A Jesuit's Journey:
Fr. Walter “Wally” Stohrer, SJ
June 20, 2017 — On the day Fr. Walter “Wally” Stohrer, SJ, was ordained a priest in Innsbruck, Austria in 1960, one of his professors — renowned theologian Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ — approached him and said, “You have just made the most important decision of your life. Now you must decide every day for the rest of your life what kind of priest you are going to be.”
And that is exactly what Fr. Stohrer has done.
“It’s not enough to reach a goal,” he explains. “You must live with the implications of that goal every day. Life is dynamic, and we must keep choosing our call — whether that be a religious vocation, layperson’s relationship with God, marriage, parenthood, friendship, or career.”
Father Stohrer realized an affinity for the Church at a young age, and his years at Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha confirmed the intuition.
“The Jesuits there — especially the scholastics — were clearly very happy, and they were doing something that struck a lot of us kids as being worthwhile,” he says.
When he approached his parents about joining the Society of Jesus, his father said something Fr. Stohrer remembers to this day.
“I said I wanted to go to the novitiate to give it a fair trial. At the time, I still thought I might be coming back to ‘real life,’” he recalls with a laugh. “And my dad said, ‘Wally, if you have a vocation, we consider it a family call, a family mission.’ [Father Stohrer’s sister had joined the Dominicans three years before.] I found that very supportive as the years went by.”
Father Stohrer never did return to “real life,” and he continued to have his decision reinforced. Two passages he read as a novice gave him “a comprehensive, controlling value for the years of future study, teaching, and more”: Jesus’ call to Simon and Andrew in Mark 1:17 and Jesus appointing the apostles in Mark 3:13–14. “With each year, each part of the program, each place I traveled (including an audience with Pope St. John XXIII), I’ve felt I was doing the right thing in the right place at the right time,” Fr. Stohrer adds.
That is not to say there were no dry periods.
“As with any life, there are flat times, when you feel bland and things get ordinary,” he says. “But St. Ignatius tells us there are so many teaching environments for knowing who Jesus of Nazareth is — not only was, but is — and you can find reinforcement for your commitment to share the joy of life in God in each task at hand.”
For Fr. Stohrer, the task at hand was most often teaching philosophy. For 40 years, he guided Marquette University students in thinking through life’s perennial questions. He also served as assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, rector, chaplain for the College of Nursing (a role that continues to this day), and retreat director. In addition, Fr. Stohrer taught at Marquette University High School and Creighton University.
When he moved to the St. Camillus Jesuit Community in Wauwatosa, Wis., in May 2015, “it was quite a change,” he says. “I knew many of the Jesuits here but had never lived with most of them. And while it’s easy for Jesuits to feel at home with one another — we’re famous for ‘having a bunk wherever we go in the world’ — I still missed my old connections and activities. So I took it to prayer. And the divine shepherd said to me, ‘Feed my lambs.’ I recognized that I could serve these men — some of whom are very fragile after having spent tireless lives in ministry — by learning more of their rich stories and being present with them as we engage in what will be our last assignments on Earth.
“I ended up rediscovering myself in the experience,” he adds. “Ephesians 3:7–9 says, ‘Of this I became a minister by the gift of God’s grace that was granted me in accord with the exercise of his power. To me, the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given, to preach … the inscrutable riches of Christ. …
“I feel I’m still unpacking those riches.”
S P I R I T U A L I T Y
During his 70 years as a Jesuit, Fr. Wally Stohrer, SJ, has had many experiences during which he felt both his vocation and mission affirmed by relating those experiences to passages from Scripture. Here are just a few (as translated in the New American Bible Revised Edition).
So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation. [2 Corinthians 5:17–18]
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. [Philippians 1:6]
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the one bringing good news,
Announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation, saying to Zion, “Your God is King!” [Isaiah 52:7]
Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” [John 8:12]
But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. [John 1:12–14]
While Israel was encamped there in front of the mountain, Moses went up to the mountain of God. Then the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying: This is what you will say to the house of Jacob; tell the Israelites, “You have seen how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” [Exodus 19:2b–4]