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2024 Ordinands

Brendan G. Coffey, SJ

Province: USA East

Hometown: Cherry Hill, New Jersey

Highlights of Jesuit Formation:

  1. Worked alongside the tremendously dedicated team of faculty and staff of Fairfield Prep in Fairfield, Connecticut, amid the trials of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. Accompanied middle school and high school students in understanding and living out their Catholic faith at St. Joan of Arc Parish in San Ramon, California.
  3. Honed spiritual direction skills during a summer practicum at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, which included directing inmates at a local women’s prison.
Brendan delivers the 2023 commencement address to his former students at Fairfield Prep.

Post-Ordination:
Will spend a pastoral summer at St. Peter Catholic Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, followed by full-time teaching at Fairfield College Preparatory School in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Brendan with one of his sophomore theology classes at Fairfield Prep.

Education:
Bachelor’s degree, English and philosophy, Fordham University; Master’s degree, Irish writing, Trinity College Dublin; Master’s degree, Catholic theology, Fordham University; Master’s degree and Licentiate in Sacred Theology, Christian spirituality, Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University

Brendan with family and a close friend at his diaconate ordination in Oakland, California, in October 2023

Biography:
Brendan Coffey, SJ, grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, raised by his parents, Gerry and Janice, alongside his brother, Justin, and sister, Katelyn. He credits his great uncle, Msgr. Tom Coffey, a Catholic priest, pastor and high school educator, as an early vocational inspiration. Brendan first met the Society of Jesus at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia and continued his Jesuit education at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, where he studied English and philosophy. After graduation, he participated in the Alumni Service Corps at St. Joseph’s Prep followed by graduate studies in Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin, where he earned a Master of Philosophy. After returning stateside, Brendan was a high school English teacher for several years at St. Augustine High in San Diego and at Regis High School in New York City. Brendan entered St. Andrew Hall novitiate in Syracuse, New York, in 2015. As a novice, he worked as a hospital chaplain and technician, accompanied adults at a spiritual renewal center, and taught English at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore. After professing vows, he pursued a master’s in Catholic theology at Fordham University, volunteering at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx on his days off. During his regency, Brendan taught theology and English at Fairfield College Preparatory School in Fairfield, Connecticut; he also served as an assistant cross-country coach. Following regency, Brendan continued his theology studies at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California, earning a Licentiate in Sacred Theology/Master of Theology. While in the East Bay, Brendan worked with youth groups at St. Joan of Arc Parish in San Ramon, California, where he also served as a deacon. After ordination, Brendan will spend the summer at St. Peter Catholic Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, before returning to Fairfield Prep as a full-time teacher.

Brendan with his novitiate classmates during their first year as novices visiting Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky while on pilgrimage

Who’s your favorite saint, and why?
The complicated, messy, fascinating life of Ignatius of Loyola is nothing short of captivating. Like all saints, we love to romanticize his story, but there was a rawness to his experience that evades hagiographical tendencies. In the painful recognition that his life was an unholy mess, Iñigo López de Loyola had to learn to do the hardest thing of all: to let go.

We love to imagine that his story climaxed in a great battle. In truth, Pamplona was little more than a skirmish; the real battle was raging in his heart. We love to imagine that his conversion came the instant a cannonball shattered his leg. In truth, change came years later and after much struggle; that cannonball incident merely left him interiorly shattered.

God got his attention in the wake of his hubris at Pamplona; it was the long recovery at Loyola that left him time to think about what this meant.

The call to discipleship rarely comes in a Pauline flash (it didn’t even come that way for Paul); it’s more like a song you’ve heard before but never paid much attention. And then experience hits you and suddenly those notes sing a song in your heart; it starts to sound so familiar that it feels like it was written just for you.

Ignatius received a special call to follow Jesus, but the experiences that opened him up to listen for that call were as harsh as they were beautiful. Those experiences shaped him into becoming a master at reading the heart. It’s true he picked up his fair share of insight by studying great Christian spiritual teachers of the past, but the core of his wisdom was the fruit of his own struggles to be seized by love.

Like Augustine, another bad boy saint, Ignatius developed a keen sensibility of what makes us tick. He took a microscope to his own failings and pinpointed, with prescient accuracy, how we routinely get tripped up by fear and despair. He used this knowledge not to orchestrate his own self-sufficiency, but to become more disposed to following God in his life.

