by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s not exactly grand isolation, but Father Harry Schneider is used to being the sole occupant of the St. Peter Cathedral rectory for long periods of time.
Since Jan. 1, however, his solitude has been broken by the pitter-patter of many feet. Mice? No — Jesuits.
Two novice masters and five novices between the ages of 18 and 22 moved into the rectory so that the young men can experience their first stage of a formation process that will take between 13 to 20 years.
Father Schneider has only encountered one problem so far.
“We were all out of milk this morning,” he said.
“They’re growing boys, I guess,” replied Father Mark Thibodeaux, SJ, novice director.
The Jesuits are part of a bi-province program that draws novices from the Missouri Province (Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado), and the New Orleans Province (10 states from Georgia to New Mexico). The two provinces are in the process of consolidating and will complete their merger by 2014.
The novitiate itself, explained Father Thibodeaux, is a two-year process.
“It’s meant to be both an orientation into the life of the Society of Jesus and an opportunity to discern whether or not they wish to take vows in the society,” he said. “It’s a discernment process.”
The novices’ stay here in Kansas City, Kan., which will last until Feb. 17, is called an “experiment.” During an experiment, according to Ignatian theology (the Jesuits were founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola), the novices work in a variety of settings in order to experience a broad range of ministries and people.
For the past 30 years, these experiments have taken place at the very southern tip of Texas, in and around the cities of McAllen, Harlingen, and Brownsville. They have been led by Father Thibodeaux and the assistant novice master, Father Dan White, SJ.
“We made a decision to move the experiment because we just recently became a bi-provincial novitiate,” said Father Thibodeaux. “We thought it would be a good time to make some changes, bring some new life into the program, and try something a little different. And we very much desired to do an experiment within the boundaries of the Missouri Province.”
A Jesuit representative visited the Kansas City area and found just what was needed — a diverse population in terms of race, ethnicity, and income.
“The other part of it was that the Catholic [services and ministries] in Kansas City, Kan., are incredibly rich and numerous,” said Father Thibodeaux. “There are a lot of wonderful agencies — non-Catholic, too — but we mostly focus on the Catholic ones. I was very impressed with the people who work for Catholic Charities.”
The novices spend most of their days and some evenings working at Bishop Ward High School, Donnelly College, Catholic Charities, Resurrection School, The Learning Club, Southwest Clinic, St. Peter Cathedral Parish, Refugee Resettlement, the TurnAround Program, and Providence Hospital.
In turn, the people running the agencies were delighted to have a chance to work with the Jesuits. Living at the cathedral is advantageous, too, said Father Thibodeaux. The five novices have only one cell phone and two cars between them, so they needed a place that was within walking distance of where they’d work.
The Jesuits ended up at the cathedral rectory thanks to a tip about Father Schneider from Father Michael Hermes, president of Ward High School, to the Jesuit representative who made the initial visit to the Kansas City area. Indeed, Father Schneider had the space and was very willing to house them.
“I enjoy their company,” said Father Schneider. “They’re full of energy. They are persons really interested in their own faith and spiritual growth, and in pursing the possibilities of a religious life and the priesthood.”
While the Jesuits have been kept busy by their own work, they’ve managed to find time to be a helping hand to Father Schneider as well. They came in particularly handy during a recent snow.
“Those guys shoveled the steps three times before we got the funeral started,” said Father Schneider.
Likewise, Father Thibodeaux and Father White help with sacramental duties when they are available. Their help even made it possible for Father Schneider to make a long-delayed visit to relatives.
“It’s hard to find someone to help you on weekends,” said Father Schneider. “They take Masses on weekends and during the week. They’ve been really helpful.”
Like any household, all the members help with the daily chores.
“Part of the experiment is to see if we can live in a small space,” said Father Thibodeaux. “This is a big house but, for five or more [additional] people, it is a bit cramped.”
“So, we see how well they live in community,” he said. “They share rooms and different ministries. They have to cook every night, taking turns. And if they don’t know how to cook, they learn by doing.
“And poor [Father] Harry and I are the guinea pigs!”
But the experienced pastor and the energetic novices have found they have a lot to talk about. Sometimes, it’s the novices sharing their day with Father Schneider; at other times, it’s him sharing wisdom born of years of pastoral experience. Regardless, the conversations are always warm and lively.
“One thing I discovered about this group: I have only to ask one or two questions and they tend to go,” said Father Schneider. “They’re very gregarious and social.”
Father Thibodeaux agreed.
“This has been a great match for us,” he said. “One of the things that makes this place so appealing is that we have an experienced parish priest living among the novices, letting them ask questions.”
Two of the novices, for example, told Father Schneider what it was like for them to be with a family at a hospital while life support was removed from a relative.
“At first, we were a little nervous,” said Alex Placke, a novice from St. Louis. “We felt a little out of place — it was only our second day here. But after we met, we went in [the room] while [the nurses] removed the ventilator [from the patient]. Her sister-in-law grabbed each of our hands while we stood and prayed for a while. It was very moving. It was cool to be the presence of God to them.”
Most of the first week consisted of orientation and getting to know their way around the community and the ministries.
“There are a lot of good people here, [working in] lots of good ministries,” observed Michael Schonhoff, a novice from St. Louis. “We’re finding out how to deal with people in different circumstances. It’s been a great experience.”
Father Schneider admits to being optimistic by nature, and optimistic about the church. Still, he couldn’t help feeling buoyed by the younger men’s enthusiasm.
“It has been a really interesting thing to be a part of this process,” he said. “It fills you with hope and optimism. In a way, it gives me a renewed energy. I’ve always thought the Jesuits were an amazing group of people.”