By Fannie Dionne
After discovering the first signs of his religious vocation at a young age when he attended Mass with his mother, Fr. John O’Brien, SJ, joined the Society of Jesus in 2008. After having held various roles with young people (teacher, school principal, spiritual director), he is now the Vocations Director for the Jesuits in Canada. Drawing on all this experience, he comments in this interview on what young people are looking for today, why they are disengaging, and what Jesuits have to offer.
Though it was inarticulate, I think I can trace my earliest perceptions of the beauty of a religious vocation to those moments with my mother, the monks, and the Mass.
Do you remember the first signs that a vocation to religious life would make you happy? What did you feel back then?
I grew up in Mission, British Columbia, a small city in the Fraser Valley near Vancouver. Our home was quite close to a Benedictine monastery that ran a seminary, a retreat house, and a farm. My mother used to wake me up early in the morning and we would attend the 6 a.m. Mass there. Though it was inarticulate, I think I can trace my earliest perceptions of the beauty of a religious vocation to those moments with my mother, the monks, and the Mass.
You have been a teacher, a school principal, a spiritual director, and a lecturer with young people. How did your interest in accompanying youth emerge? Which moments moved you?
Before discerning the Jesuits, there was no straight trajectory to my life. I studied journalism because I loved writing and, to use an Ignatian phrase, wanted to “bring to the light” as many critical things as possible in the world. But God had other plans. I ended up being a teacher and headmaster of a small private Catholic school and enjoyed working to bring the light of faith and reason to younger minds. Later, as a Jesuit, that desire deepened while being an instructor at a college in Vancouver. Our mission trips to Canada’s North were particularly moving moments, especially seeing the students open their hearts to our Indigenous hosts and kindle their desires to give their own lives to higher causes.
You offer a “silent Ignatian retreat for young professionals.” Why?
The Church does a large amount of ministry with so many different types of people. But it seemed to me there was a huge gap in meeting the needs of the young men and women who were no longer “youth” but not yet married or in a vocation. They tended to fall through the cracks in parish life and not go to organized retreats. But St. Ignatius intended the Spiritual Exercises precisely for people like that! So about three years ago, at the invitation of Manresa Jesuit Spiritual Renewal Centre in Pickering, I held our first retreat marketed to “young professionals,” and it sold out. There was some beautiful sharing at the end, and one of the things I heard was “how can we get more of this?” and “can we continue to meet and grow together?”
“I held our first retreat marketed to “young professionals,” and it sold out. There was some beautiful sharing at the end, and one of the things I heard was “how can we get more of this?” and “can we continue to meet and grow together?”
It is no secret that in Canada younger generations tend to be more distrustful of institutions, including the Catholic Church. What do Jesuits have to offer young people?
I’m convinced that the Church must start by offering people an experience of God. The young are very good at getting their entertainment, their social life, and even worthwhile service and volunteering elsewhere. When the Church tries to compete with secular organizations in such ways, we seem to struggle to maintain interest. If they do come to the Church, it’s an existential search for what’s lacking, for what’s spiritual, for God.
St. Ignatius said Jesuits were called to work for “the progress of souls in Christian life.” We have an articulated tradition of discernment, which is to say, of helping people perceive the living patterns of God’s communication in their souls. After this, the lives of young people become dramatic rather quickly, and then follows the task of accompaniment. A gentle presence of helping them hear “the Creator speak to the creature” is the beginning of discipling young people back to the Church and helping them find God.
You are the vocations director for the Jesuits in Canada. How is this vocation rooted in the reality of young people today and what is your role with them?
It has become abundantly clear to me that God is really the vocations director. I’m mainly in the position of responding to the initiatives of grace that the young men who contact me already attest to. I’m constantly amazed at this reality. I can see they have desires to do something out of the ordinary. Deep down, they know it’s the antidote to their restlessness. As Bob Dylan wrote, “It might be the devil, or it might be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” The vocation to be a Jesuit priest or brother is just one way to give your life to God. Sometimes we help them find other pathways in the Church to which they are more suited. But it’s always a tremendous joy to see someone find their vocation.
As Bob Dylan wrote, “It might be the devil, or it might be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” The vocation to be a Jesuit priest or brother is just one way to give your life to God.
What would you say to the average young Canadian Catholic? What are reasons for hope?
Young people need to know, first of all, that they are beautiful, beloved, and blessed. Regardless of what they have done or what has happened to them, they possess an innate value by virtue of being made in God’s image and likeness and are loved with an inexhaustible and everlasting love. If I had the chance, I would invite them to consider the ways God has already blessed them, which are the starting reasons for hope. The loneliness in society has become intense, so this must be the first message, similar to Christ’s frequent words, “Do not be afraid.” Then I would tell them that God has plans for them, plans that will lead to their well-being and joy.