An Interview with Father William Watson, SJ, D. Min

by Gordon Nary



Gordon: When you received your vocation, why did you decide to be a Jesuit?


Father Bill: I was eighteen and it was March of my senior year in high-school. Sitting in the basement of our family home I was smoking a cigarette up the fireplace chimney (did not want to let my folks know I was smoking), and watching late-night television. Suddenly, an ad came on TV for the Peace Corps. The commercial showed volunteers working with youth in Africa. I was riveted and said: “That is what I want to do with my life.” I never got to sleep that night.


My thoughts moved from a year of service to a life of service—to be a missionary. I was overcome with feelings of love and hope that I had never before experienced. I knew in some way that God was involved with what was happening, but I was also keenly aware that I did not know God. But I told myself: “God is doing this.”


I entered the Jesuit novitiate the following August. The year was 1973. We could only bring one small trunk of belongings with us at the entrance. One of the items in my trunk was a picture of a bird flying out of a cage. It was how I felt. I had wings for the first time in my life. I was in love and a God I did not yet know had set a fire in my heart. I was on a mission.


Gordon: Where did you attend theology, and what was the most challenging course you took and why?


Father Bill: My school was the Weston Jesuit School of Theology—now located on the campus of Boston College. The best and most challenging courses I took were from Professor Fred Lawrence, a specialist in the philosophy and theology of Bernard Lonergan. I took systematics and a course on the Holy Trinity. He is one of the most talented teachers I have ever encountered. I did more work for him than any other professor—and he had the fewest requirements. You just wanted to learn because he made the material so compelling.


Gordon: You are a prolific author. Please share with our readers the titles of the books that you have written.


Father Bill: Well, here is a shortlist:

Sacred Story:

An Ignatian Examen for the Third Millennium

Inviting God into Your Life:

A Practical Guide for Prayer

FORTY WEEKS:

An Ignatian Path to Christ with Sacred Story Prayer

Reflections and Homilies:

The Gonzaga Collection

Sacred Story Rosary:

An Ignatian Way to Pray the Mysteries

Sacred Story Affirmations

The Whole-Life Confession

My Sacred Story Missal

Understanding the Spiritual World

Forty Weeks ~ Letters from Prison

Forty Weeks ~ A Journey of Healing and Transformation for Priests

TRUE HEART ~ A Way to Selflessness


Gordon: My favorite book of yours is Sacred Story: An Ignatian Examen For The Third Millennium. When and why did you write it?


Father Bill: There is a story to this “Sacred Story.” I reincorporated the Ignatian Examen in my priestly life just before I turned forty. I had stopped practicing it because I felt I did not need it. A sort of spiritual wake-up call opened my eyes and I realized I needed it to keep me on true north. That particular story is told in the foreword to my book, Inviting God Into Your Life.


The Examen was a real grace for me at that time in my life and continues to be. It was at a point in my mid-career at Georgetown University as Director of Retreat Programs. I created a new weekend retreat that utilized the five movements of the Examen because I realized the best retreat gift you can give someone is a spiritual practice that keeps the retreat alive once someone gets back into the push and pull of life. That is why St. Ignatius developed this discipline and required that it be done twice daily by Jesuits. It keeps you “awake” and alert to the call of God and the temptations of the enemy of human nature.


I knew one day I wanted to start an entire spirituality institute utilizing the Examen. To make that dream real, I started a degree to get a doctorate in ministry at The Catholic University of America. My thesis was on the unique form of Examination of Conscience that St. Ignatius left us in his Spiritual Exercises and other writings. My first chapter for the dissertation was to be a review of how and why St. Ignatius developed his method in the way he did. Getting into the research was, however, a disappointment. I was not able to find any documentation on how his method was developed.


As a result, I took his spiritual autobiography and started an intensive exploration of his conversion process as he describes it. Gradually, I began to notice things that I had never before seen in the text. It was a very graced experience. I had always scoffed at the idea that an author does not know at the outset how a book will end or how a character will develop. The writing of my dissertation, which forms the basis of the book Sacred Story, confirmed this reality for me. The book developed organically and as the discovery process in reading St. Ignatius’ autobiography gradually unfolded. I was astounded at the things I found in that text—a book you read in the novitiate but hardly ever take up again. The strong endorsements I received from three of the top Ignatian scholars in the world were a profound consolation and a validation of the work.


Gordon: Why did you write Forty Weeks: Letters from Prison?


