A Heart on Fire:
Eric Immel, SJ
For four months, I’ve been offering a Communion service at the tribal elders’ living facility in Rosebud, South Dakota. The elders I visit are women of a deep and lasting faith; their knowledge of the Catholic Church on the Rosebud Indian Reservation is all-encompassing, they know and love the Jesuit priests that have come and gone from these small towns and long roads, and they deeply desire to continue growing in their love of Jesus Christ.
During one of these services, I discovered that many of these women have friends and family buried in the cemetery near St. Charles Parish in St. Francis, just seven miles down the road. Due to their fragile state, however, they have not been able to visit graves for many years, and feared that they might not get the chance again in this lifetime. And so, I offered to take down the names of their loved ones, walk through the cemetery myself (I had not yet visited it), and offer prayers at the graves on their behalf. I saw it as a way to make their day, and to deepen the bond we have been forging since I came to the Reservation in January.
When I arrived at the cemetery, however, I was immediately confronted by a group of other visitors. They had been drinking, and waved me over. As I approached, I was berated with a series of quick insults and criticisms of the old Mission school, of the sex abuse scandal, of the state of the Church today, and I was called a few nasty names. Looking for a way out, I redirected by asking, “so, what brings you all to the cemetery today?”
“We’re visiting our kids that have passed,” one mother choked.
“Well, may I join you?
Such began one of the more remarkable afternoons of my time on the Reservation. Together, this rag tag group of mourners moved slowly and prayerfully among the tombstones, stopping to pray at the resting places of those we knew. I stopped at the graves of their kids, grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends. They joined me at the graves I promised I would visit not an hour before. It was an afternoon of sadness, joy, peace, reconciliation, and reality.
As I look back on my discernment to come to the Reservation, I realize that part of it rested in the fact that I would face great difficulty—the broken homes, the addiction, the death, the poverty, the lack of hope that life on the Reservation sometimes offers. I wanted to know that in spite of the difficulty, I could maintain a desire to be a Jesuit. What I have come to realize, though, is that my vocation hasn’t been strengthened “in spite” of anything—from this or any other novitiate experiment. It has been strengthened because of it all. In considering the vows, I can look back to thousands of moments, places, and faces, and say with certainty that I desire to proceed.
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