By Lucas Sharma, SJ
May 11, 2021 — Alone on Christmas Eve, I silently ate my dinner off a Styrofoam plate with disposable plastic silverware. At that point, I had lost track of how many weeks it had been since 45 fellow Jesuits and I had tested positive for Covid-19. When the time came for Mass, like so many other Catholics, I went to YouTube and found the link for St. Ignatius Parish in San Francisco and waited for the opening song, feeling that Christmas, like every other holiday in 2020, was lost. The cantor encouraged us to open our “virtual” hymnal and lift our voices.
What I heard next was the majestic opening notes to “O Come, All Ye Faithful” on the organ, and I let out a sigh of relief. Despite the isolation resulting from our community lockdown, the physical weakness I still felt recovering from Covid and the mental and emotional weariness that comes with online courses and meetings, it was still Christmas. Despite Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem only to be shuffled to a smelly, messy barn, unto us a child is born. A son is given.
In March of 2020, we all knew so little about the coronavirus—how it spread, how it would upend our lives. I was living in Berkeley, California, studying at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. Although I am only 33, the province asked me to come to our retirement/health care facility, Sacred Heart Jesuit Center (SHJC) in Los Gatos, California, because I have a compromised immune system from a kidney transplant when I was 26. It would be easier for me to isolate and remain safe from the virus if I were in a community with other vulnerable Jesuits. When I left the next morning, I packed very little—basic clothes and my school materials—thinking I would be gone for only a couple of weeks. Like any new arrival, I had to quarantine for 14 days. I tried to focus on my studies, but my thoughts wandered: What would it be like to live with 85 retired and elderly Jesuits? Would I make friends? How long would I be here?
When quarantine ended, the men welcomed me into the community with abundant generosity, and I soon learned the beautiful ways these men care for and love one another. I saw that men gently accompany each other as the tolls of old age render some slower physically and mentally. And it quickly became apparent to me that they tend to SHJC in unique ways so that it is home for all of us. In the summer months, a bowl of heirloom fruit arrived frequently in the dining room, a treasure grown by Father Joe Fice, SJ. Once every 10 days, Father John Martin, SJ, brought in wood he personally chopped so that every afternoon at 4:00 pm, Father Chuck Peterson, SJ, could create a magical fire for social hour before dinner. Though he could no longer see, Father Silvano Votto, SJ, prepared exquisite art presentations so that the men could cherish artistic beauty again. And when it was time to say goodbye to a beloved brother, Brother Dan Peterson, SJ, created the most prayerful photo exhibit of the man who died, placing it outside the chapel doors so that we might recall his life as we entered the chapel to commend him to God.
As I watched these men care for one another through their gentle ways and routines, I also saw them tend to me, the young scholastic, displaced from my peers. By their actions, this house on the hill became a home in my heart. Both the brothers and priests here have made me a better Jesuit, and God willing, a better priest. The abundant memories they shared helped me journey with them to their very first days as Jesuits at a long-shuttered novitiate in Sheridan, Oregon, and the now-fallow vineyards where Jesuit novices once picked grapes in Los Gatos. I learned the histories of our schools and missions and the ways we grew to become more inclusive and welcoming.
Because of the risk to our vulnerable population, we could not leave the SHJC campus, so we threw small, themed dinner parties, wine tastings on the patio and celebrations in our fourth floor Sky Room with its endless views of the Santa Clara Valley and the mountains on the other side of the East Bay. Men vulnerably shared their experiences as we read books together on racism. As I was taking an online class on how to celebrate the Mass, they served as the congregants as I practiced being the presider, instructing me to always remember to show the tender mercy of God to all. In ways great and small, they passed on their ministerial lessons and identities to me.
After eight months of integrating into my new home, the virus hit. Forty-five of us became sick. Twenty, including me, found ourselves in an ambulance headed to an overly crowded hospital, needing oxygen to breathe. While I thought I would most likely survive, I became aware of my own frailty: I was immunocompromised, and I would need oxygen, 20 hours of sleep a day and heavy steroids to beat the virus. But the more poignant realization from my hospital bed was that, inevitably, some of us would not make it.
It wasn’t the loneliness that comes with bedroom dinners or the fear that came with diminished oxygen that made this experience so painful. Released from the hospital and back home at the community, it was the sound of the intercom with the words from our community’s superior: This is John Privett here with more bad news. His update would chronicle more positive cases, more hospitalizations, or another death of one of the brothers I had come to love so deeply. The recent milestone of 550,000 Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. includes eight spectacular Jesuit brothers of mine: Bernie Bush, Mike Cook, Joe Fice, Jerry Gordon, Joseph McGowan, Bob Mathewson, Chuck Peterson and Silvano Votto. We lost those Jesuits to the virus and another five for unrelated reasons between Thanksgiving and the first few days in January. In the year since I moved here, we have lost 22 men at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center.
At many points this year, I have wondered what Joseph felt that night in the stable—perhaps like a helpless and frustrated provider who failed to get a pregnant Mary a proper bed. I wonder if the mantra “It shouldn’t have happened this way” went through his head on repeat. And then there’s the guilt: Was I infected earlier than others and did I unwittingly spread the virus to my brothers via community activities or meals?
Ultimately, it does not help to entertain these ideas, when I can instead focus on looking back at this experience with awe and reverence for this unexpected and unforgettable opportunity thrown at me because of a global pandemic. I do not believe I would have asked to go to our province retirement center in my 30s. The truth is though: My time here is a grace that I will treasure for my entire life. Spending a year with the men at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center during a painful and devastating pandemic is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received—one I will never forget and certainly would not trade.
Many of these profound gifts were made possible by our generous staff who gave their own hearts to keep us safe. When the pandemic hit us, they pivoted to try to make us feel at home, even if alone in our rooms. They tended to all our needs lovingly, and I know they felt the pain of the losses as deeply as we did. When we needed more help a few months ago, two of my own Jesuit brothers, Fr. Julian Climaco and Travis Neuman, who served as nurses prior to joining the Society, volunteered to put their lives on hold to join our nursing staff.
That is what I take with me: hope. Hope in the love and care shown to me by all my brothers and the staff here. Hope, that like that first Christmas day, grace always shines forth. I am a better Jesuit and man because I lived with prayerful men who, in the final days of their lives, still had the fervor of their Jesuit commitment burning inside them, the same fervor they and I felt when we finished the novitiate and took our first vows. As Ignatius invites us, I savor the graces—the memories, the laughs, the vulnerable conversations and even the tears of joy and grief. These men are the grandfathers I never had and the brothers I aspire to be.
Lucas Sharma, SJ, is in theology studies at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University.