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November 15, 2019 — After publishing two articles on Jesuit formation—the first on the reforms to this process, and the second on the different stages—the series was lacking personal testimonies about the joys and difficulties of this long journey. Daniel Leckman, S.J, the youngest Jesuit brother in Canada, agreed to sit down with us to revisit the early years of his formation (his noviciate, regency and theology), his experience as a spiritual director, his hopes for the formation of new Jesuits as well as for the Church.

What was your desire before joining the Jesuits?

Photo: Moussa Faddoul

I think it was more about becoming someone who wasn’t afraid of going to the places in the world where they have the biggest problems, or the lack the most attention (the poor, students, people in debt, refugees). I had this image of being able to help people as much as possible and to really serve them.

Did becoming a Jesuit allow me to answer this calling? Yes and no. I’m not a big traveller, and I don’t have a great sense of adventure. I’m more of a homebody—I like being at home, close to my family and those I love. I don’t really have the courage to go to other countries. The environment that challenged me the most was “Wiki” on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario. I only lived there for four months, but those four months were still difficult, because we were a small community where every death left a hole, and I attended about twenty funerals.

But the saving grace was being able to discover, even in this difficult environment, a way of living my calling with children and the elderly, two groups who were not bothered by the fact I was not Indigenous. All that they saw was my humanity. For me, this was the greatest expression of my desire.

Up until now, the rest of my vocation has mostly been as a spiritual director. A spiritual director doesn’t travel a lot, so I don’t really get to live out my desire…but every so often I do, because I help a lot of people. And I have to admit that these people help me even more than I help them, so I feel a little spoiled. My decision to become a Jesuit was a sacrifice in some sense, but from time to time it doesn’t seem like it from the way I live.

How have your journey and your formation allowed you to serve others?

My parents, even though they aren’t religious, were raised in the faith. They have an enormous respect for the aspects of social justice in Catholicism. That was how they raised us, my brothers and I. My Jesuit formation has built on the one my parents gave me.

As a brother, I wasn’t really required to study for 12 years like many of my colleagues, and I didn’t really want to—it was one of the reasons I became a brother. Eventually, I found more positive reasons to become a brother, but at the beginning it was because of the studying. I already had two BAs from McGill and a Masters from Concordia University, so I was really done with school!

But it’s weird because the greatest training that I had was as a spiritual director in Guelph. There, I really realised how much I still had to learn and it was this that gave me a taste for studying again. I needed to work in the Jesuit world to discover the gaps in my knowledge, even if I am a very good director. I started to consider the possibility of going to study at the Centre Sèvres in Paris or even in the United States.

Otherwise, I have to admit that my formation as a novice was extraordinary, because every day we explored different aspects of the Constitutions or other documents on the vows, or worked in our apostolate. It was a fantastic opportunity to grow as a Jesuit.

Even during my First Studies, which I did begrudgingly, my novice master reminded me that because I didn’t have a lot of professional background, that I needed to diversify myself a little with some studies in theology. I would have preferred to stay another year on Manitoulin Island, because it broke my heart to leave the people there, but that’s the life of a Jesuit, we make bonds but we have to answer to the needs of the Society, and the Society wants brothers and scholastics who are trained in theology. It was a great experience, but I’m definitely not a natural scholar. I’m continuing my formation on a personal level (what I say, who I listen to) but also some other studies.

What differences are there in the formation of a brother and a Jesuit priest?

Brothers don’t really need to study. If they do, it’s their own choice. Historically, Ignatius of Loyola didn’t want brothers to study because it was too costly. Since the Second Vatican Council, this has really changed. There has been an opening of minds and a realization that brothers were a little marginalized, and now they have been able to follow their desires instead of being assigned as cooks or plumbers. That was what the majority of the older brothers in Canada did: they built the schools and houses we live in. Today, I’m the only young Canadian brother, but in the United States there are more: one is studying writing, another is a astrophysicist in Rome and others are in the field of justice. At the end of the day, there aren’t really any differences between Jesuit brothers and fathers except for the fact that brothers can’t celebrate the sacraments.

