Fr. Brent Otto, SJ, was ordained to the priesthood on June 13. (Banner photo by Doris Yu)

Fr. Brent Otto, SJ: Swimming in a Sea of Hope

By Tracey Primrose

June 15, 2015 — When Father Brent Otto, SJ, celebrates his first Mass as an ordained priest in his home parish of St. Anselm Church in Sudbury, Massachusetts, this month, he expects the “roof to be raised just a little bit.” And why not? St. Anselm will be celebrating its first priestly vocation since its 1963 founding, while Fr. Otto joyfully returns to the altar where he first heard God’s call.

Quite a few men who become priests were once little boys who played Mass, and Fr. Otto is no exception. He was first captivated by the liturgy while serving on the altar at St. Anselm starting at age 8. He loved the liturgy and the way it was celebrated by the church’s longtime pastor, Fr. Jim Bertelli, who is now  87 and will concelebrate Fr. Otto’s first Mass. Thinking about that and how Fr. Bertelli’s “sincere holiness spoke to my heart” evokes both gratitude and emotion.

Fr. Otto grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts.

While St. Anselm was an extension of home, Fr. Otto’s real home was just a short distance away in Framingham, Massachusetts, where his mom and dad still live in the house they bought in 1974. His dad was an electrical engineer and his mother a graphic artist; she grew up in Calcutta, and Anglo-Indian culture was a big part of Fr. Otto’s upbringing. He still loves coming home to his mother’s special jhal frezie because of the way the simmering garlic, turmeric, ginger and beef infuses his home with mouthwatering flavors.

Fr. Otto on his ordination day.

Attaining the rank of Eagle Scout when he was in high school, Fr. Otto credits scouting with helping him develop leadership, conflict resolution and decision-making skills as well as a sense of the sacred in nature. At the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, he first came to know the Jesuits. It was a lightbulb moment. He met men who were combining a vocation to the priesthood with a profession — teaching — and he could picture himself as a Jesuit priest. He was struck by “how happy and balanced they were and how they really met students on their own turf and shared quite a bit of wisdom, especially spiritual wisdom.” College also awakened him to the Ignatian method of prayer and drew him into friendship with Jesus. With the assistance of Jesuit spiritual mentors, he began discerning a vocation to the Society of Jesus while pursuing his bachelor’s in history and training to be a teacher.

Just months prior to his 2001 graduation, Fr. Otto applied for a prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. The project he proposed: a one-year study of Catholic education in India. Fr. Otto wasn’t optimistic about his prospects; the foundation didn’t often support religiously-oriented projects, and his interviewer even told him she was an atheist. Nevertheless, he won the grant and set off for India. He had never before set foot in the country of his mother’s birth.

He began the journey in Calcutta, where despite the unfamiliar culture, he felt an immediate sense of belonging. His mother and grandparents had unwittingly provided him “a mental map of memories and stories” that helped guide him through Calcutta’s teeming streets. In a country where Catholics are a true minority and where the caste system is still very much alive, he was consoled to see how Catholic education is helping uphold the dignity of each person. Catholic mission in India, he observed, is about social justice: “I think of St. Francis: ‘Preach the Gospel always and, if necessary, use words.’”

He met Indian Jesuits on his trip, and like the Jesuits at Holy Cross, they inspired him. They helped him realize that the church was — like Pope Francis says — in a perpetual state of mission, that God’s love and mercy were needed at the frontiers, that a young man with a vocation to the priesthood could become a “missionary at home.” After his return from India, he taught high school history for two years before entering the Jesuit novitiate in 2004.

As a novice, he taught at Campion College, a Jesuit high school in Kingston, Jamaica, and has happy memories of the warm embrace of the Jamaican people and how his heart was uplifted by their joyful, rousing, roof-raising liturgical music.

After the novitiate, he headed to Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, for a master’s degree in philosophy and then a master’s in international and global history from Columbia University in New York and the London School of Economics.

Fr. Brent Otto, SJ (Photo by Doris Yu)

His next stop was one year at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, New Jersey, where Fr. Otto taught history and worked in campus ministry. He was energized by the work because “it’s really serving the needs of people who are outside the mainstream … immigrants, people of color, second language English speakers or first generation to go to college. It was really special to be there.”

His formation journey then took Fr. Otto to the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California, where he earned a Master of Divinity degree and is working toward another degree, a Licentiate in Sacred Theology.

When he’s not studying, Fr. Otto serves as a deacon and RCIA teacher at the Church of Saint Leo the Great in Oakland, California, and as a chaplain for the Port of Oakland, a major container shipping port.  “When I go aboard ships I think it is something like what a hospital chaplain encounters when walking into a ward. I meet people I’ve never met before and may not meet again. I have a short time to interact with them, to pray with them and bring them Holy Communion. It’s a short time to try to convey something very important: God loves them deeply and the church cares about them.”

Fr. Otto served as a chaplain at the Port of Oakland.

As a board member of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, Fr. Otto looks forward every year to the annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. With upwards of 1,500 people participating, it is one of the biggest events of its kind, and Fr. Otto loves it. “For me, the Teach-In is like swimming in a sea of hope. You’re surrounded by students who aren’t jaded, who want to make something happen. There are 1,500 people praying together — it doesn’t get better than that.”

And back at St. Anselm’s, preparations are underway for a very happy homecoming. The church’s 16-piece drum set is ready to make some noise, and Fr. Otto’s proud parents are picking out the Mass kit they will give to their newly ordained son.

Fr. Otto (second from right) was ordained on June 13.

For Fr. Otto, it feels right to be back on the altar where his vocation began. “Even from a very young age, I always felt that the liturgy was a sacred time that we all enter into, and when you enter into that space, the Holy Spirit carries everyone in it together, unifies us and draws something out of us. There’s something good and sacred and homelike about it.”

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