Father Radmar Jao, SJ, began his new role as director of vocations for Jesuits West on July 31, the feast of St. Ignatius.
In some ways, he has prepared all his life for this lead role, though if you go to his IMDB page, you won’t find it among the more than two dozen parts this talented actor has already played, including characters on Seinfeld and Minority Report.
For Fr. Jao, the two worlds he inhabits — serving as a priest and performing on TV, film and stage — have something in common.
“I’ve always approached acting as more than just memorizing lines,” he said. “My job as an actor is to bring the words of a script to life so that they will impact an audience in some way. Soon after my ordination, it hit me that this is exactly what a priest does. He incarnates the words of the Gospel through his life and his homilies so that the love and mercy of God is revealed to his congregation, whose lives will be changed for the better.”
Fr. Radmar Jao, SJ, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Seinfeld in 1997
His appointment to director of vocations by Fr. Provincial Scott Santarosa, SJ, also reflects the growing diversity of the region and of Jesuits West. Fr. Jao’s roots are Filipino, Chinese, Italian and Spanish. This year, the men who entered the Jesuit Novitiate in Culver City, California, are of Latino, Filipino, Vietnamese and Persian heritage. “There’s not one Caucasian among them,” he added. “This is a stark contrast to the makeup of novices decades ago, who were primarily Irish, Italian and German, and it’s quite different from other areas of the country, where novice classes are primarily white.”
While Fr. Jao joined the Jesuits from the vocational melting pot of the Jesuits West Province, he was born in a place that was far less multicultural: Gary, Indiana. After his family immigrated to the Philippines when he was just a baby, his Filipino family helped inspire his life’s two great passions.
“My great-grandmother planted the seeds of my priestly vocation,” he noted. “My earliest memories are of her teaching me to pray in Spanish.” He also saw glimpses of his future when he looked at photos of his mother, Tessie Agana, who was known as the “Shirley Temple of the Philippines,” after acting in movies produced by her uncle at the end of World War II.
He acted for the first time in preschool in the Philippines, performing as Raggedy Andy. After President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines in 1972, the family returned to Indiana. At Indiana University, he joined the Singing Hoosiers choral group, where he met a student two years his senior, Ryan Murphy, who went on to create the hit TV show Glee.
After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue work in the entertainment industry. His first professional role was performing the lead character in Berkeley Rep’s production of Dragonwings, and he later landed the role of Tobias in Sweeney Todd for the East West Players, a part that earned him an Ovation Award — LA’s version of the Tony Award — for best featured actor in a musical.
His claim to fame, however, was playing a Chinese delivery guy on an episode of Seinfeld. “The director wanted me to speak with a Chinese accent, but I thought that was ridiculous as many Chinese delivery guys speak perfect English. I asked Jerry if I could dump the accent, and he agreed. That was the first time I stood up against the prejudice and racism that exists in Hollywood. I am grateful to Jerry for encouraging me to be myself.”
While performing in a play in Sacramento, Fr. Jao shared his thoughts about a possible call to the priesthood with a fellow actor who had graduated from Loyola High School of Los Angeles. “He told me not to become a priest, but if I absolutely had to, to at least consider becoming a Jesuit, because you can be a priest and an actor at the same time,” he said.
Fr. Jao being ordained to the priesthood in 2011
Before he entered the Jesuit novitiate in 2001, he made a bargain with God. “I said, ‘If you really want me to become a priest, let me work with Steven Spielberg.’ I was set to enter the novitiate in August of that year, and in May my agent called to tell me that I had been cast in Minority Report, a film directed by Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise. I hung up and wept in gratitude for the answered prayer. It was amazing to work with Steven, who was friendly and personable and even made a point to learn my name. It was a great moment of affirmation and a sign that God had said, ‘Yes. I really want you.’”
His Jesuit vocation has included serving with a L’Arche Community in Seattle, working at the University of San Francisco on a program that combined performing arts and social justice and parish work at St. Agnes Church in San Francisco.
Fr. Jao celebrating his first Mass as a priest in 2011
Two years after ordination, Fr. Jao returned to acting, but he had a hard time finding anyone willing to hire a Catholic priest for a show, “so I kept my priesthood on the down-low and landed some small parts, including a role on C.S.I.: Las Vegas, where I played a dead Elvis impersonator. While sitting with the hair and makeup person, we struck up a conversation, and she asked what I did when I wasn’t acting. I told her I was a Jesuit priest. Then she took a deep breath and whispered that she was also a Catholic. I told her that we didn’t have to whisper. We had a great conversation about Pope Francis, and I invited her to attend a Mass I was celebrating at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood. I tried to present to her God’s love and mercy for her right where she was. Being a priest and an actor became a very effective conversation starter with a variety of people during that time.”
Between 2015 and 2019, Fr. Jao worked at the Catholic student center at Boise State University, where he began FirePit Ministry to help young people discern God’s dream for their lives.
In his current job, he does much of the same. This time, however, he leads a team of seven, plus 30 volunteers.
“Each of us on the team has a unique vocation story to share with young men out there who are considering a vocation with the Jesuits. God calls us with our unique gifts to serve the Church and the world in need. I believe our message to those young men is, ‘Imagine what we can do together!’”