Mr. Tim O'Brien, SJ
The Good News and the "Bad"
Tim O'Brien is currently in his second year of First Studies at Loyola University Chicago.
This summer, on break from philosophy studies, I worked as an editorial intern at America Magazine, the weekly Jesuit review of religion, politics and culture. I went to America not because I was wooed by the charms of New York City, where America is headquartered. In fact, said charms have always eluded me. I went to the magazine because of the work itself—editing and writing.
Many of my days in the office were spent reading news and current events, lost in a forest of headlines about debt ceilings and protests in Syria. But given the nature of the publication, I paid particular attention to religious dispatches from around the world. These days, even the most casual news observer knows that there are very few good headlines about religion in general or the Catholic Church in particular. It was, in this respect at least, a summer of bad news.
In the midst of all the bad news, it is easy to overlook that we, as Christians and as Jesuits, are a people of Good News. Which is to say, news that is hopeful, that consoles and encourages. I am not saying that we should ignore bad news or the challenges that we face in the church and in the Society of Jesus. To the contrary, in fact. If “finding God in all things” is more than just rhetoric, and I think it is, then even bad news can be a site of encounter with the Lord. And we can only find God in all things because God wishes to be found in all things.
Of course, this is easier said than done. And without trying to describe all the shafts of light filtering into the church today—of which there are many—allow me to describe just one place where I found God this summer: in Jesuit community.
I lived at America House in Manhattan, a community with over twenty Jesuits in residence. The men I lived with represented a dynamic cross-section of life in the Society: some were young and in midst of dynamic missions for the Church; others were retired after long careers of service. Some were university professors and administrators; others undertook internal service to the Society as provincials or vocation directors. And, of course, a good number were engaged full-time with the work of running America Magazine.
This experience of community was a helpful reminder for me that, as a Jesuit in formation, I stand on the shoulders of the men who have come before me. They, with the help of so many, have built a network of schools that today serves thousands. They are the men whose love of the church and incisive commentary about society have given America a unique place in the Catholic Church for more than 100 years. They are the men who minister to us Jesuits as we try to minister to others. More than once as I worked at the magazine, I recalled Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John: “I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work” (4:38).
As Jesuits, though, our religious community is broader than the house in which we live at a given time. For me, one of the great joys of life in the Society is reuniting with Jesuit friends not seen in a long time. During my summer in New York, I had the chance to do this regularly.
One evening, after dinner with a visiting Jesuit friend, we walked south from America House towards Times Square, stopping at its south end to take in the amazing brightness of the scene, and the thousands of people shoving and shouting and taking pictures of a place most commonly seen on television. I confess again, as so many times before, that Times Square is the last place in creation that I would seek to find God.
Not so with my friend, who as we took in the Square recalled the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. In the Contemplation of the Incarnation, Ignatius has the retreatant imagine the Trinity gazing down on the earth. As one interpretation of the Exercises has it, we imagine the Trinity “looking upon our world: […] the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the happy and the sad, so many aimless, despairing, hateful, and killing, so many undernourished, sick, and dying, so many struggling with life and blind to any meaning. With God, I can hear people laughing and crying, some shouting and screaming, some praying, others cursing.” The resemblance to Times Square is uncanny!
But the contemplation doesn’t stop with the squalor and noise. It is in this moment that “God knows the time has come when the mystery of salvation, hidden from the beginning of the world, will shine into human darkness and confusion.” It is then that Jesus comes in love to redeem this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.
That evening, like so many times before, I have been helped by my Jesuit brothers to see the hand of God in places I’d never even look to find it. It is, for me, a great grace of our community life. My brothers help me see, time and again, the Good News amid the bad.