Father Bill: The dedication in the book tells this story. I wish to express my heartfelt thanks to the person most responsible for making this book possible, Deacon Patrick B. Logsdon: 11/19/1948 ~ 11/3/2017. “Deacon Pat” introduced Richard R. Roman to my Forty Weeks program in 2013. Deacon Pat first met Ritchie when he was in his early twenties and has helped him as a caring friend and spiritual guide for many years. This book and my collaboration with Ritchie happened only because of the selfless work and dedication of Deacon Pat.


Deacon Pat ran Anthony House for thirty years, a transitional home on Long Island, New York. At Anthony House, Deacon Pat gave nine men at a time a bed, counseling, tough love and home-cooked meals. Many of these men served for decades in prison, were homeless or addicts, and due to Deacon Pat’s dedication, were given that second or third chance they needed to find a new life. He knew it was dangerous work but it was also a faith mission he happily embraced. Deacon Pat’s life was ended on November 3rd, 2017 by one of the men he served.


I dedicate this version of Forty Weeks to Deacon Pat Logsdon and the many prison chaplains and inmates who work and live on life’s margins. Deacon Pat, your life-long work of mercy will live on through this book which you inspired. You will continue to help thousands to find Christ’s healing love and peace. Thank you for your life of faith and loving service.


Our book is being used by the Knights of Malta for their prison pen pal program and it is also a major resource for Kolbe Prison Ministries in Texas. Many other prison ministers are also using the book to great benefit for the incarcerated.


Gordon: Many teens are leaving the church. What are the primary reasons for their leaving and what can parishes do to address this challenge?


Father Bill: There are probably no simple answers to understanding the “why” in this instance. There are multiple reasons and they vary from person to person. I recently asked Curtis Martin, founder of FOCUS what the biggest challenge was to FOCUS ministries operating on college campuses and what was the single greatest “tool” for FOCUS ministers in promoting evangelization. He said that fifteen or so years ago, the big issue was abortion and contraception. Today, however, he said it was gender ideology and gay marriage.


But let me jump to what he said was the most successful evangelization strategy. He said it was Eucharistic Adoration. I think the reason for this is that it places young people directly in the “presence” of Christ and proclaims he is real and that he wants a relationship with each one of us. Doctrines are good, apologetics have their place, but the faith ultimately comes down to a personal relationship with the person of Jesus Christ.


I had already completed my new book for young adults called TRUE HEART when I asked those two questions to Curtis Martin. I was gratified because I have exercised at the end of each of the ten weeks of the program where young adults are invited to do an Ignatian contemplation in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. The ten-week program ends with a powerful capstone experience of an eight-hour all-night Eucharistic Adoration session with set exercises and prayers for each hour.


I wanted a real high bar experience that would place young adults with Christ in the quiet of the evening. He will and does make himself known and this more than anything else will let the heart speak to the heart. If I had my way, every single parish in the world would have twenty-four-seven Eucharistic Adoration. We need a quiet time and we need to speak directly to Christ and allow his love and grace to give shape to our dreams for the sake of the renewal of the Church and the world.


Gordon: What is your opinion should the church do to address the sexual abuse of minors by the clergy?


Father Bill: The Church has done a lot in the last decade or so to get a handle on this crisis. Slowly, a global approach is being taken by Pope Francis to find a way for accountability and transparency to be standard practices. Just in the last weeks, Pope Francis has removed what is called the “papal secret” around abuse cases at the Vatican so that will make it easier for law enforcement to discover problems. What I am focused on however is the holiness and health of priests. Our Forty Weeks version for priests is my effort to help priests grow in integral and holistic so they can find the support of God in prayer and the support of other clergies in spiritual support groups.


Gordon: You have headed an impressive number of organizations including President of Sacred Story Institute and President The Dynamic Catholic Institute, just to name a few. You were recently appointed Vice President For Advancement at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, What are your primary responsibilities?


Father Bill: Fr. David Nazar, S.J., is the rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute. He and I have been friends since our early studies in Philosophy at Gonzaga University. David is Canadian and before being appointed rector of the PIO by Pope Francis, he was superior of the Jesuits in Ukraine for fourteen years. He reached out to me and asked if I could help him raise monies in the United States to upgrade the facilities of the PIO and I happily agreed. We bring donors to Rome and we host events in the United States for potential donors. We have an event in New York in January of 2020 that Georgetown University is hosting for us. There is a fair bit of travel with the job and a certain amount of office work but I try to get it all in around my main obligations as president/founder of SSI.


Gordon: What are your responsibilities at Sacred Story Institute?


