A Heart on Fire:
Luke Hansen, SJ
Encounter is a favorite word of Pope Francis. It is also the defining gift of my Jesuit life. This vowed life has offered an abundance of opportunities for encounters with the love and mercy of God and the beauty and generosity of God’s people. And these encounters have often happened in the most surprising places, beyond my imagination.
Perhaps the first surprise was even learning about the Jesuits. I grew up in Kaukauna, Wis., about 20 minutes from Green Bay and 45 minutes from the Jesuit Retreat House on Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh. I was familiar with the names Marquette and Allouez but did not realize they were Jesuits and did not know what that even meant. That is, until my junior year at Saint Joseph’s College in Indiana. Late one night I was competing in a dart league at our campus bar when a young Precious Blood priest encouraged me to check out the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). That night I Googled JVC and realized that its core values — community, spirituality, simplicity, and social justice — resonated with my deepest desires. I also learned about the great diversity of Jesuit ministries. I had never met priests who were also lawyers, public policy experts, or peace activists. Almost immediately I could imagine serving God’s people as a Jesuit.
On the first day of JVC orientation in California we celebrated Mass on a beach, another surprising place of encounter. The presider, Fr. Tom Weston, SJ, showed great authenticity, vulnerability, intelligence, and compassion. He spoke about being in recovery and giving 12-step retreats. He prayed for unity and peace among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. He blessed the gifts in Hebrew. He reminded us that the Eucharist is bread for the hungry, not a reward for good behavior — words echoed a decade later in Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel. It was clear that Fr. Weston was deeply in love with Jesus. Walking up the hill after Mass, I felt a deep desire to enter the Society.
As a Jesuit, these graced encounters have continued. On my novitiate pilgrimage, I traveled along the US-Mexican border and met a young Mexican boy who showed me how to give generously from one’s poverty. A few years later, after writing my master’s thesis on US detention policy in the war on terror, I traveled to Bermuda to meet with four Muslim men who had been held in Guantánamo Bay for seven years. They prepared their favorite Turkish dishes for me, gave me a tour of the island on their motorbikes, took me swimming in the ocean, and spoke openly about their prison experiences. They taught me hospitality and forgiveness.
Having lived and served in St. Paul; Omaha; Chicago; Pine Ridge, S.D.; and New York City, my Jesuit life has come full circle. Now I am back in California, close to where I served as a Jesuit Volunteer. I am studying at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, serving as a deacon in a women’s prison, and preparing for ordination to the priesthood on June 3 in Milwaukee. It is a great gift to live and study with Jesuits from 30 countries and to collaborate with many lay men and women preparing for ministry in the Church. After ordination, I will serve at Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee and then continue my theology studies at the Gregorian University in Rome. I know God is close, inviting me to keep my eyes and heart open to encountering grace in new and surprising ways.
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