by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When you received your vocation, with whom did you discuss it and what was their response?
Father Jos: My vocation somewhat resembles a ‘two phase rocket’. Besides wanting to be a forester and to do what my father did, one of my other childhood dreams was to be a missionary in Africa. It was all a bit romantic. In my teenage years, that transformed into being a diocesan priest. What stood out very strongly for me was to hand on to others what I felt that I was receiving myself, namely God’s charity and goodness. On the paten my parents gave me for my ordination, I engraved ‘God’s charity has become manifest’ from the Letter to Titus. Over time, the details of that mission have changed; now it is not only preaching God’s goodness but also helping people to see and experience where that goodness is already at work. The fact that I became a Jesuit plays a role in that transformation, no doubt.
My parents have always supported me in my vocation. I remember my father driving me to a seminary in the far south of the country on an early Saturday morning for an Enquirer’s meeting. It was only later that I realised the sacrifices they made, but they would do similar things for my siblings. Would I have changed my mind on the priesthood, my parents would still have been supportive of me.
Gordon: Why did you want to be a Jesuit?
Father Jos: In one word, what has attracted me and what attracts me still, is discernment of spirits. It’s such a rich tool, such a rich faith practice. God works within each of us, and we can sense where He is to be found and where not!
The extended version of an answer to that question starts in the seminary, where I encountered a wise Jesuit who helped me in my human and spiritual growth. I mean, at university we were being cared for intellectually, so that my theology matured, but not my prayer. This Jesuit learned me ways to pray that went beyond ‘Dear Jesus, I thank you for … and I ask you …’. There’s nothing wrong with that prayer, but I discovered other, more affective, meditative and ‘still’ forms of prayer. A new world opened up: the world of interiority, of the soul. Intellectually too I started to appreciate the Jesuits, especially for their open minded approach. Karl Rahner meant a lot to me as a student. It’s only now that I get the whole picture and see how discernment of spirits undergirds this open-mindedness. Anyway, as a result, I started to do Jesuit retreats, studied in Paris with the Jesuits and did a school placement with the Jesuits. By the time I was ready for ordination, I realized that I in fact wanted to be a Jesuit. We agreed with the bishop that I would work for a couple of years, and that I could then transfer. So it happened.
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what was the most challenging course that you took, and why was it challenging?
Father Jos: I attended seminary in Utrecht, where we lived in small communities in the city centre and studied at the university. I think it is very healthy that we were not enclosed behind a seminary wall, that we studied together with female students and with students who asked critical questions that one would maybe not be confronted with in the seminary. Two of the most difficult courses were exegesis and feminist theology. I remember how they challenged my convictions. The creation story was not a historically true story…. It took me some time to reappropriate scripture. If it’s not about historical facts, what is it about? After I let go of my defense mechanism, feminist theology became a blessing. I learned how much our tradition tends to a male perspective. The fact that the new translation of the Creed translates ‘for us men and for our salvation’ shows that feminism is very much needed in the church still.
Gordon: What was your first assignment and what did you learn there?
Father Jos: I feel blessed to have worked as a country side parish priest for four years. Concrete parish work turned out to be a valuable complement to my academic studies! I learned how important it is to be kind to people and to appreciate the good work of volunteers in the church. People’s comments helped me to speak more clearly and to preach more accessibly. I was faced with ‘tepid’ faithful, and learned to accept that; I think that God is much more patient with people than we sometimes are.
Gordon: What was the subject of your doctorate studies?
Father Jos: After entering the Jesuits, I was missioner to do a PhD. Originally I wanted to write about Thomas Aquinas and the Eucharist, which is a much more exciting topic than one might be inclined to think! Yet my provincial wished something more modern, so I changed to the Second Vatican Council and pneumatology. I see a link between pneumatology and discernment of spirits, but I was advised to work in theology rather than spirituality, so I did. I explored the development of the pneumatology of Lumen gentium: how did it develop in the course of the Council, how was it different from earlier texts, and what actually is Lumen gentium’s view of the Holy Spirit. Scholars usually praise the Council for its pneumatological rediscovery, but the texts and its genesis seriously qualifies that praise.