Which apostolates did you work for during your formation? What lessons did you learn from them?

I worked for a little while with Élisabeth Garant at the Centre for Justice and Faith. I liked the job a lot. I did some research into how climate change has had an impact on civilizations across the world. The results of this research were presented at a conference attended by many parishes and religious communities. I really liked this work, but it was my work as a spiritual director that most moved me. We see people who come to us heartbroken, needing attention and who are in need of being reminded what it is to be loved deeply by God.

Since crying come easily to me, I often ended up being moved to tears in my sessions. It was perhaps for this reason that even if I wanted to be a psychiatrist, I had heard that this work could be exhausting, because I’m too emotional and get attached to others too easily. But emotions still run pretty high as a spiritual director. I compare myself to others a lot and tell myself that I am not as academic or as intelligent as this or that Jesuit, but in my life of prayer I truly heard the Lord say to me: “No you are not, but you have one of the biggest hards of anyone you will ever meet, there is no Jesuit who can measure up to you in this way, live this emotion.” It’s this that I bring to my sessions as a spiritual director, and even when I feel like I haven’t connected with people, my evaluations tell me that I did. That always surprises me. It’s the greatest thing we can offer them.

What was the most difficult moment of your formation? The most memorable?

It was the Regency. I was sent to Villa Saint Martin where they wanted me to work a little as spiritual director and a little on the retreats, but most of all I was there to do some networking, to be a marketing person, which wasn’t really my background. It was difficult in part because of this, but also because I prayed, ate, lived and worked in the same place. Maybe others can adapt to this well, but it drove me a little crazy. I almost abandoned my vocation because of this experience. My relationship with the Father Superior wasn’t very good either, in a small way because of the differences in our personalites, but there were also a lot of other things that didn’t really work.

That was why I was sent to Guelph, they needed me to be in an environment where I was better supported and where I could learn more and this was exactly what happened. After two weeks in Guelph I was cured. I met with the in-house psychiatrist, I worked as a spiritual director and I felt appreciated, which I liked a lot more. I rediscovered the reasons why I became a Jesuit. What I learned was that when you face challenges within the Society, you have to call them out and make the most of the help that is there. I could have turned towards those who were there to help me a little more.

My most memorable moment was in Guelph, but I can’t give you the exact moment. There wasn’t a retreat that didn’t help me in some way spiritually, personally or emotionally. I had the chance to meet with people of different ages and faiths. Even if we didn’t believe the same things, we have so many of the same values in our hearts and minds and that inspires me a lot. Watching everyone build walls between them seems so pointless, we are more united that we believe and this kind of thing disturbs me greatly.

What are your hopes for other Jesuits undertaking their formation?

For me the biggest problem we have in the Church is clericalism, or the attitude of certain priests who believe that they are the centre of their churches or parishes.

My biggest hope is that our scholastics and young priests can learn to really understand the importance of laypeople, and of our brothers and sisters within the Church. They should understand that their mission depends on others, in order to assure that this mission will be accomplished. I hope that my fellow brothers can learn to rely on laypeople, other clerics and even other Christians. If there is a mission of justice, we are going to need everybody’s help. Our Jesuit identity is not just in our little Catholic bubble. It’s my desire to be out in the world and I hope that we can work together to build a better world seen through the eyes of faith.

Also with the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, we have to talk about the role of laypeople in our churches and our obligations towards them. From what I have seen, we Jesuits tend to act without thinking about how our actions impact the laypeople in our world. My hope is that laypeople will educate us Jesuits on our relations and the impact the Jesuits have on them. For example, we should ask laypeople what they understand about our celibacy, because the way we live this is going to have an impact on others.

In what way was God at the heart of your formation?

For me, God is present in everything I live and learn, I bring everything back to God. It was he who said to me: “have you really understood the importance of this phrase, this person, this book to you? Were you really able to see that?” God is a teacher in the sense that everything I live I bring back to him or her.

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