His companionship with Jesus was the vocation of his life. It was there, in the vulnerability of friendship, that he found a freedom and a vitality he had always sought in vain. It’s a great irony that he discovered this freedom not through conquest, but in surrender. Still, he was not content with his own salvation; he spent the rest of his life helping to free others as he had been freed, to help them surrender to a love that would transform their hearts.

Ignatius realized that true freedom comes from service — serving God, serving others. But his gift was not born of chivalrous duty; it was the authentic response of one who experienced God’s awesome love in his life and deeply desired to respond in kind. That’s why his Spiritual Exercises lead us into experiencing that same divine love in our lives, so that we can live into one of the great paradoxes of our faith: that it’s only when we surrender to God our freedom, memory, understanding, and will — “all I have and possess” — that we gain them all in full. We learn in such moment that God’s love and grace really is enough.

Brendan with confirmation students at St. Joan of Arc Parish in San Ramon, California

What is one hobby you’ve cultivated as a Jesuit, and why is it important to you?
When I was a kid, I was press-ganged onto a summer swim team. Boys were in short supply, the moms got to talking, and before I knew it, I was drafted. I was not pleased. Sports weren’t really my thing, and swimming yielded special tortures. I never adjusted to the cold water, tired easily from our long practices, and, until the end, wasn’t very good. I retired after two or three seasons with little honor or fanfare.

Years later, I slowly, hesitantly found my way back to the sport. But it was only after becoming a Jesuit that I gave swimming a true second chance. To my utter bewilderment, I discovered one of the great joys of my life.

Part of this stemmed from a privilege in my new life: Most of the communities to which I belonged sat on or adjacent to a college campus with pool access. I also found Jesuit friends who sought what I was initially seeking: low-stakes swims to unwind from studies or work.

In time, I built up more than stamina. I also started feeling the itch to pick up a level of proficiency I never seemed to master in my junior years.

It started slowly. Looking up drills and sets and trying them out. One Jesuit brother taught me how to do a proper flip turn.

But the real transformation occurred after I was sent to theology studies in Berkeley, California, land of eternal springtime and year-round outdoor pools. My new surroundings jump-started my desire to get serious. I joined an adult Masters swim team where I found coaching, a regular practice schedule and built-in swimmer support.

I stumbled upon a great team. Our coach was as tough as he was innovative and fun: We balanced cups on our heads for a steady backstroke, pushed paddles with our foreheads to hold the line in our freestyle, and submerged under invisible logs to lock in our butterfly. My spirited teammates were encouraging. That was a gift, because those first few months were rough. I was learning as an adult skills I never mastered as a kid; it took lots of patience and humility to keep going.

It was not unusual for teammates more than twice my age to regularly zoom past me as I fought my way to keep up with the sets. That’s one of the great things about the sport: Good form and conditioning count for a lot more than age or physique. We Jesuits pray for humility during the Spiritual Exercises, even a humility that comes from humiliation. My prayers were answered in those early months. But that was its own gift: exhuming old ghosts from boyhood summers so they could get a proper burial.

Time, practice and a just-keep-showing-up persistence did its thing. I got better; not great, but I started feeling a lot more confident in the water. Practices were still tough. I was always pushed beyond my limits. But it felt good coming out of the other side of that. I’d come back to my house, cook up a massive breakfast and face the day with new vigor.

These days, I enjoy the contemplative aspect of the sport. There is something deeply calming, even meditative, in the beauty of a stroke well executed. In seeking out that sweet spot of maximum-efficiency, looking to cut through the water with as little resistance as possible, your mind naturally becomes focused on that next stroke ahead of you. And then the next. And the next. Your breathing becomes controlled, the water quietly conforms to your every movement, and I swear, it’s like you start picking up on rhythms that seem to have existed long before you ever got in the pool.

Brendan (right) with Tom Elitz, SJ, and Ian Peoples, SJ, after the Brooklyn Half Marathon

What do you love about the Society of Jesus?
To begin with, everything. (Okay, I flat-out stole that from “Almost Famous,” but it’s a great line that happens to be true.)

