words it is easy to see why Fr. Welsh was able to convince so many people to contribute to this important apostolate of the Society of Jesus.
And in the end, that was the driving force of all that motivated Fr. Welsh in his many roles during and after his time at Saint Ignatius. One could say he was a Jesuit’s Jesuit, embodying all of the traits that people often attribute to that group of men founded to defend Jesus and His Church in the midst of the turmoil and aftermath of the Reformation.
The Society of Jesus was and, as it remains true to its original vision, shall continue to be the lengthened shadow of Ignatius Loyola; and so how fitting it is that the most loyal of loyal sons of this famed Alma Mater has himself filled that same role for all who have a home inside the doors marked St. Ignatius College.
Fr. Robert J. Welsh, S.J. ‘54 – Requiescat in Pace