Story

By Katy Ramos-Borges

Fr. Ted Penton, SJ

If you had met Fr. Ted Penton, SJ, just before the turn of the millennium and told him that he would be ordained a Jesuit priest in 2019, he wouldn’t have believed you. Indeed, Ted was an atheist when he decided to go on retreat at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. The experience he had there changed everything. 

Fr. Ted is now a Jesuit priest and secretary of the Office of Justice and Ecology at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. In this interview, he talks about his spiritual awakening and journey and the connection he sees between faith and social justice work. 

What was your childhood like? Were you already interested in the world of religion? 

I live in Washington, D.C., but I grew up in the suburbs of Ottawa with my parents and two younger sisters. My mother was Catholic, and my father converted when I was five or six.  

I was very devout as a child. When I was about eight years old, I wanted to be a priest. I liked to go to Mass, pray the rosary, and say my prayers. When I was about 10, I became less interested in that kind of thing, and by the time I was 12, I had completely lost interest.  

As a teenager, I was an atheist, and like my father, I started to do some reading about philosophy. I was a very good student and a great reader! So, I majored in philosophy at University of Ottawa.  

It was an opportunity for me to look at the big philosophical questions: What is a good life? What is the best way to live?  

I became more interested in religion again, but I was not at all a practicing religious person, just very interested in different philosophical and religious currents as well as in the psychology of religion and the sociology of religion. I found it fascinating to learn about all the different perspectives on religious belief, religious practice, and religious behaviour.  

And then, after graduation, I moved to South Korea to teach English, before applying for graduate studies in philosophy.  

It was an opportunity for me to look at the big philosophical questions: What is a good life? What is the best way to live?  

Was it at that time that you made a retreat in a Buddhist monastery?  

Yes. When I was traveling in Thailand, I met someone who asked me if I had ever thought of doing a meditation retreat in a Buddhist monastery. When I told him that I had not, he said, “Well, if you’re interested, there’s a really nice place where they offer a 10-day retreat every month.” 

Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage – Coconut Grove

Many backpackers would come to this place for a silent retreat. It was open to everyone, even to those who had never meditated before.  

This retreat was a real turning point for me. I had a powerful experience, and afterwards I wanted to continue my spiritual practice and work for justice for those on the margins.  

This retreat was a real turning point for me. I had a powerful experience, and afterwards I wanted to continue my spiritual practice and work for justice for those on the margins.  

I also had a deep sense that my own spiritual home is in the Catholic Church, so I started going to Mass again every week. 

How did you make the decision to join the Society of Jesus? 

A few months after my retreat, I started graduate school in philosophy and joined Pax Christi, a Catholic group at the university that works for social justice. Sometimes we would go to work in a soup kitchen or visit a shelter. These activities really touched me. I loved my studies, but it was the volunteer work with people who were on the margins that interested me the most. 

First studies formation villa – Villa St Michel

That’s why after two years, I decided not to continue my studies but to pursue volunteer work.   

After spending a year as a volunteer, mainly in Ecuador and Mexico, I applied to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in North Carolina, where I worked for two years with migrant farm workers in a legal aid office that provided legal assistance and outreach in migrant labor camps, primarily among Mexican workers. It was there that I discovered Ignatian spirituality and discernment.  

The purpose of discerning God’s will is not to discern some sort of abstract will, but rather to ask where God is calling me today, this week, this month. This spiritual exercise had a great impact on me, and I recognized the significance of my involvement with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.  

I felt connected to Ignatian spirituality and its values of social justice, community, spirituality, and simplicity. 

The purpose of discerning God’s will is not to discern some sort of abstract will, but rather to ask where God is calling me today, this week, this month.

You are now secretary of the Office of Justice and Ecology at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. What do you think about the increase in demonstrations concerning social and climate issues? 

It is clearly about focusing attention, much-needed attention, on some of the deep structural injustices that have existed for a long time. The first step is indeed to have greater public awareness to bring about a desire to address these deep-seated injustices. This, in my opinion, is the point of the recent demonstrations. 

Fr. Penton during the U.S. Department of Homeland Security meeting

Do you think these demonstrations will have a lasting impact? 

meeting with Matt Cuff, from the Ignatian Solidarity Network.

It’s hard to predict because there is a long way to go before these deeply rooted injustices in our society are corrected. We need to work hard to address them. I hope that there will be enough energy and determination to continue the struggle in the long run.  

I would like to point out that in Canada, for example, we are just beginning to address truth and healing in the aftermath of the events that took place in residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada.  

There has been a sustained focus on this issue for a long time: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission began in 2008 and continued until 2015. The importance of this issue has become apparent this year, and we are still in the early stages of the process. But there is a willingness among Canadians to continue to walk this path toward good relations with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. So, it gives me hope that we can also find that same political will in the United States on this and other issues.  

This article is part of our newest magazine.

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