By Mike Gabriele
Ten years of formation—a full decade—it’s no wonder Jesuit ordinations are such a joyous occasion. Each June, a new group of Jesuit scholastics, having spent ten years of their lives in formation, become priests, ready to serve the Church and the people of God.
While some quickly return to finish an advanced degree, most newly ordained Jesuits spend their first year gaining pastoral experience serving at a parish. Although this may seem typical, what sets these new Fathers apart from recently ordained diocesan priests is that they are not strictly bound to the area of a diocese. Jesuits are missioned throughout an entire province, if not across the country or around the globe. This often means serving at a parish not only committed to helping those in need, but essential to its community.
Fr. Michael Lamanna, SJ, was ordained on June 12, 2021, and has been serving his first year as a priest at Sacred Heart Parish in Richmond, Va. Directly across the street from the church is Sacred Heart Center, an important outreach for the many Latino families nearby. Fr. Lamanna admits that what first drew him to Sacred Heart was his desire to serve in a community where he could further his fluency in Spanish, but he soon discovered how much he enjoyed not just serving the religious and sacramental needs of the community, but also the day-to-day needs that those less fortunate rely on. “I love being part of a collaborative that explicitly serves both the spiritual/divine elements of a person as well as the material/human elements. In addition to Masses and confessions, I recently performed an emergency baptism for a toddler with a grave medical diagnosis. I also gave a fervorino (quick words of inspiration) at the Richmond Tool Bank during the build session of some new picnic tables for the Center, made hospital visits to the sick and dying, and did some watering in our community garden. It feels great to be able to promote the Center right at Mass—for example, by reminding folks during parish announcements that the Center is an easily-accessible vaccination site.”
Fr. Lamanna likens the good works that Sacred Heart Center provides to the four Universal Apostolic Preferences—helping people find God, walking with the excluded, journeying with youth, and caring for the environment. “Pope Francis often repeats the phrase, ‘Everything is connected.’ I see that here at Sacred Heart. How we treat our communities, our young people, our neighborhoods—it is indeed all connected.”
Fr. Zach Presutti, SJ, who was ordained with Fr. Lamanna last June, is serving his pastoral year at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan. And while most SFX parishioners would hardly be considered ‘those on the margins,’ Fr. Presutti is continuing an outreach that has long been near and dear to him—prison ministry. He is the founder of Thrive for Life, a ministry in New York City that focuses on so much more than spiritual healing for prisoners. It focuses on the whole person—on education and support, both during and following incarceration. It is a calling that has fundamentally changed Fr. Presutti and those who have shared some of the experiences with him. And that is precisely what he wants to offer St. Francis Xavier—the experience. “It’s one thing to host faith sharing groups about mass incarceration, and another to actually encounter it,” he explains. “Something different happens. Thrive for Life offers that for St. Francis Xavier and any other apostolate eager to join me. It provides that personal encounter—bringing that call of accompaniment to fruition.”
He continues, “These men and women are one of the most forgotten groups of the Catholic Church. We often hear about the plight of refugees, homeless people, and the poor. But the prisoner is usually out of sight, out of mind. Truly forgotten.”
A key outreach of Thrive for Life is Ignacio House, a place of support for education, housing, and employment for prisoners upon release. As Fr. Presutti points out, “It’s not enough to just go behind the prison walls and share how much God loves them. It takes a commitment to actually see them through their challenges, many of which are most difficult upon release. Accompaniment is not a quick blessing on the run. It’s a relationship.”
So how does a Jesuit parish “experience” rather than just learn about prison ministry? As often as he can, even during the Christmas season on Rikers Island, Fr. Presutti brings parishioners; he brings students; he brings other Jesuits in formation … he brings those on the outside, inside. “When you come here, with Christ, in the presence of these inmates, encountering their extremely difficult situations, you leave understanding the depth of the resurrection.”
That’s what Jesuits do—going where the need is greatest. This can also mean halfway around the world, which was certainly the case for Fr. Jason Downer, SJ, who was ordained at the height of the pandemic in August 2020. And while most of us were sheltered away and restricted from traveling afar, Fr. Downer found himself on a plane to the island of Saipan, just north of Guam in the southwestern Pacific. He had been asked to serve San Antonio and St. Jude parishes, lead youth ministry, and help reestablish a Jesuit community and apostolic works. The island was recovering from two super typhoons that had devastated the economy, and the pandemic had only decimated what was left of it. “It was an experience of flexibility,” says Fr. Downer. “The great Ignatian goal of being open to the needs of the people around you with a willingness to serve.”
Fr. Downer saw firsthand how environmental issues directly affect a place like Saipan. “You can really see the effects of climate change in this area of the world. The frequency of these hundred-year storms is devastating. They are issues you normally don’t see in most American cities, but they are very real here. I was glad to become a part of their lives and assist where I could.”
People have been looking to the spiritual guidance, education, and social justice work of the Society of Jesus for nearly 500 years. St. Ignatius sent forth his companion Jesuits to serve where they were needed most, and the same holds true today. A pastoral year following ordination often means more than celebrating Mass and leading RCIA groups. For newly ordained Jesuits, it is in their DNA to serve the less fortunate, and they actively seek out that call.
Regarding his many years of serving and ministering to inmates, Fr. Presutti chuckles, “I’ve been in prison my whole Jesuit life.” He quickly adds, however, that he wouldn’t change that for anything. “When we can become a community even behind the bars, the gates, and the chains of these prisons, I think this is what it means to be the body of Christ—a wounded body of Christ—but a body of Christ that can hope for and find the resurrection together.”