A Heart on Fire:
Br. Matt Wooters, SJ
When I was in the third grade at a Catholic primary school in suburban Maryland, I happened upon a book about St. Isaac Jogues, the 17th century Jesuit missionary, getting flogged, flayed, and having his fingers chewed off on a mission to “New France.” I thought it was the grossest and coolest thing I had ever read! It was perfect for an eight-year-old boy with a penchant for reading and dreams of being a world explorer. Though, at the time I couldn’t for the life of me understand why someone would choose to go through such an ordeal!
Fast forward twenty-some years later, and I am a Jesuit brother living with Jesuits from India, Ecuador, Tanzania, and Wisconsin. I spend my days as a school social worker at Nativity Jesuit Academy on Milwaukee’s South side. I work with children that are the same age I was when I first read about St. Isaac and his companions. All my digits are intact, for now.
I am in my sixth year of Jesuit formation in a two- to three-year period of work we call “regency.” In the formidable and lengthy course of Jesuit formation, regency is sandwiched between two graduate degrees. During the former, I studied social work at St. Louis University and worked as a caseworker with men and women experiencing homelessness. I also spent some time living and working with migrants in Mexico. In the coming months, I will wrap up my regency at Nativity Jesuit and move on to start a degree in theology.
As I reflect on these past six years, I realize they have been incredible, intense, hard, and beautiful. But more than anything, they have been thoroughly joyful. Joy has been the root of my vocation. I felt glimmers of this God-given joy as a Jesuit Volunteer in Belize after college. I wanted more of it and decided to enter the Society. I attended Georgetown Prep and John Carroll University, so I was familiar with the Jesuits throughout my life, counting many of them among my friends. But it wasn’t until my time with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) that the idea of entering the Jesuits seemed like a realistic possibility. During my time with JVC, I felt that I wasn’t simply talking about accompanying the marginalized and excluded, I was doing it. This made the possibility of becoming a Jesuit much more real.
Upon entering the Jesuits, I was filled with all manner of fears and doubts until the Spiritual Exercises, the 30-day silent retreat Jesuits and lay folks have completed since St. Ignatius’ time. (To be clear, most of my fears early on involved the thought of being silent for 30 days!) The Spiritual Exercises culminate with the understanding of how much God loves and labors on behalf of us. Despite pain, suffering, and our own sin, God is on our side through it all. The response to this simple yet profound revelation is freedom: a freedom from ego, from attachment, and from selfishness. This freedom incarnates itself as joy and service.
At the end of the Long Retreat, I felt a tremendous desire to work with God going wherever the need was greatest. This holy desire, God’s desire in me, has brought me from Saint Paul, to St. Louis, to Mexico, and to a primary school in Milwaukee over these past six years.
I think I finally understand St. Isaac Jogues’ irrational joy and zeal a bit more now.
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