Story

By William Bole

Nearly a decade ago, Manuel Chavira—whose past had included serving as a Marine infantryman and working for 20 years in an oil refinery—was at a “Come and See” retreat for those exploring a Jesuit vocation. The weekend program included a visit to a Jesuit ministry—a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles, where the retreatants spent time with detainees who were being tried as adults. Chavira spent an hour talking with one of the inmates, before asking him a question: “Why do you think the Jesuits come here?” The young man responded, “Because they love us.”

Manuel Chavira, SJ, at San Quentin State Prison

Chavira recalls, “I never, ever forgot that.” About a year and a half later, in 2014, he entered the Society of Jesus as a novice in Jesuits West and affixed the “SJ” to his name.

His path since then illustrates not only the decade-long journey of Jesuit formation, but also an especially pivotal turn in that process. Chavira is in the regency phase of his preparation, the third of five stages in the making of a Jesuit (after the novitiate and first studies, and before theology and tertianship). This is when Jesuits in training leave the highly structured environment of
novice life and academic work, and leap into full-time active ministry while living in a community of Jesuits. It’s a typically three-year stretch that has been dubbed “the Jesuit internship.”

During regency, Chavira is serving as the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Prison. Although Chavira says correctional ministry was “never on my radar screen” until visiting juvenile hall at the vocation retreat, the experience helped alter his path.

In the past, most regents did their work as teachers in Jesuit high schools, and many still do. What’s evolved is the breadth of regency assignments, along with the profile of these Jesuit “interns.”

Today’s regents are working in homeless shelters and refugee camps, as well as in high schools, colleges and many other apostolates. They also come with experience that Jesuits in the distant past (often going straight from high school into the Jesuit order) rarely had. In Jesuits West, the ranks of regents have recently included ex-Marines like Chavira, artists and musicians, lawyers, a pharmacist, a chef and even a (biological) father, among others.

Dzao Vu, SJ, is the pharmacist. He was born in Vietnam and came to the United States at age 15, settling initially in Houston with his family in 1992. After graduating with a bachelor’s in philosophy from the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, Vu set his sights on the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, where he earned his Doctor of Pharmacy degree. “I thought pharmacy would be the path I follow in life,” says Vu, who went on to work as a clinical pharmacist with the U.S. Air Force as well as with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Nevada.

Pharmacist Dzao Vu, SJ, at a Creighton University lab

Vu was climbing the professional ladder, but whenever he perused the parish bulletin of his church in Reno, he realized how much his day job got in the way of doing all he’d like to do as a parishioner. He began thinking about how he could better balance his professional life and spiritual desires, before taking the further step of contemplating a vocation, possibly as a military chaplain. He discerned with a few religious orders, finally knocking on the door of what was then the California Province of the Society of Jesus, which he entered in 2014.

In his regency, which ended this past summer, Vu remained a practitioner of his craft. He taught in the School of Pharmacy at Creighton University in Omaha, and he dispensed medication at the Magis Clinic, a free clinic for the homeless run by students at Creighton’s School of Pharmacy and Health Professions. At the same time, Vu felt pulled to another side of his ministry at Creighton—helping alumni and other members of the university community to reflect on where God is leading them. This fall, he moved on to study theology at Regis College in Toronto.

Henry William Perez, SJ, is the chef. He’s also a former Marine Corps reservist and advertising professional—as well as a Jesuit brother, which means, for one thing, that he’s not on the ordination track. Perez is doing his regency at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Hollywood, California. When he began there in May 2020, he started tackling a particular problem of homelessness in the time of Covid.

Henry William Perez, SJ (holding sign), at Genevieve’s Garden in Hollywood

“Many people don’t realize that when the pandemic happened, a lot of the places that the homeless go to were suddenly closed off, places like libraries and coffee houses,” says Perez, who has a trim salt-and-pepper beard and sported a Loyola High School polo shirt during a FaceTime interview from Blessed Sacrament’s former rectory (now housing offices and a library with a working fireplace). Perez and the church community responded by establishing Genevieve’s Garden, a refuge for the homeless—essentially, a collection of picnic tables on the west side of Blessed Sacrament, a Jesuit church on Sunset Boulevard.

The Hollywood Food Coalition helps provide sandwiches, healthy snacks and other fare rescued from Hollywood studios. “The food I get is really top-notch,” says Perez, who went to culinary school with his adult son a decade ago. But he is quick to add that the real purpose of Genevieve’s Garden is to offer the homeless a place to relax, enjoy the company of others (if they so choose) and “hang out with Brother Henry.” Even as other venues reopened, the homeless (on average, around 50 a day) continued to seek out this daytime refuge.