I love that Jesus is the center of our life and identity. I love that our founder was a deeply human saint. I love that the Society began as a group of friends. I love that our chief virtue is magnanimity. I love that our hearts live at the center of the church while our hands and feet work at its margins.

I love that our formation is so long. I love that the intellectual life is so important to us, but that we equally prize experiences that will help us translate that learning most effectively. I love that, like Jesus, we strive to be great teachers, and that, like him, humble service, vulnerability and love is the root of our pedagogy.

I love our communities. I love that our communities are full of wildly different personalities united by a singular call and mission. I love that joy and hearty laughter is so central to our life together. I love that we love a good party. I love how we call fellow Jesuits our “brothers.” I love how encouraging we are of one another, building up the kingdom of God in the smallest acts of generosity.

I love how surprised people are to find how normal and relatable we are (most of the time). I love how we try not to take ourselves too seriously. I love how important it is for us to take time to be alone with Jesus in order to anchor our hearts to his love — for the Father, for us, for others. I love that we get to go on an eight-day retreat every year to really savor that love.

I love how often we speak about holy desires and dreams. I love how we take these desires and dreams seriously, treating them as what they often are — a gift from God. I love how the Society strives to be humble before such holy desires and dreams, allowing them to govern our wits and wills, to be our hope in serving the greater glory of God.

Brendan on a retreat with some kids from St. Joan of Arc Parish in San Ramon

What’s one thing you would tell someone considering entering the Society today that you wish you had known?

I was 30 years old when I entered my Jesuit novitiate, and while I trust God’s patience with me was all part of his plan, I do wish I’d known (more in gut than in the head) a few things that might have brought me here sooner.

It all has to do with variations on a theme: God is not a competitive being, but our creator and our completion. That sounds like a nod-worthy theological truth, but in my experience, it’s a profoundly countercultural understanding of the divine, particularly in a culture that has rooted itself in the virtue of self-reliance.

Let me get concrete: for too long, even in my early days in the novitiate, I wrongly assumed that I’d have to become somebody else to grow in holiness — that I’d have to give up being “me” in order to be God’s good servant. I couldn’t see it then, but if you follow the logic all the way through, it doesn’t paint a very nice picture of God.

If God wants me to be somebody else, then why did he create me as I am? Did God change his mind? Is our God fickle?

Similarly, if God’s love for me is total, then why would he ask me to give up the essence of who I am in order to become some kind of spiritual robot?

Life in prayer has taught me just the opposite. In growing closer to God, I don’t lose myself, I become myself. I may feel the desire to let go of some things as I grow in friendship with God, but those things were only keeping me from being the self that God created me to be. I’m better off without them. In the loving presence of my Creator, I feel more myself, not less.

And as the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32) so beautifully captures, God doesn’t call us into indentured servitude — hired hands slaving away without passion or joy. Just the opposite. We are invited to share in the feast of God’s love exactly as we are. When we let that dream sink into our bones, we feel profound gratitude, not dread. That’s when we become alive to ourselves, alive to the purpose for which we were created.

As a Jesuit, I live that purpose in the way that I have felt called to live it — through my vows, through a life in community, through a particular kind of service to God, to the church, to others.

As a regent, I loved the questions my students would ask about our vows once they found the courage to express their perplexity. Why chastity? Why poverty? Why obedience? Behind their questions were the same concerns I once harbored: about killing desire, about giving up dreams, about limiting freedom.

It took a few tries, but I showed them that for me, these vows were not hindrances to my desires, dreams or freedoms; they liberated them, they augmented them. I never knew desires or dreams or freedoms like the ones I have discovered in the life God called me to.

This is true of any vocation. Those who are called to be spouses and parents know this well; their choice to get married, to be a parent, didn’t kill off their identity (even though being a spouse and a parent involves enormous sacrifice); instead, it grounds their identity in unimaginable ways.

For me, responding to God’s call in my life has been exactly like falling in love. To be honest, sometimes I just can’t believe it can be this good. It doesn’t mean my life is devoid of trials and letdowns; it just means that my life makes sense. It clicks. That is a gift we are given when we listen and respond to the call God places in our hearts — we become alive to ourselves and alive to others, a living witness to God’s radiant goodness in the world.