Story

By Becky Sindelar

Erik at NASA’S Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama

Erik Sorensen, SJ, had once planned to be an engineer. Today, however, he studies theology at Regis College in Toronto, on his way to becoming a Jesuit priest. His formation has been one of accompanying and building relationships with those he encounters.

Before you joined the Society of Jesus, what did you see as your path in life?

When I was twelve years old, I told my parents that I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. And, in fact, that’s what I decided to do. I studied aerospace engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa, and I loved it. It was also there that I met the Jesuits. I finished the degree and entered right after that.

How did you go from considering a career in engineering to joining the Jesuits?

While I was at university, I got to know the Jesuit chaplain, Fr. David Shulist, SJ. He was the first Jesuit I’d ever met, and I started working with him and the Catholic student group at the chaplaincy. Then I met a Jesuit who was studying engineering at the time, Fr. Boniface Mbouzao, SJ, now the superior of the Bellarmine community in Montreal.

I was studying engineering and really enjoying it but didn’t realize that you could be both an engineer and a Jesuit. Meeting someone who was doing that made me consider it more seriously.

How did you end up organizing the canoe pilgrimage in 2017, an 850-kilometer canoe trek that promoted reconciliation between the First Nations and the French and English peoples of Canada?

 

Canoe Pilgrimage – Now and then. photo : Dominik Haake & Archives of the Jesuits of Canada

The canoe pilgrimage came from an idea that predated me. A group of Jesuits had done the same trip back in 1967 for the 100th anniversary of Canada and Expo 67. A fellow novice, Fr. Kevin Kelly, SJ, and I had heard the lore of this trip and thought that it would be really cool to do again. The 50th anniversary of the trip was coming up, and that was the impetus to start looking at it more seriously.

As we explored further, the issues around Indigenous relationships became very apparent. So this quickly became the focus of the trip.

We reached out and started to collaborate with a wider group of people to make the trip happen.

In what ways did the pilgrimage help in the path toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples?

The important thing for us was to build relationships.

The core group ended up being about 28 paddlers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and so before we could really get into reconciliation, we had to get to know each other.

Paddling together for a month forced us to build relationships. We mostly just tried to get to the end of each day in one piece and then make it together to the end of the trip.

 

photo : Dominik Haake

An experience like this builds relationships, and in the process, we get to know each other, learn about each other’s histories, and see—through our own firsthand experience and the personal ties that are created—the issues that impact the Indigenous communities.

I can now say that I have friends who are impacted by these issues.

Residential-school survivors made the trip with us, and they shared their stories. To have that kind of firsthand encounter really provides a foundation for further work in reconciliation.

Has your work with First Nations and their vision of creation affected you in any way?

It’s been quite formative in my life as a Jesuit. When I was a novice, even before the pilgrimage, I spent six months in Regina working at our Mother Teresa Middle School, which serves several different populations, but primarily urban Indigenous youth in low-income situations. This was my first encounter with Indigenous peoples.

Understanding more about the Indigenous worldview and the sense of connection with creation has had a significant influence on my studies.

While studying philosophy, I focused on that sense of gift exchange as a basis for understanding relationships with Indigenous peoples, and it continues even now to inform my theology studies.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from the apostolates you’ve worked at during your formation?

In the novitiate, my long experiment was at Mother Teresa Middle School, and that was a big introduction to Indigenous ministry—and Indigenous ministry in an urban context. To see the kind of disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples living in the same city, sometimes a block apart, was quite eye opening and helped me to understand the challenges that they face.

 

Erik at a L’Arche community.

I also spent about six weeks at a L’Arche community in Quebec City during the novitiate. There I learned a lot about community and about caring for each other. The core members have an openness, an innocence that draws out the best in people.

How has your formation allowed you to serve others?

The novitiate for me meant learning how to be with others. Whether with homeless people in Montreal, Indigenous people in Regina, or people with mental and physical disabilities in a L’Arche community—just being in those different circumstances, learning to be with others, and growing out of that was the initial formation.

Formation has taught me not only how to be with others but also how to walk with them. So, it’s not just about encountering people, it’s also about journeying with them.

Philosophy studies and the canoe trip have shown me that. How do I walk with our Indigenous brothers and sisters in Canada in a way that is constructive and builds relationships? In high school ministry: How do I walk with young teenagers given the issues that they face in their faith lives and the complexities of being a teenager in today’s society? And how do we form those relationships that allow both parties to encounter God in a more meaningful way?

 

Erik with the homeless in Montreal.

Why do you stay in the Church when the institution is questioned by so many?

I stay in the Church—even though it’s being questioned for good reasons—because I firmly believe that if change is going to happen in this institution, this body of Christ, it has to happen from within. I stay because I see hope in what’s changing, even as slow and frustrating as that process is at times. I see hope, I see healing, and I want to be part of it. And I think the best way to be part of it is from within.

Erik Sorensen, SJ with Fr. Erik Oland, SJ and Fr. Peter Bisson, SJ

What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about Jesuit life during your formation?

The most surprising thing is the depth of relationships that can be formed in community with other Jesuits.

They’re not my blood relatives, but they’re in all true senses my brothers.

 

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