By Fr. Tim Howe, SJ
As I've gotten to know so many wonderful people in Puerto Rico over the past few months, usually somewhere in the conversation comes the question, “So how did you get here?” If—after the Eucharist—the central prayer of Jesuits is the Examen, then each time I’m asked that question is another graced opportunity for me to look back and examine what God has been up to in and through my life over the years.
As a Jesuit novice, I first began to feel a desire to serve the Latino community in the U.S. and abroad. A long experiment working in Holy Name Parish in Camden, NJ—serving mostly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans—plus a summer with my classmates studying Spanish in the Dominican Republic just confirmed that desire. So when the formation director asked me to go to Loyola University Chicago and get a master’s degree in something, I said, “How about Spanish?” And he agreed.
For my regency, I taught Spanish at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati and led students on mission trips to the Dominican Republic each summer. Then I did my theology studies in Granada, Spain. As I was coming to the end of my time in Spain, I asked the formation director what the Society had in mind for me in the future. At the top of the list was secondary education, so I obtained a master’s in educational administration while finishing up my licentiate in Scripture. Expecting to be assigned to a high school, the province needed a pastor for St. Procopius Parish serving the Mexican community in Chicago. The good people of St. Procopius taught me a lot all at once: how to be a priest, how to be a pastor, and how to live and thrive in the rich Mexican culture.
Ten years later, I was sent back to St. Xavier High School as president. I remember telling myself that my goal was to just not screw it up! Working alongside an outstanding faculty and staff for nine happy years, I hope I can say we accomplished that goal. Jesuits live our lives “with one foot raised,” always ready to take the next step forward in the journey. So here I am, excited to be starting a new job as president of Colegio San Ignacio in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
In a way, it’s utterly surprising and not surprising at all that I’m here. It’s a new school and a new province and a new culture. While people speak Spanish in Spain and Mexico and Puerto Rico, the cultures of these places are all quite different. At the same time, being here represents a kind of convergence of all of the other things I’ve done in my Jesuit life, during formation and after. As I look back, I see the fabric of my Jesuit life as knit from two main threads: my privileged immersion in various Latino cultures and my experience in secondary education. So my goal now is to continue that process: to take all that I learned at St. Xavier and knit it together with what I am learning and have yet to learn about the warm Puerto Rican culture and how it is lived out in Colegio San Ignacio. The students, families, faculty, staff and alumni all know that this is a special place.
After Hurricanes Irma and María and with the current economic crisis on the island, that work is more important than ever. Though I was still in Cincinnati when the hurricanes hit, I was so impressed by the resilience of the San Ignacio community. Father Flavio Bravo, SJ, the superior in Puerto Rico, and his team restarted classes—even if they had to meet in hallways or common rooms in the Jesuit residence—a mere two weeks later. And 97 percent of the students returned! So many people have reached out to help us over the past year and a half; I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. We are rebuilding, but rebuilding on the solid foundation of decades of good work by so many—Jesuits and lay—so I’m very confident about our future. May God who has begun the good work in us bring it to completion! (Phil 1.6)