An Interview with Father Nicholas King, SJ

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation.


Father King: I was born into a strongly Catholic family, of recusant stock; this means that the blood of the English martyrs flowed in our veins on both sides, and that was simply a part of who we were.


Dr. Knight: Please tell us the significance of your high school years in formation.


Father King: We all went to Catholic boarding schools, so, once again, the Catholic atmosphere was part of the wall-paper. It may also be significant that the 2nd Vatican Council was under way during my teen years, and the Jesuits who taught me at Stonyhurst during those years kept us abreast of what was going on during that wonderful event. It also happened that I started to go to work with sick pilgrims in Lourdes, during those years. This was very unexpected to me, but it changed my life.


Dr. Knight: You went to college and joined the seminary. How did you make that decision?


Father King: When I was at my primary school (in England, rather confusingly, we call them “prep schools”) I had a vague notion of becoming a priest; but when I went to Stonyhurst and was taught by priests, that idea disappeared like the morning dew. Towards the end of my time at Stonyhurst it came back, but I was determined not to listen. My aim was to go to Oxford, to do Latin and Greek, and then to become a wealthy lawyer. However during my first year, I realised to my astonishment that the only thing that I could do and be happy was to join the Jesuits who had taught me at school. I had found them quite strict, but, looking back, I was not an easy adolescent, while they were very gifted men, and I owed them a great deal. So I applied then and there, and the Jesuits very sensibly told me to wait until I had finished my degree, and gave me a spiritual director (who was afterwards my novice-master, as it happens). Then (to my surprise) they accepted me, and I entered the novitiate in 1970.


Dr. Knight: You were called by God to be a Jesuit. What is the significance of your call to be a follower of Ignatius and Christ?


Father King: That is a question that will remain open until I die, I suspect, as I work out the nature of the call. It is also a call that grows with the years. One thing I am aware of is that the absolutely central aspect of the vocation is that of companionship with Jesus Christ; and that is something that has grown enormously in the 50 years I have been in the Society. Following Ignatius is different matter, of course; when I was a novice, I was very nervous of him, convinced that were he still alive he would dismiss me from the Society, so I prayed at his statue after mass every morning that this would not happen. So far ii have not been dismissed, so perhaps he heard this novice’s prayers. I am still a bit nervous of him, but greatly admire his grasp of the spiritual life.


Dr. Knight: You spent formation finding out your abilities and gifts through discernment. How was your discernment helpful to you personally?


Father King: That is a difficult question; but I know that a great deal hangs on that first moment of vocation; and it has kept me going all these years, especially in the difficult times. Whenever I was tempted to leave, I kept coming back to that discovery of my calling, which I simply could not deny.


Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts?

Father King: That is

certainly the case. I had no idea when I joined the Society what I might end up doing; but I can say this: in addition to the Jesuit vocation, there has also been the calling to be a teacher, which I have been all the way through my Jesuit life. Then there was another unexpected vocation, which happened like this: I was happily teaching at Stonyhurst, which I very much enjoyed, although I knew that it would not be right to spend the rest of my life there. Suddenly, and quite out of the blue, there came a letter from a Jesuit colleague in South Africa, asking if I would mind if they approached the British Provincial to ask for me to work there. Immediately, and without any shadow of doubt, I knew that this was the call of God. For various reasons it seemed quite impossible; and the Provincial told me that there was no possibility of my being spared from the job I was doing. Nevertheless, I knew it was the call of God, and eventually I was given permission to go. When that happened, I was rather sad, because I loved my work at Stonyhurst; but it was clearly the call of God; and when you hear that voice, you have to respond. So that was my third vocation, and I found myself working with some remarkable Jesuits in South Africa, at the most interesting period of that country’s history. When I arrived, grand apartheid was still in place, and Nelson Mandela was still in prison, and you would read letters in the newspapers to the effect that he was a “communist traitor who should be hanged”. You no longer read those letters there, I have to say. Those were exhilarating days, and perhaps the high point was being a district observer for the first democratic election in that country in April 1994, watching the miracle take place at first hand, and feeling that somehow one was helping to make history.

After 13 years in SA, which ended with me getting a SA passport, my job as Dean of Studies in a diocesan seminary came fairly naturally to an end, and I was asked by my superiors to come to Oxford, where I had previously taken two degrees, and there taught NT and Greek. Once again this was an extraordinary experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In the middle of this, and by a series of undeniably Providential accidents, I ended up translating the entire Bible (from the Greek). I never seriously thought it was likely that I should live to finish this (you may have noticed that there are rather a lot of words in the Bible). But one evening I came down to supper, where I found myself sitting next to the Master of Campion Hall, and found myself saying to him “I think that I have just finished translating the Bible”. That was indeed the case. Now you will think me very slow, but I was well over halfway through the OT (and for various reasons I had attempted the NT first), when I realised, “this is what I am supposed to be doing”. So that was another vocation, the fourth. Is there a fifth? Possibly: as I get older, and I am now well past the biblical three score and ten, I am starting to realise that there is a further vocation beckoning me on, namely that of being not doing. When one is younger one concentrates on rushing around and getting things; as the years go on, one (very slowly) realizes that what really matters is not a whole lot of achievements but simply allowing the grace and life of God to do its work.


Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading this interview about being a Jesuit? About living in community?


Father King:: If it is your calling, then there is no happier way to live. Community life has, of course, its own set of challenges, for all Jesuits are very different from each other; but it is important not to run away from the challenges, as they are places where we learn, and draw closer to the God who calls us into being.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?


Father King: The key challenge, the one to which Pope Francis keeps inviting us, is that of discernment, of listening to what the Spirit is saying. That is what the Holy Father’s opponents have not quite understood. The Pope is not a politician with an agenda, but a loyal son of the Church who longs to hear what God is saying to us, where the Lord is inviting us to be. That is what the Church must do, if it is to have a future.


Then of course there is COVID: at this point in this year, can we possibly refuse to talk about this? The Holy Father’s ministry so far has prepared him for the Corona virus, and he is perhaps the only world leader who has anything sensible to say about this extraordinary crisis, which has much to teach us about where God is calling us. What are we to do? Our task is a simple one, a threefold listening: we must listen to the voice of our wounded planet, to the voice of the poor, and to the voice of the Spirit, to see where the invitation lies


Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as a Jesuit follower of Christ?


Father King:: It has been an extraordinary experience, this last half-century, with one or two “down” moments; but the down moments have been few; and the joys have been immense. If there have been sorrows, they have mostly been to do with not living the vocation to the full.


Dr. Knight: As a Jesuit what are some of the duties that you perform/pray?


Father King: Teaching, preaching, saying mass and hearing confessions; giving spiritual direction, teaching Scripture, washing the dishes, are some of the duties that come my way. At the moment I am between giving a retreat to an Anglican priest and preparing for my last class of the term, on the Greek text of the Sermon on the Mount. Other duties might include dealing with drunks and offering coffee to the homeless or writing books and articles on Scripture. Life is never dull. And prayer is extraordinarily important in making sense of all this: I get up very early indeed, and have a cup of coffee (except in Lent!) while doing some spiritual reading. Then I pray the office of readings and Lauds, before having a long period of silent prayer, normally in the presence of the Sacrament. Then I am ready for the day.


Thank you so much for offering us this interview and letting us see all the good works that the Jesuits do for us all.