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A Jesuit's Journey:
Fr. Joseph Bracken, SJ

Fr. Joseph Bracken, SJ

April 29, 2019 — Ask someone who has benefited from a Jesuit education or ministry about the Society of Jesus’ contribution to the world, and you’ll often hear answers like “Jesuits form men and women for others,” “they help people discern God’s presence in their lives,” and “they serve God by caring for and seeking justice for people on the margins.”

But we don’t always give thought to how the Jesuits themselves benefit from being in the Society. We think of them as servants rather than people who are served. However, as Fr. Joseph “Joe” Bracken, SJ, contends, “Being a Jesuit has been such a blessing in my life. It has allowed me to pursue an occupation that isn’t immediately profitable, but one which I believe has value through advancing knowledge as well as faith.”

When he refers to his occupation’s lack of profitability, Fr. Bracken is not talking about the 50-plus years he taught philosophical theology at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary (Illinois), Marquette University, and Xavier University; the positions he’s held as the Beckman Family Chair in Theology, director of the Brueggeman Center for Interreligious Dialogue, and rector at Xavier; or his semesters as a visiting professor and scholar at Claremont School of Theology (California), Hekima College (Nairobi), and Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy (Dublin).

But rather, Fr. Bracken is alluding to his opportunity to study and ponder some of the most perplexing questions of the ages, and then share his reflections through 11 books, 150-plus articles, and presentations at numerous conferences.

“Teaching and celebrating Mass have certainly been a wonderful part of my life as a Jesuit,” he explains. “But I think my avocation, my principal gift, has been my ability to engage in speculative thought and academic scholarship.”

He’s not the only one to call it a gift either. One reviewer counts Fr. Bracken among “the more significant North American theologians of the past 40 years.” Another wrote that “reading Bracken…stimulates the theological imagination.” And still another called his work “bold and innovative.”

Spirituality for a changing world

In simple terms, Fr. Bracken’s scholarship has sought to integrate the sometimes conflicting views of traditional Christian doctrines and the modern scientific world through a system of thought called process theology.

“Process theology advances the idea that we and our world are continuously changing, and that God is involved with humans and other creatures in an ongoing, evolving relationship and is even affected by it,” he explains.

Along these lines, Fr. Bracken’s latest book, Church as Dynamic Life-System, explores how the Church is not just an institution; it is a living, changing organism that, throughout history, has been continuously created by the actions and relationships of the people within it. “That’s why, as Pope Francis tells us, it takes the involvement of all the faithful to make up the Church,” Fr. Bracken says. “This view invites human response in prayer, worship, study, sacrifice of self-interest for the higher good, and the pursuit of truth and social justice.”

Today, Fr. Bracken continues his scholarship at the Jesuit Community on the Camillus healthcare campus outside Milwaukee. He is grateful to those who support the Jesuits not only for the many years he was able to do his “not-immediately-profitable” work, but to be able to continue doing it in “such high-quality accommodations.”

“We have nursing help, wonderful meals, and a prayerful, comfortable, social life together,” he says.

As far as aging well, this 89-year-old’s advice is to have a reason to get up in the morning.

“When you go from full-time work to modest part-time activity, it’s important to keep busy. For me, I sit behind the computer and think great thoughts until at least lunchtime,” he says with a laugh. “But seriously, we need to stay intellectually alive even as our bodies inevitably slow down. If we’re lucky, we can overcome the temptation to say, ‘what’s the difference anymore,’ and make our days worthwhile.”

“According to the process system of thought, we can’t say we’ve reached this or that static point at any time,” he adds. “We are always changing, ideally for the good, no matter what the calendar says.

S P I R I T U A L I T Y  Thoughts to ponder from the work of Fr. Joseph Bracken, SJ

•    “The God who made the world and everything in it…does not live in shrines made by human hands…indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being…’” (St. Paul in Acts 17)

•    Appeals to reason and enlightened self-interest will never move anyone to real generosity in the service of God and our neighbor, at least on a regular basis. Only the experience of being loved by God and responding to God’s love inspires that measure of self-giving.

•    All creatures come forth from the triune God and return to God as members of an all-embracing cosmic community. St. Paul talked about the cosmic Christ – the aspect of God which pervades all of creation, and intimately links all creatures – the Christ who “fills the universe in all its parts.” (Ephesians 1:23)

•    God responds with what we call emotion to what is happening in the world. Consider, for example, the ancient Israelites kindling God’s anger in the wilderness, and the joy and sorrow Jesus experienced with his friends.

•    Shared love, self-giving love, is the hallmark of true community.

•    Perfection is not to be found in actuality, but in potentiality to become more.

•    False starts, errors, and mistakes lead us toward something better.

•    Divine providence is another way of saying that God directs us by prompting us with alternatives. Listen for the gentle persuasion to move in one direction rather than in another. Hear what God might be saying to you, instead of telling God what you think you need.