By Jake Martin, SJ
“Mary set out and went with haste…” (Lk 1:39)
It always feels necessary, for whatever reason, to foreground any personal anecdote I share about being Catholic, with the acknowledgement that for many years of my adolescence and young adult life I was, in fact not Catholic. In fact, I did not believe in God at all. I did not return to the faith of my boyhood until I was in my late twenties, but when I did, I went back into it with both feet. So enthusiastic was I about my “reversion” to Catholicism that within a few months of returning to church, I, with the enthusiasm of a true convert, decided that I should become a priest. Of course!
In my fervor I met with the vocation promoter of the local archdiocese and began a discernment program that they sponsored. Through the archdiocesan vocation program, I began meeting with a spiritual director and after a few visits he suggested that I should explore the possibility of a vocation to religious life. He said it sounded like I would prefer living in community with other vowed religious, as opposed to the generally more solitary existence of a diocesan priest. “That totally makes sense,” I told him, “I loved living in the dorms in college!”
I think he might have muttered something about dorm life and religious community life not exactly being the same thing, but I was no longer listening, I was determined to be a religious priest. I was advised to only consider religious congregations I was familiar with already, which narrowed it down pretty quickly: the Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits. As I had never attended one of their schools, the only reason I was aware of the Jesuits was because of the film “The Exorcist.” As I lit a cigarette on the walk back to the L station on the cold Chicago evening, I exhaled deeply and thought to myself, “I could totally be an exorcist.”
I met with the Jesuits and not soon after I began the process of candidacy with them, which takes approximately a year, and includes multiple interviews, an elaborate psychological screening, medical tests, a retreat and a weekend visit to the novitiate, amongst other things. What became abundantly clear to me during the course of my year of candidacy was what a great fit the Jesuits and I were. During that year of discernment, I began to discover that my vocation to the Jesuits was about more than being an exorcist or really any fantasy I had on what it meant to be a priest. It was becoming quite evident over the course of days, weeks and months that this was also something that God wanted, or if not necessarily wanting it for me, he certainly was open to me giving it a shot.
During this time of candidacy, I was also working an office job in downtown Chicago, doing the usual low stakes admin work that many people in their twenties do while figuring out what to do with the rest of their life: answering phones, filing, making copies. I was also volunteering at my parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, helping with collecting and administering food, clothing, and other material items for those in need. Carol, the woman who ran the St. Vincent de Paul program at my parish for years, once told me that she kept gift certificates for fast food restaurants on her at all times to give to the unhoused whenever they asked for food on the street.
Working in downtown Chicago, I would try to attend daily Mass at lunchtime at the local church, Old St. Pat’s in the South Loop. And it was there, one cold afternoon during Advent that I attended Mass on the day the reading included Mary’s Magnificat. I recall the priest breaking down the whole sequence at the beginning of Luke, pointing out that after the Annunciation, “Mary set out with haste to a Judean town in the hill country where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Lk 1: 39-40). The priest said that upon receiving this remarkable gift from God, Mary’s first impulse was to race out and be of service to another. God’s grace turns us outward toward the other, the one in need. Mary, having went out with haste to assist her kinswoman in her time of need, cannot, upon encountering Elizabeth, withhold her exultation which culminates in her proclamation of the Magnificat.
About six months after that homily, having completed all of my interviews, having written my 20-page spiritual autobiography, and having completed a battery of psychological tests, I sat at my desk at work, half-heartedly attempting to organize files, anxiously awaiting the call from the vocation director telling me whether or not I had been accepted into the Jesuits. Over the course of that year, my faith, hope and love of God had only strengthened and increased, which according to what little I knew of Ignatian spirituality at the time, meant that my desire to be a Jesuit was a gift from God.
The phone rang in the office, like it did hundreds of times a day, and I answered as I had been answering all week, slightly hopeful, slightly dreading the call that could conceivably change the course of my existence.
I don’t remember much of the call, but not-so-spoiler alert: I was accepted into the Society of Jesus. After hanging up the phone, I looked at the clock, it was 11:20 a.m., not quite lunchtime, but close enough. I set out with haste for McDonald’s where I proceeded to buy two dozen cheeseburgers and hand them out to every person on the streets of downtown Chicago that looked to be in need, all the while in my head proclaiming:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
They were only cheeseburgers, and I was not the Blessed Virgin. Still, there was something in the euphoria of the moment, in the recognition that I had received an incredible gift from God, that is, my vocation. From that place of joy, excitement and gratitude I could think of nothing better to do than do something for someone else.
Jake Martin, SJ, is an assistant clinical professor of film and television studies at Loyola Marymount University. Before entering the Jesuits, Jake was an improv and stand-up comedian. After entering, Jake continued to do improv and stand-up at venues in New York and the Bay Area. His solo show, “Learning to Pray in Front of the Television,” was an official selection in the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His book, “What’s so Funny About Faith: A Memoir at the Intersection of Hilarious and Holy,” was published by Loyola Press in 2012. Jake received his Ph.D. in film studies from Trinity College, Dublin. His writing has appeared in numerous publications and he is a regular contributor to America Magazine. Jake continues to perform stand-up; his show, “A Jesuit Walks into a Bar,” is currently running at venues across the U.S.