Perez is continuing his regency at Blessed Sacrament while also beginning studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles in clinical psychology and art therapy for youth and families.

Artist Daniel Flores, SJ

And then there’s the artist, Daniel Flores Estrella, SJ—who comes from a family of itinerant workers from Mexico. Before entering the Society of Jesus in 2014, he spent more than a decade as a multidisciplinary artist and arts educator, helping students use various art forms as a vehicle for social and restorative justice. For example, as part of a Smithsonian fellowship in Los Angeles, he led a project in which disadvantaged students went around their neighborhoods with disposable cameras, documenting their familiar surroundings with fresh eyes.

During his recent regency, Flores lectured in the fine arts department at Loyola Marymount University and worked as an assistant to the dean of students there. At the dean’s office, he gained a new awareness of the role Jesuit universities can play on the frontiers of the worldwide Society of Jesus, or “at the periphery,” to use Pope Francis’ expression.

“When we talk about ministry out on the margins of society, we seldom consider the universities to be on the margins themselves,” notes Flores, who was born in Mexico and raised in Inglewood, California. And yet, he came to know plenty of full-time undergraduate students on the social periphery, including those who were undocumented or homeless, and students who were undergoing serious health treatments. Often, the office could help out by keeping an open communication with them or by simply arranging for tangibles like textbooks, rent money or groceries. Flores says the encounters led him to believe that, “If we are to find God in all things, then the ministry of Jesuit higher education entails being attentive and present to all students, especially those that don’t find themselves at home in our institutions.”

Usually, Jesuits go from regency to three years of theology—a final step toward priestly ordination. That won’t be the precise path for Flores, now done with regency. His new assignment is “special studies” at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where he has received a fellowship to further study the capacity of art as a conduit for social restorative justice. After getting his Master of Fine Arts degree, Flores will proceed to theology studies, with the possibility of focusing on the theology of aesthetics.

Though casting out toward an expanse of ministries, regents can still be found in their traditional habitats—Jesuit high schools.

Ulises Covarrubias, SJ, recently spent his regency at Seattle Preparatory School teaching Spanish and theology. There, he became practiced in the art of Jesuit-lay collaboration, working with a raft of non-Jesuit leaders, among them the school president, principal and campus ministries director. That is a familiar rite of passage for regents assigned to lay-administered institutions. “Their care, their encouragement, their support for my ministry and vocation,” Covarrubias says gratefully, his eyes wandering off in a Zoom interview—with no need to complete the sentence.

Ulises Covarrubias, SJ, at Seattle Prep

It seems the experience that formed him the most at Seattle Prep was the encounter with students. “You come to appreciate their goodness. You let down your guard, and you allow yourself to be loved by them and to love them in return,” says Covarrubias, who was born in Mexico, came to the U.S. when he was two years old and earned his bachelor’s in international development studies from UCLA, before getting his master’s in public diplomacy at USC.

In a way, all that is par for the course during this phase of Jesuit formation, when regents venture beyond their formation communities, into the wide world of Jesuit ministry. As Covarrubias puts it, “Regency is really a time when you’re able to be in close contact in a very intentional way with the people of God, not just intermittently, like in the novitiate or first studies. It’s a way to grow and confirm your vocation.” He adds, “I was able to share my love of God with God’s people, especially my students.”

This past summer, he became a student again, entering the theology phase of formation at Centre Sèvres, a Jesuit institute in Paris. Covarrubias says he pictures himself in front of a classroom in the future, happily teaching at a Jesuit high school or at the university level.

According to Father Tony Sholander, SJ, the province’s delegate for formation, regency is decisive. “It might be the most important stage of Jesuit formation, because by the end, we have all the data we need—all we need to know about whether they want to go forward and whether we believe they should go forward,” he explains. “And when that happens, you can see it. There’s a sense of freedom and energy. They’re getting to a place of freedom where they could accept the offer that God is giving them.”

For his part, Chavira—the prison chaplain, in roughly his last year of regency—has been discerning on a number of levels. Is he called to be a Jesuit, to not only carry out good works but also spend his life in community with fellow Jesuits? Is he called specifically to the priesthood, not simply to prison ministry (which he could handle quite well as a non-ordained chaplain), but also to the sacramental aspects of Jesuit priestly ministry?

And those aren’t even his most profound levels of reflection. “The biggest discernment is the discernment with God, with Christ, who will sustain me in this vocation, in this ministry of the priesthood, in the love and joy of this life,” says Chavira—almost giving away the ending.

William Bole is a journalist who writes frequently about the Jesuits.

Curious about Jesuit life? Imagine what we can do together. BeAJesuit.org

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