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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Father Brian Strassburger, SJ

Gordon: When did you decide to be a Jesuit? What was the discernment process like for you?

Father Brian: My discernment was definitely a gradual process, with seeds planted from a young age. I first met the Jesuits at RegisJesuit High School in Denver, and then at Saint Louis University where I did my undergraduate. I met some amazing Jesuits during those years, and kept in touch with a few as I moved on from college. Those relationships were particularly helpful when I started to seriously discern a vocation to the Jesuits in my mid-20’s.

My faith was always an important part of my life, but at the time I graduated from college, I really didn’t think I had a religious vocation. I decided to spend some time in a faith-based post-graduate volunteer program. I found the Augustinian Volunteers online and applied. I spent a year in the Bronx and then a year in South Africa.

It was that year in South Africa that really triggered my vocational discernment. We lived simply in a community of volunteers. I worked at an elementary school and boys’ home a couple of days a week, and a hospice for AIDS patients another two days. It was the hardest I worked in my life, but also the easiest to get up in the morning, because I believed so strongly in the work that I was doing. That’s what first got me thinking about a religious vocation. After returning to the US, I continued the discernment process while working, through the help of a spiritual director and attending a discernment retreat. I finally entered the Jesuit novitiate in 2011 when I was 27 years old.

Gordon: Where did you do your formation as a Jesuit? What was the most challenging part of your formation, and why was it so challenging?

Father Brian: I began my formation in Grand Coteau, LA, where the novitiate is located for the US Central and Southern Province (one of four US Jesuit provinces). I was there for two years, which included making the Spiritual Exercises, a 30-day silent retreat that is the foundation of our spirituality.

After novitiate, I went to Fordham University in the Bronx for two and a half years of studies. I finished my requirements for philosophy studies, and then got a Masters degree in International Political Economy and Development.

When I finished at Fordham, I was sent to Managua, Nicaragua to work for a Jesuit-founded development nonprofit called Juan XXIII. This was the hardest stage of my formation, because I was sent to Nicaragua without knowing Spanish. Learning a second language was extremely challenging, but I was blessed by great co-workers and a great Jesuit community that supported me. And I loved my work with youth and community cooperatives in rural communities, so that was a source of tremendous grace and life during my time there. Looking back, it may have been the most challenging part of my formation, but it was also the most formative. There’s nothing like living in a place where you don’t speak the language to grow in humility and trust in God.

After Nicaragua, I went to Boston College to finish my academic formation. I studied theology there for three years until my priestly ordination in June 2021.

Gordon: You’ve attended three different Jesuit universities: Saint Louis University for your undergraduate, and graduate studies at Fordham University and Boston College. What exactly did you study in those universities? And how has that impacted your life and vocation?

Father Brian: When I began my undergraduate studies at Saint Louis University, I was an engineering major. I loved math, so I thought that would be a good fit. But when I found out how rigid and comprehensive the engineering program was (no electives!), I started to doubt my decision. I realized it was a great track for someone who was sure they wanted to be an engineer for the rest of their life, but I wasn’t sure of that for myself. So I changed to a math major in the College of Arts and Sciences (isn’t that what I was interested in to begin with??). That gave me a lot more flexibility (and electives!). In the end, I decided that my undergraduate degree was more about getting an education than job training. And I think that’s exactly what I left with.

As a Jesuit, I studied at Fordham University where I got a Masters degree in International Political Economy and Development (IPED). I focused on issues relevant to South Africa, including HIV/AIDS, because of my experience there as an Augustian Volunteer before entering the Jesuits. The degree helped me to have a good perspective on economics and politics and how they affect the world, especially the most vulnerable.

At Boston College, I got a Masters of Divinity (MDiv) and a Master of Theology (Th.M.). This was part of my required studies for the priesthood. But I focused my coursework and research specifically on immigration. For example, in a class on the Eucharist, I wrote about the meaning behind celebrating a “border Mass” as a sign of Christian unity across political divisions. Or in my class on moral theology, I wrote about the virtue of hospitality and what a hospitable immigration policy might look like.

Gordon: Tell us about your ordination and what was the most moving part of it?

Father Brian: I was ordained to the priesthood on June 12, 2021 at Holy Name of Jesus Church in New Orleans, LA by Archbishop Gregory Aymond, alongside three other Jesuits. It was an extremely moving experience after ten years of formation. Family and friends came from around the country to join in the celebration. I was so moved to lay prostrate on the floor of the church as we sang the litany of the saints, asking for their intercession. And I was filled with joy as a long line of concelebrants filed past to lay their hands on us one at a time.