Gordon: What are your responsibilities as chaplain at the University Parish KU Leuven?
Father Jos: Belgium is a very secularized country, with very secularized students. What we do is a far cry from Campus Ministry as it is done in the US. The University Parish is a ‘normal’ parish, with Sunday masses, funerals, baptisms, marriages, and all the rest, except that the attendants are usually university employees. Our homilies are one of our strong points and we try to include women in leadership roles. Another part of my work is to do spiritual accompaniment with students and university staff. I feel grateful for representing faith and fostering spirituality and discernment of spirits in a predominantly rationally-intellectual environment.
Gordon: What courses do you teach at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies?
Father Jos: All students at KU Leuven follow courses in philosophy and religion; that is part of the Catholic character of the university. I’m responsible for teaching one of those courses to logopedics students. In addition, I teach homiletics and a MA course in ecclesiology. Last year I also designed and taught an online course on listening that was quite successful. It was targeted for a broad audience, but the faculty here has started using it for our students as well. I do so many different things that I sometimes feel like ‘a Jack of all trades’, including the second half of that adage, ‘and a master of none’.
Gordon: Please share with our readers and overview of your training course for spiritual directors.
Father Jos: I think that training spiritual accompaniment – or indeed pastoral care or even a good conversation – requires practical training and cannot be done on the basis of theory and concepts alone. The training course we do here in Belgium therefore includes hands on practical exercise. As for the content of the course, I believe that for good spiritual conversations one needs to un-learn to teach, preach, edify, console. Instead, one needs to listen by following the other in her or his story, with a specific interest not in convictions but in inner experience. It is about the soul or, in our jargon, about ‘inner movements’. In those, God is already at work. The essence of spiritual direction is to explore those inner movements. Doing that comes close to revelation: the directee starts to see things that he or she was not aware of, that are very real and that speak of (and taste of) God. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Hence the need to train this.
Gordon: Why did your write The Art of Spiritual Direction. A Guide to Ignatian Spirituality.?
Father Jos: During my doctoral students, I worked as a student chaplain and started to give some training. I felt that the tools I offered were helpful – and needed – and then I was asked to share those in writing. The book, then, is quite a bit the result of a vox populi. My own motivation is on the one hand the beauty of this ministry and on the other hand the scarcity of good spiritual directors (or companions) in the church. In addition, I feel that there is a lack of truly practical books on spiritual accompaniment.
Gordon: What in your opinion are the greatest challenges that the Catholic Church
currently faces and what can we all do to address them?
Father Jos: I feel there is the challenge of semi-orthodox, simplified (and simplistic) version of the faith. For example, in highlighting the Eucharist as the ‘source and summit of our Christian life’, we sometimes forget that prayer is as much a form of communicating with the divine and indeed a source of Christian life. And isn’t God’s real presence to be found as much in the consecrated host and in the faithful or indeed the poor? Who kneels in adoration of the blessed sacrament should also kneel figuratively when in dialogue with parishioners or, again, do so in serving the poor.
Another challenge, I feel, is to foster the spiritual dimension of our faith and church. I feel that’s a neglected dimension of Catholicism. Faith is not only about truth (orthodoxy) and practice (orthopraxis), but also about interiority. That’s, if you like, the hidden agenda of my book.
Finally, I feel that we need to reappropriate the notion of change and renewal. In Christ’s incarnation God has embraced history, and in the Spirit’s indwelling God continues to do so. Why are we so afraid that change may corrupt the faith? Why is it so difficult to confront new theological and pastoral challenges such as the environment and our gay brothers and sisters with an open, discerning mind? I feel that we, the Church, sometimes know too much about God and listens too little to God.
Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional and memorable interview