By Eric Clayton
Kevin Kelly, SJ—director of Villa Saint-Martin, the Jesuit retreat center in Montreal—is a businessman-turned-Jesuit. But, to Kevin, that’s nothing unusual. “I see St. Ignatius not only as a brilliant and spiritual person,” he says, “but also as a businessman.” After all, the saint started and managed a multinational corporation: the Society of Jesus.
So, how does business acumen translate into the life of a Jesuit today? Kevin shares how he discovered his own vocation through his many years working at the pharmaceutical company Merck – and how the lessons from his time in business have helped him to lead others to God today.
How did you find God – and the Jesuits – during your time at Merck?
I was leading one of our business units at the time. I was living in Zurich and traveling all through Europe. I had had vocational ideas earlier when I was at university and had told myself, “If this is meant to be, it’ll come back. If it’s not meant to be, I’ll get a job that’s rewarding.”
Ultimately, my decision had very little to do with Merck. It had more to do with my coming to understand who I was. Merck made it challenging, I suppose, in that it was a great place to be. There wasn’t any reason to look beyond my role at the time. But then I met this really cool diocesan priest from Scotland who was living in Zurich and running one of the English parishes. He had worked in business and was a fantastic pastor. He introduced me to the Jesuits.
I finally realized that I could be happy in a lot of places, but where I was called was not necessarily where I was at the time. I began to recognize God’s bigger plan by asking basic questions: What is my desire? Where is my will in this? Where is God’s will?
Many of us are blessed to have options in our lives. We have to slow down and realize that some of these options are better than others; some of these options are where God is calling us.
How did your business background impact your Jesuit formation?
During the novitiate, I worked for the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) in Kenya. I had worked on vaccines when I was with Merck and had a good understanding of HIV.
Within the first week of arriving in Africa, there was a funeral for one of the employees who had worked with the Jesuit community. I went to the funeral. As I walked around the cemetery, I noticed the graves and began to look at the years: so many people were dying in their twenties and thirties, and many of those deaths would have been related to HIV. Coming from Merck, I understood HIV, but I didn’t understand it in this context.
While at AJAN, I was able to get access to HIV drugs that had been donated by Merck and other companies. The challenge didn’t have to do with whether Merck was giving these drugs to countries at a fair cost. The challenge was that the countries themselves wouldn’t allow the drugs in or make them accessible to the people. It’s only when I understood the political structures, the corruption, and these injustices that I began to understand the full context for a company like Merck, despite its massive annual profits.
What lessons from the corporate world have helped you in Jesuit life?
In Canada, we focus a great deal on communal or group discernment. Part of the process of communal discernment is listening to where the spirit is working in and leading a group. While it wasn’t done the same way at Merck, I look back and realize that I first learned these skills there.
If you offer people a space of trust, if you give people the confidence that their story is worth something and should be shared, if you foster that kind of environment, then you begin to recognize God working in those spaces.
How might spirituality help others in the workplace?
Most people want to talk about spirituality, but we have told ourselves that spirituality means religion, and it’s often impossible to talk about religion in the workplace. This attitude deprives people of something that is fundamental to who they are. People want to share their experiences, their experiences of God and of their lives. Work is central to the lives of many people. If you cannot integrate your faith or your spirituality with the other parts of your life, you’re missing something.
An important part of spirituality is encouraging people to dialogue. Pope Francis has been talking about the “culture of encounter” since the start of his pontificate: meeting people where they are, entering through their door rather than starting with our ideas, opinions, desires. That, to me, is what’s missing in the workplace.
What role does Ignatian spirituality play?
Ignatian spirituality is critical as an entry point. My work with the Ignatian Spirituality Project – ISP (a retreat program for those who struggle with experiences of homelessness and addiction) shows this very clearly. It doesn’t matter whether you see yourself as Christian or Jewish or part of another religious tradition. Unless you believe that there’s something bigger than all of us and have come to recognize that you can’t do this on your own, that you need something else, something greater than yourself, you won’t be able to change.
It’s the same in the workplace. There are probably more addicts in a place like Merck than there are at an ISP retreat… people who work all the time and seek affirmation only through what they produce at work. If this is our world, then we don’t get in touch with some of the key aspects of what we’re struggling with, whether it’s drugs and alcohol or workaholism; we are simply trying to fill a void. We don’t like emptiness and we fill those voids very easily.
I think Ignatian spirituality helps people to get connected with who they are, to see where God is in their life, and to start to let go of some of the stuff we allow to fill those voids.