When I was a senior at Loyola Academy in Chicago, I had the gnawing suspicion that God was calling me to the priesthood. I hated the idea. On our senior retreat I told a friend of mine what I was thinking and he immediately said, “That’s great. You’ll be a Jesuit, won’t you?” I was as quick to reply that I preferred my own car and golf clubs. I didn’t go for that poverty business. But my friend did get me thinking.

Later that year I went in to see my friend, the senior class counselor, Fr. Doug Pearl, and told him I couldn’t decide between the diocesan seminary and the Jesuits. I said, “Since I really don’t want either one of them, just sign me up for the Jesuits.” He replied, “If that’s the way you feel, forget the whole thing. Go to college for two years and after that if you still want to become a Jesuit, come to see me,” the best advice I ever received. I left his office dancing on air. “I tried to sign up, God, and they said ‘no.’ Now it’s not my fault!!”

I went to Georgetown and only lasted one year. Sometime during that year a priest died. He was Fr. John Smith (of all things!), and I had known him as the director of the Sodality at the University. He was laid out in his priestly vestments in Dahlgren Chapel there on the campus and when I passed by to pray before his casket, I got my vocation. I thought, “When all is said and done, that’s the way I want to die.”

By the time I came back to Chicago during Easter break of that first year, I wanted to be a Jesuit so bad I could taste it. It was a completely different experience from what had happened in my senior year of high school. At that time I felt pressured to become a priest; after my Georgetown experience, it came from me, from within. It was as though my vocation needed one more year to mature. Fr. Pearl was wise enough to see that it simply wasn’t time yet when I was still in high school.

During the three or four days I was home for Easter, I drove down to the Jesuit Residence on Lake Shore campus, where the Academy used to be, and asked to see Fr. Pearl. He was the one I knew and the one that knew me. He was the one who told me to come back after two years so he was the one I wanted to speak with. The person at the front door said that Fr. Pearl was not at home but was hospitalized in Evanston. I was devastated. Here I was ready to give my life away to the Jesuits, but I couldn’t find the person I wanted to tell about it and I was only going to be in Chicago for a few days. In my dejection I got back in the car and drove out north on Sheridan Road, not really having an alternate plan in mind. As I waited for the red light to change on one of the cross streets, I looked over at the cars waiting for the same light to come south. I saw Fr. Pearl seated in one of those cars. The light changed, I did a U-turn and followed him back to the Jesuit house. When I caught up with him, he told me he was only going to be home for a couple of hours and then had to go back to the hospital. In those few hours he set up all the interviews and took care of all the paperwork I had to do to become a Jesuit. I never saw him again.

That following summer I entered the novitiate and got down to the business of being a Jesuit. One day I was making a visit in the community chapel and I looked down on the pew in front of me and there was a memorial card for Fr. John Smith. It was as though he were looking up at me with a wink saying, “Hah, I got ya!” He was a priest in the Maryland Province and here I was in the chapel of the Chicago Province novitiate in Milford, Ohio. I certainly would not call it incredible but at least it’s pretty darn coincidental!

I was relieved that I had so many classmates who entered with the desire of going to “the missions,” because I didn’t really want to go anywhere. During our annual retreat in our second year of philosophy, in a burst of availability I wrote to the Provincial telling him I was ready to go abroad if needed, but not that I particularly wanted to! I heard back from him, thanking me for my offer and telling me he would keep my letter on file. A year later, just when we were preparing to go to our first apostolic assignment called regency, I wrote again repeating my offer, just reminding him once again that I was available, if not chomping at the bit to go to another country. This time I heard by return mail that I should get a physical exam to see if I was ready to go to Peru, since the Chicago Province was opening a mission there in response to Pope John XXIII’s request that North American religious send ten percent of their personnel to Latin America. It was the beginning of a sort of religious invasion of gringos to that continent. I spent the next 34 years there.

By this time I had spent more time in Peru than in the United States. There was no reason to even think about returning to the United States, nor did I want to. Then one day the Chicago Provincial asked if I would ever consider coming back because he wanted to do something in education for the Hispanic community. I said if that was what the Society wanted, I had no reason to say no.

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School opened in 2006 and I served as president for eight years before assuming presidency of the Cristo Rey Network, where I am currently executive chair.

It certainly is true that God works in surprises. First I did not want to be a priest; then I fought against being a Jesuit; as a Jesuit I never wanted to leave this country to work; and finally when I was growing old in Peru I had no desire to come back to the U.S. I can honestly say that all through my life God has been where I never expected to find him.

So here I am, at the  Network, waiting for the next surprise, and very, very happy to be here.

Contact me at jfoley@cristoreynetwork.org or 312-784-7203.


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