A Heart on Fire:
Vincent L. Strand,
We always keep an open room here in Rome at the Collegio Internazionale del Gesù. But lest any prospective visitors—especially prospective Jesuit visitors, who always seem to be looking for free places to stay—get the idea of lodging in it for a few nights, let me apologize and say that we don’t use it as a guest room but rather as a sanctuary. For its former resident was St. Ignatius of Loyola.
St. Ignatius spent almost the last twenty years of his life here in Rome, much of it occupied with administrative work, governing the burgeoning Society of Jesus which he and a handful of companions had recently founded. It was an unexpectedly sedentary closing chapter for a man who had wandered far and wide and who referred to himself in his autobiography as “the Pilgrim.”
My own path to Rome has had its fair share of wandering. It started in Milwaukee at Marquette University, where I felt the first stirrings of a vocation and so, after graduation in 2005, moved on, not to medical school as was my original plan, but rather to the Jesuit novitiate in St. Paul. Then to Fordham University in New York for philosophy study. Then back to the Midwest, to teach at Creighton Prep in Omaha. Finally, here to Rome, for my last stage of Jesuit formation before being ordained a priest.
Somehow, though, telling the story in that way misses the heart of the matter. It sticks pins on a map of where I’ve been, but fails to capture the flesh and blood moments in which formation really occurs. Like sitting on the rooftop of your community in the Bronx looking out over the New York skyline and chatting with your Jesuit buddies about baseball, metaphysics, and what God has been doing in your prayer. Or sweeping a gym floor in Omaha before your freshman basketball team comes into practice and having a student on the cusp of tears come to you seeking some advice and consolation amidst the most recent problem adolescent life has thrown at him. Or chatting over insipid prison food with a different boy of the same age who is facing a long sentence and sees no way out of the gang in which he’s become inextricably enmeshed.
I bring myriad such moments to my current theological study at the Pontifical Gregorian University. My fellow students all bring their own. Some mornings, before entering the heady lecture halls of the Gregorian, I stand in the piazza outside, chat with the beggars, and watch the students stream in. James Joyce’s definition of “Catholic” is fitting: “Here comes everybody.” Lay students and seminarians and religious, wearing Roman collars and T-shirts and every type of religious habit imaginable. Their faces tell of the more than 150 countries from which they come and to which they will return to be leaven in their local churches. Combine this diversity with the history lying all around us in the churches, relics, and ruins of Rome and it creates a fecund milieu in which to prepare to be a Jesuit priest.
Amidst it all, though, I keep coming back to that one, small, Basque pilgrim who arrived here almost five-hundred years ago, St. Ignatius. Sometimes I go into his room by myself and sit there and pray with him, thinking about the varied experiences he brought to Rome as I try to understand my own.
A commentator once wrote of St. Ignatius, “A universal molder of men because he himself remained universally pliable.” Maybe that’s what it’s all about. Something about universality, pliability, moulding. We call it “formation” after all. Maybe the pathways we walk are not so much horizontal between city and city, but rather vertical, into the depths of the human heart and upward to God, the God who forms us, massaging our stony hearts into hearts of flesh.
As my pilgrim steps walk among the Roman cobblestones through this final stage of formation, such is my daily prayer to the Lord: to give me a heart like His own, a heart of the shepherd, a heart on fire with His love.
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