By Nate Romano, SJ
"Why do you do this kind of work?”
The question had the perfect mix of innocent naiveté and penetrating critique. I was a Jesuit novice on “experiment” – living in a Jesuit community at Marquette University in Milwaukee, while working with immigrants and refugees. The questioner was a university student, a member of a group of young men discerning a Jesuit vocation. I had been invited to join them so they could meet “the Jesuit novice.”
The question had come soon after I explained what I was doing during my experiment – preparing and filing paperwork, motions, briefs, and appeals; appearing with clients at immigration court and other hearings, etc. The reality of a Jesuit working in such “non-Jesuit” circumstances had startled this discerner. I have found such reactions are not uncommon.
I am a lawyer. When judges, attorneys, and other legal professionals see the “SJ” after my name on my business card, they are surprised, often perplexed. And parishioners, retreatants, students, university professors, and others whom I meet in more “traditional” Jesuit ministry settings often have a similar reaction when they discover what I do.
So, why do I do this kind of work?
|Nate Romano, SJ, (third from left) with fellow Jesuits Tony Homsy, Br. Pat Douglas, and Fr. Paddy Gilger, at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in Washington, D.C.||
Becoming a Jesuit was prompted by my experience as a lawyer. While in college, I had flirted with the idea of being a priest and a Jesuit. I had fantasized about presiding at the Eucharist. I had attended “Come and See” events at the Jesuit novitiate and was acquainted with the vocation director. Yet, when I finished college, I moved on to law school, and the idea of a Jesuit vocation became almost an afterthought. Strangely, it was as a lawyer – just when it seemed that my life’s path was set – that God intervened, rekindling that religious desire within me.
After graduating from law school, a few of us classmates opened a small law firm. We were young and full of idealism, convinced that we could make things better. We took up cases that put us in direct contact with people in need. Some of us, myself included, became “assigned counsels," accepting referrals from public defenders and essentially representing those who could not afford a defense lawyer. Some of us took on family cases. One started defending individuals with mental illness, for whom the government sought involuntary commitment.
These cases brought us into direct contact with people, but these people were different – they were usually the victims of distressing circumstances and were entangled in a web of suffering, anger, hurt, and despair. Many were from broken families. Many suffered from addictions, some from mental illness. Many were victims of poverty and violence. Their actions typically led to arrest, conviction, probation, and jail, resulting in a cycle of broken families and hurting communities.
I once received a call from the local county jail. It was not from one of my clients. I did not recognize the number but was curious and answered. It was a young man, and he asked if I would represent him. After discussing his situation, I asked him how he had found out about me. “You’re always here,” he said, “and you seemed different, so I asked them who you were.” I had been visiting the prison frequently to check in with my incarcerated clients. These were typically quick meetings.
And my standard practice was to start each conversation with a simple “How are you doing?” It seemed so natural. After all, isn’t that how "civilized" people converse? Nothing special there. I did not see any reason to skip etiquette just because I was meeting someone in prison. But what seemed simple to me was apparently not so simple to the inmates. Like this caller, they were not used to being treated like anything more than "an offender" in the justice system.
It was experiences like this that prompted me to desire more in my life than just being a lawyer. I knew God was inviting me to a different way to approach my legal work. Our legal system impacts the lives of people. Unfortunately, it is the poor and the marginalized who usually suffer most in this process. The embers of my old vocational desires – to be a priest and a Jesuit – gradually were re-ignited. They led me to seek God more fervently. I asked myself how I could best respond in faith, love, and service.
A major attraction to the Jesuits is that ministries are not limited in scope. As a Jesuit priest, I could use those skills and talents I had developed as a lawyer.
The oath of office for lawyers in Wisconsin concludes, “I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, or delay any person’s cause for lucre or malice. So help me God.”
As a lawyer, I am called to ensure God’s justice serves everyone. As a Catholic, I am called to a “preferential option” for the poor, and as a Jesuit, I am called to a faith that embraces justice. As a Jesuit lawyer, I am a sign. A sign to the broader world that law is about justice and liberation. A sign to my brothers and sisters in the Church that we cannot ignore apparently secular work. A sign to my clients that they are loved by God, a God who will never forsake or abandon them.
This is why I do what I do.
||Nate Romano, SJ, with the Honorable Michael G. Heavican, chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court, after Nate was sworn into the Nebraska Bar in April 2013|