Swimming to Canterbury:
The Society I Left Behind

by John D. Golenski

My own integrity demanded something that would break my heart. I had to allow the reality of my loss into consciousness.

When asked why I left the Society of Jesus I usually reply that I didn’t: I only left the Roman Catholic Church. To anyone who knows the history of the Jesuits in the Catholic Church, this comment sounds ridiculous. No one can be a Jesuit without being a Roman Catholic. And that exactly is why I have such a profound sense of loss. After twenty-three years in the Society of Jesus, I chose to leave the Church and, so, had to leave the Society.

During the 1960s, while I was an undergraduate at Boston College, my identity as a religious person with a priestly vocation underwent a profound change. During this period of broad social and cultural change, I became involved in radical politics both on campus and in the city. Having initially identified with early Jesuits like Ignatius of Loyola and Robert Bellarmine, I then thought I wanted to live a life like Daniel Berrigan or Teilhard de Chardin. It would be difficult to overestimate how transformative was the cultural context of the times in my religious identity. I was utterly convinced the world needed changing and I wanted to help with that effort. The Society of Jesus had a venerable history of efforts to “change” the world and I couldn’t imagine a place I would rather be.

The Jesuits were responsible for the Counter-Reformation, preserving all of Southern Europe and large portions of Northern Europe for the old Church. They also, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, brought Catholicism to large areas of North America, South America, and Asia through intense and effective missionary activities. Their ratio studiorum, the first systematic international curriculum for secondary studies, provided the foundation for a European system of more than 500 schools and colleges. In effect, they forged a Catholic middle class in Europe. They were leaders in science, particularly in astronomy, physics, mathematics, and seismology. They even were responsible for correcting the calendar in China, where several Jesuits served as high Mandarins in the Imperial Court.

In modern times, the Jesuits were influential in preparing for the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council and for major developments in theology and ethics. The social and cultural success of the Order’s work in the Counter-Reformation was repeated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the U.S., where the Jesuits assisted in forging an American Catholic identity. Here, the Order became identified with a system of secondary and higher educational institutions that spanned the country with 52 high schools and 29 colleges and universities. During the Vietnam War in particular, Jesuits moved out from the academic and ecclesial environments into direct political discourse and action. The career of Daniel Berrigan, S.J., typified the ideal of many younger Jesuits who moved into areas of direct social action.   

When I entered the Society of Jesus at the New England Province Novitiate in 1969, the Vietnam War was in full swing, Richard Nixon was in his first year as president, and the Stonewall riots had just occurred in New York City. Pope Paul VI had just published his encyclical Humanae Vitae and the great wave of departures from the priesthood and religious orders had begun. The Society of Jesus was formed to protect and extend the influence of the Church in the world, and to accomplish this mission it had formulated a long-term strategy to affect the world itself. In contemporary times, however, the Jesuits experienced a profound role reversal in relation to the “world”—its values, concerns, and conflicts—deeply affecting the Society. In effect, the Jesuits have been changed by the world. My years in the Society reflected this transformation. While I committed myself to the Jesuits as an expression of my dedication to the re-creation of the world, the world—my relationships, my work experiences, my conversations, and my reading—actually changed me.

My departure from the Roman Catholic Church was the completion of this process of change. I found that I could no longer represent an institution whose moral and theological authority I fundamentally questioned. Through the years of my priestly ministry, I had presided and preached in many parishes on weekends. Whenever I preached, I would emphasize the indiscriminate acceptance and humanity of Jesus as described in the Gospels, choosing to ignore the exclusionary and condemning statements of the institutional Church. As time went on, I found myself wondering how I could continue to represent a faith community whose leaders excluded women, divorced people, and gay and lesbian people while protecting priests who sexually abused children. In almost every area of sexual and relational morality, I found myself in fundamental disagreement with the official Church teaching.

When it became clear to me that I had to leave the Roman Catholic Church, I realized that I also would be leaving the Society. For twenty-three years, the Society of Jesus had been the context of my life—the Society represented family, meaning system, work satisfaction, spirituality, self-identity. My deepest friendships were in the Society, especially members of my own entering class or ordination class. When Jesuits refer to each other they use the Latin term “nostri,” which is translated as “ours.” They call the rest of humanity “externs”—those on the outside.  I would now become one of the “outsiders.” It is almost impossible to describe the tearing feeling this choice generated. My own integrity demanded something that would break my heart.

I could not grieve what I did not value.

In the ten years since I left the Jesuits, I have come to a partial resolution of the sense of loss. In retrospect, this process of grieving has followed the stages described by the British ethologist John Bowlby in his major work, Attachment and Loss (1970). Many people are familiar with the popularizing work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, which depends heavily on Bowlby’s analysis. A simplistic summary depicts the process as one of objectification and internalization of the lost person or object. I have come to understand the process of my own grief adaptation in two stages. The first was separating from certain attributes of my life in the Society of Jesus—chiefly its connection to the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. And second, gradually assimilating those that were of greatest value to me—commitment to work toward improving the material and spiritual status of people in the world, intellectual honesty and inquiry, daily prayer in community, the centrality of the Eucharist, and openness to God’s love manifested in the great variety and complexity of humanity.

Before I could consolidate the work of grieving, I had to allow the reality of my loss into consciousness. In other words, I had to acknowledge that I was attached, that the Society were a group of people with whom I shared my most intimate history and affection and with whom I had constructed the meaning of my daily life. I could not grieve what I did not value. Expressing and assenting to the extraordinary importance of the Society for me, my evolving self-understanding, and my structure of values finally allowed for the stages of grieving to proceed.

As for individual relationships within the Society, they have been a patchwork. Some of my closest friends stopped speaking to me when I left, treating me as anathema. Others wanted to see me once to hear why I felt I had to leave and have not contacted me since. A few have sustained our friendship over these ten years and even kept me up to date with information about my peers. These I treasure. Nonetheless, we are like people who shared a life together in the past and somehow cannot share as fully now. There is a space between us that did not exist before. Not surprisingly, I have established friendships with other ex-Jesuits who were not my close friends when we were in community together.

One of the hallmarks of grief consolidation as described by Bowlby is the ability to enter into new relationships. My recent decision to join the Episcopal Church and my subsequent choice to seek recognition of my priestly ministry within it are indicators to me that I have integrated my life in the Society of Jesus and my departure from the Society and the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps it is simply a concrete image of this integration, but now and again I imagine St. Ignatius telling me he understands and approves.

John D. Golenski, Ed.D., is executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Health Policy, a nonprofit research and policy analysis organization. He is in the process of having his ministry accepted by the Episcopal Diocese of California.

Read other articles by John Golenski published in God's Friends


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