The Mass of Thanksgiving on Sunday was a grace-filled experience, although that was when I felt the most nervous. I had practiced presiding many times, but it’s not the same as being up there. Plus there are some things that you learn best with practice (like when to turn the mic on/off!).

After ordination weekend, I went to my hometown of Denver, Colorado. I celebrated a Mass in the chapel at Regis Jesuit High School, where I first met the Jesuits. And then I presided at a Mass at my childhood parish and elementary school, St. Mary. It was so moving to preside at those Masses, especially in the company of family and friends.

Gordon: How did you receive your first assignment as a priest? What do you like most about your work? What have you learned in your first year and a half as a priest?

Father Brian: For my first assignment as a priest, I was missioned to the Diocese of Brownsville, TX on the US-Mexico border. The Jesuits haven’t worked in this area before, so it was an invitation to explore something new. Our Provincial, Fr. Tom Greene, had visited Brownsville and been struck by the needs of the diocese and especially the needs of the migrant communities in the area.

Under Bishop Daniel Flores’s invitation, we came to the diocese and began to read the reality and respond to it. Our primary focus has been migrant ministry: bringing the sacraments, pastoral accompaniment, and humanitarian aid to migrants where they are. That means we visit migrant camps and shelters on both sides of the border. It’s been very challenging work, to witness the conditions in which people live, including migrant women and children. Many migrants arrive at our border, desperate to seek safety and opportunity in the US, but are forced to live for months in northern Mexico. They often have no other option than to live in tents exposed to the elements, suffering through heat, cold, rain, and hunger.

But this is exactly the place where the Church and the Society of Jesus are most needed, because God walks with the poor and vulnerable. And Pope Francis reminds us, “the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care” (Evangelii Gaudium, 200). I’m so struck by the faith of migrants, how it is a source of strength and hope in the midst of their migrant journey. The migrants we encounter inspire me and my faith, and I find that accompanying them as a priest can serve as a reminder of God’s abiding presence in their lives and difficult journeys.

We celebrate Masses in shelters or even outdoors in a migrant camp. The Masses are usually very simple: a white table cloth over a folding table surrounded by metal folding chairs. Even in this context, however, we never doubt the importance of our Sacramental ministry, especially when we see a migrant family hold one another close as we sing the Kyrie or lift their hands in prayer during the Our Father. Many have not had access to the Sacraments for weeks or months, and it is not uncommon to see tears streaming down their face as they approach the altar to receive the Eucharist or a blessing.

This experience has been extremely transformative for me, and it has shaped my priesthood. The faith of the migrants inspires me every day, and I am tremendously grateful for this assignment, despite, or perhaps because of, the great challenges that it brings with it.

Gordon: Can you give us a brief overview of the immigration challenges you encounter in your ministry in Brownsville and the Rio GrandeValley? How is the local church responding? How can other people join in the response?

Father Brian: The immigration challenges that we encounter are tremendous. Perhaps at the heart of it is the deep misconceptions about migrants. The profile of a migrant that we encounter on the border today is not just young men looking for work in the US and money to send home. We meet families with women and children. They are fleeing situations of poverty and violence and terrible political instability. Far too many experience horrific trauma on their journey, from sexual abuse to kidnapping and exploitation.

Each and every migrant has their story. Too often we group them all together and talk about them like they are statistics instead of people with names and faces and stories. And they are a people often marked by deep faith. A rosary or religious image given to them by a parent or grandparent might be one of their most prized possessions that they bring on the journey.

The local church is responding by running some of the migrant shelters in northern Mexico and south Texas. There are many religious women who are involved in the response, along with scores of lay people. Some priests in the area have mobilized their parishes to collect donations or offer funds. And as a Jesuit community, we have focused on meeting migrants where they are at and offering the sacraments and pastoral accompaniment.

People across the country can join in the response. Immigration is not a border issue. There are recently-arrived migrants in every major city in our country. I would encourage people to find ways to get involved locally in helping migrants in their community, and encouraging others (including their parish) to do the same. And one of the biggest things that we can do is to join our voices together to be a voice for the voiceless. Our country is in dire need of immigration reform. Our faith calls us to care for the marginalized and vulnerable. Can we come together as a Church and advocate for real change on behalf of migrants? Imagine the impact we could have together.

Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional Interview.

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