Father Bill: Research, program development, and fundraising are the core of my work at SSI. My goal is to unlock the power of the Ignatian Examen as a major tool of evangelization for the Church. Sacred Story provides the tools for holistic spiritual development. We take what scientists call a “systems approach” to integral human development. We understand that individuals are not just a person with a sexual problem, or pick any one of the seven vices or Commandments and understand how it is so easy to categorize ourselves or others as x, y or z type of problem person.


Individual challenges to our integral growth are the result of not just a spiritual temptation and personal weakness, although these do play a key role. Our problems are linked to a multiplicity of issues that have developed over time. Our SSI methods allow individuals to access the “archeology of their life history” to better understand the things that block integral human and spiritual development and how to navigate a path forward using the tools of spiritual discernment provided to the world and the Church by God through the genius of St. Ignatius’ conversion process. Sacred Story incorporates this integral, holistic, systems approach in all the multiple programs we have created for children, youth and young adults and adults.


There are no easy fixes and our methods for spiritual advancement do require sustained life-long work, but they are effective and bring insight, hope, greater peace, and interior freedom.


It is this “interior freedom” that is a hallmark of Ignatian Spirituality. St. Ignatius said his “exercises” were to help an individual organize his or her life in such a way that no choice or decision was made under the influence of an “inordinate attachment.” Thus, the goal of each individual is to “freely” choose the path of life that most perfectly conforms to their deepest nature and desires—which are aligned with the will of God. Because God’s role is to “free and unbind” and in Christ, he stands by our side as the Divine Physician who will gradually lead us to interior freedom and peace and one day, release us from all bonds and raise us with him to eternal life.


Gordon: What would you predict may be the great challenges to the church in the next 20 years and what can we do no to address it?


Father Bill: St. Ignatius’ inspired name for Satan is “the enemy of human nature.” As Catholics, we stand in a long Judeo/Christian tradition that affirms God “created” human nature—not only as body and spirit—but as female and male. There are threats to the understanding of human nature on multiple fronts today. I mentioned Curtis Martin’s comment about gender ideology being one of the key challenges to ministering on college campuses. The notion that individuals can by fiat simply change gender is a form of magical thinking that people are supposed to grow out of by the age of four. Gender unlinked from biological sex breaks with scientific principles.


The Vatican this past year released a significant document through the Congregation for Catholic Education called: Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education. It is highly worth reading for any Catholic or Christian who is concerned about what this theory is doing to traditional concepts of male and female and family life. The document’s opening paragraph states: “The disorientation regarding anthropology which is a widespread feature of our cultural landscape has undoubtedly helped to destabilize the family as an institution, bringing with it a tendency to cancel out the differences between men and women, presenting them instead as merely the product of historical and cultural conditioning.”


But gender ideology is only one type of assault on human nature as crafted in the Divine image. We must confront new gene-editing techniques that promise designer babies. The technology being used is called CRISPR. People like Elon Musk want us to get a brain or neural implants so we can interface with computers. Musk and others are fearful of Intelligent Machines that could overtake us if we don’t merge with them. This sounds like science fiction but it now more fact than fiction.


We are also being “rewired” neurologically by the incredible amount of time we are spending on the computer, phone, and other tech platforms. This is another huge challenge to human nature that should be a wake-up call for all people of faith and is detailed in the brilliant book by Shoshana Zuboff called: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.


It is not a short book but it is heavily researched and shows how tech corporations are using our data for profit and control. It is a chilling book that every pastor, bishop, and religious leader should read. Zuboff says that the Robber Barons of the Twentieth Century scraped the earth for natural resources and we are only now realizing the damage done. She equates the heads of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, etc. as the new robber barons, who use their “instrumentarian power,” to scrape our identity without our knowledge for profit and power. Significant human damage is being done, especially to youth.


If you are not into reading a book like Zuboff’s, then try Dean Koontz’s latest Jane Hawk book series. Dean is a good friend and he told me he wrote this series over his concerns on whether a free will was any longer possible in a technological age. The instrumentarian power group in his series is Arcadians who use brain implants to control populations. Both Koontz and Zuboff are reading from the same fact sheets but one is a scientific approach and the other literary.


If we are to protect human nature crafted in the Divine Image, we need to understand the threats on all fronts and join forces in civil society, across religions and work with our elected officials to protect our liberty and privacy that is being “mined,” without our knowledge or consent, for-profit, and power. This should be front and center in the Church’s work to advance the Gospel.


Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional Interview.

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