By Rachel Moccia
Matthew Hendzel has always felt a calling to both academic study and pastoral ministry; his Jesuit formation helped him see how he could embrace both.
Could you share about your early engagement with your faith?
I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My mother was Anglican and my father was Catholic, but they weren’t practicing. I went to a Mennonite high school, and that’s where I started to ask questions about my own religious background. So it all started with an academic engagement with my faith. I decided to go through RCIA and was confirmed.
How did you discern joining the Jesuits?
I studied at the University of Manitoba and took a class with a Jesuit named David Creamer, who got me interested in the Jesuits. I always had a desire to serve others, specifically through teaching. He showed me that you could be both a priest and a professor—it seemed like the best of both worlds!
I also studied at the Graduate Theological Union where I befriended a number of Jesuit scholastics. Getting to see the day-to-day life of Jesuits was very helpful in my discernment.
I was finally able to take the plunge and start my application to the Society after a couple years of PhD studies.
What was the topic of your studies?
I received a PhD in systematic theology. My interest was in questions of suffering, eschatology, and the afterlife, and my dissertation examined the doctrine of purgatory.
How did your PhD inform your ministry?
While I was working on my doctorate, I was also doing a CPE course at the hospital, so I was encountering lived suffering every single day and that really put a human face on the academic work I was doing. It ended up being quite reciprocal—my academic work informed my approach to ministry, and vice versa. It was an important moment in my vocational life because it responded to a desire to move some of this work out of the abstract and into the ministerial realm.
How has your Jesuit formation helped you to grow in an understanding of your vocation?
A Jesuit named John Govan often used to say: “The longest journey that a person can take is from the head to the heart.” That line could very well be the story of my formation process because there was a lot of head work going on and not much opportunity for that of the heart. My formation experiences made room for the heart work.
What were some of those significant formation experiences?
One significant experience was working at a soup kitchen in downtown Montreal. I had to speak French, and since my French isn’t very good I really had to distill what I was trying to say and simply be present with people.
I also served at L’Arche, which was doubly challenging—engaging with people with learning disabilities exclusively in French. I couldn’t solve people’s problems, and I couldn’t engage them in long conversations, so I had to surrender my self-consciousness to embrace my limitations and just be present.
My experience in Kingston, Jamaica was also very formative. One of my favorite parts of my time there was a bible study. Rather than bringing academic scholarship into the study, we simply read scripture passages and related them to our own experiences. It was another experience not only of letting go of some of the gifts I thought I had in order to embrace some that were latently there, but also of trusting God in the process.
Can you share about your work at Loyola House?
I’ve been here at the retreat centre for about a year and a half. When the pandemic struck last March, we weren’t quite sure what to do.
After some soul-searching, we adapted in several ways. We started an arrangement with Wellington County to allow Loyola House to serve as temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness. We also moved spiritual direction to the phone and started offering retreats online. We created videos with lectures, photographs, and companion files and then uploaded them to YouTube for the retreatants. I’ve taken a leadership role in creating these videos, and it’s been a very fulfilling experience to work so creatively.
How are you able to help point the way to God through your work at the retreat centre?
During this challenging year, I think that we’ve responded to the need people still have for spiritual retreats. Even though they may be doing these retreats from their homes, retreatants have expressed gratitude for the space to intentionally reconnect with God during these difficult times.
This past year has been one of enormous loss. Given your academic interests and your ministry experiences of accompanying people in times of struggle, do you have any insights that you would like to share about finding God in challenging times?
The challenge for me is to start looking for God in places where I didn’t expect him to be. I read these times as an invitation to look deeper.
For example, one of my prayer practices is to go for walks. Prior to my time at the retreat centre I had always lived in a city, so just outside my door were countless permutations of routes to walk. I loved the open-endedness of walking in the city.
During the pandemic I’ve been walking the same trails at the retreat centre for the past year. I started taking a camera with me, and if I saw something that caught my eye I would take a picture of it. I now have hundreds, if not thousands of photographs. I look at these photos and they show me how God is speaking to me through this natural landscape. In these challenging times, I ask God not only for illumination but also to speak to me in new ways.