Matthew Charlesworth, S.J.
I joined the Jesuits in 2005. I cannot point to a definitive moment when I felt convinced that I wanted to become a priest, or serve the Church in this least Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Rather, I think there was a sort of hum in the background of my life that always made Religion, and Religious Life, sensible and attractive to me.
As a child, I moved around a lot when I was young, moving cities and changing schools several times owing to my father’s work situation. One of the constants however was my family’s association with our Parish. I was an altar server for many years, perhaps being more interested in seeing friends at Mass each week, but always eager about going to practices and helping out. I remember shortly after matriculating, before leaving for Rhodes University, when the subject of what I should do with my life was quite high on my list of thoughts, whilst serving at Christmas midnight Mass, my parish priest came up to me during the sign of peace and said to me – “Remember Matthew, God can still use a Priest with a BCom”. As it happened, I didn’t end up doing a BCom degree, but I did always remember that priesthood was an option. So, I sort of struck a deal with God and said that, well, if I’m still thinking about priesthood at the end of the degree, then I would give God my first option. The way I saw it, I had nothing to lose.
Unlike my mother, my father was not a Catholic (though he was always supportive of my altar serving and involvement in Church in his own way) and it was fairly obvious to everyone that whatever else I did, I would have to study for a degree first. Luckily, after I discovered the Jesuits, this was not such a handicap as I first thought. I really enjoyed University life and whilst there, like a lot of people, I got involved with the S.R.C. and Debating as well as the Association of Catholic Tertiary Students (ACTS). The latter was providential because it led me to meet other Catholic students and chaplains from other universities, some of whom were Jesuits. Through ACTS I was able to get to know more Jesuits and eventually I was invited to do some retreats and spend some weekends with them. Studying away from home, this interaction was limited to e-mail or face-to-face during holidays and at ACTS Conferences as there were no Jesuits living nearby. Perhaps, because of this my candidacy lasted longer than usual: it took about 8 years to be invited to join. Whilst this was a long time, it did allow me a great deal of time to think about how best to live my life.
After going through the interviews I was missioned to Birmingham for two years to join the novitiate. This was a very special moment where I learnt how to pray and did the Spiritual Exercises. St. Ignatius requires that novices do several experiences in order to confirm their call, as well as to challenge them and to offer them an opportunity to grow personally. I worked in an old age home, one day a week whilst in Birmingham, and spent six weeks working with children and mothers from difficult home-situations on a beach in Ireland. I made a pilgrimage from Santander to Barcelona in Spain for five weeks, relying and being always surprised by God’s generosity. I also worked with drug and alcohol-addicted people in Edinburgh, with mentally and physically disabled people in L’Arche UK, helped at soup kitchens in the inner-city and worked with refugees and migrants in Birmingham.
Due to differing school calendars, I left Britain after professing my first vows to return to South Africa to work at the Dominican Convent School in Johannesburg (the irony of my first Jesuit mission being with the Dominicans was not lost on me!) and to help found the Jesuit Institute. This eight-month placement preceded my studies in Philosophy, at Heythrop College in London where I read for the Federal MA in Philosophy at the University of London where I was able to explore Natural Law and Philosophy of Religion in some depth, along with doing the usual courses in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Logic, Ethics, etc.
After Philosophy studies, we are normally sent to do some work in a Jesuit work and I found myself – not returning to South Africa – but being sent to be a Mathematics and Computer Science teacher in Chikuni, Zambia.
Chikuni is one of the original and perhaps one of the last, mission stations in the style of the 19th century mission stations, which includes primary and high schools, teachers training colleges, radio station and hospital. It is the site where Catholicism was brought by the Jesuits to Zambia only a little over a hundred years ago. It involved three attempts by Jesuits, all of which failed due to the high incidence of malaria there. The story of how the Society managed to get from the South African coast, through what is now Zimbabwe, and eventually into the interior of Zambia is a story well-worth reading; equally exciting as those stories of Jesuit Martyrs in Europe and Canada who died to keep Catholicism alive.
I did my first-cycle of theology studies in Nairobi at Hekima College. During the holidays I worked at Loyola High School in Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania and completed an internship at Loyola Productions in Los Angeles, California. My second-cycle of theology was done at Regis College and the University of Toronto in Toronto, Canada where I was introduced to the work and thought of great theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Bernard Lonergan and Hans Urs von Balthasar. So, as you can see, life in the Society can take you to many places and to work with many different people!
I haven’t shared many of the spiritual insights within my vocation story. The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius have confirmed for me that the fundamental source and sustenance of any religious life is a close, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I remember wondering at university how Catholics could be ‘born-again’, given what we receive at Baptism and Confirmation. I would now say that if Catholics are looking for where their ‘born-again’ moment is, I would absolutely say that it is in learning how to pray, and in encountering Jesus in Prayer, especially the kind of prayer used in the Spiritual Exercises.
So for anyone thinking about joining the Jesuits, or just following Jesus in a closer way, I would whole-heartedly recommend that you begin by praying the Examen. In this way, you will develop a living and loving relationship with Jesus. Very often Catholics like to stick to the prayers of the Liturgy in the Mass, or some of the rote prayers that we are taught as children. These all have their place, and very often, a very important place. However, as one grows older, one needs an adult faith: one that can handle the greys and uncertainties of modern life and appreciate how humanity often does not fit into neat boxes but, like God’s grace, often breaks through these man-made boundaries. We need to have the humility to allow God to be God and not fashion Him in our image.
If you do feel called to Religious Life, as a brother, sister or as a priest, then you must talk to someone about it. There’s no pressure – and you have nothing to lose! As Pope Benedict says: “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great.” And it is an even greater privilege to be able to share that message with others!
I am now ordained and assisting the Parish Priest and Chaplain at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, in Johannesburg.