Jim went out smiling. Cancer, for all its devastation, couldn’t deprive his eyes of their sly sparkle, nor his face of its tenacious warmth. Jim Webb, SJ died a religious in the most radical sense of the term: tied to God through the surprising beauty of his life.
Part of the surprise was that Jim simply made it to the end as a Jesuit. This wasn’t at all guaranteed. Still in formation, he was questioned seriously, if not severely, by his provincial whether he really had a bona fide vocation. If ostensible piety amounts to good faith, then superiors had every right to their suspicions. In the novitiate, while his earnest peers diligently engaged in their obligatory corporal penances, Jim would sneak down unseen to the kitchen to indulge in illicit ice-cream, no doubt made sweeter by the delicious contrasts of conduct. Decades later, Jim was the sole Jesuit I knew who had retained his little standard-issue flagellum. Just because he had never used it, didn’t mean that it wouldn’t come in handy someday.
This capacity to keep things on hand Jim inherited from his father, owner of the local hardware store in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. During the half-year I resided with Jim in Kingston, Jamaica, his stock furnished me everything from stationary, to tools, to toiletries, to technological apparatus. It delighted him to have a costumer, even a financially deadbeat one like me.
Jim washed up on the island after having rocked the boat quite vigorously back home in Canada. Tireless in his pursuit of social justice, the young Fr. Webb made himself a headache for the rich and powerful, whom he loved enough to want to help rescue from their complicity in structural, economic sin. The very few times he would wear his Roman collar was to share-holder meetings of multinationals with spotty human rights and environmental records. Using his privilege as a share-holder, albeit an infinitely minor one, he gracefully exposed to the assembly the pernicious human effects of their investments, and by doing so exposed himself to their discontent. Often his Christian efforts were applauded violently by outbursts of “Sit down, priest!” For Jim, it was of the utmost importance that the social teaching of the Church be visible, relevant and applied.
Boat-rocking was almost vocational when it came to Jim. Without the slightest abashment, he would corner any young man he noticed more than once at church and plant the sixty-thousand dollar question: “Have you ever thought about becoming a Jesuit?” The frequent look of terror in the eyes of his quarry amused Jim greatly. In general, celibacy is an aspiration among very few male teens and twenty-somethings, and even fewer in Jamaica. All the same, Jim, an avid angler, never wearied of casting his line for fishers of people.
After a quarter century of Caribbean semi-exile, Jim was astonishingly hauled back to his native mainland and installed at the head of the Jesuits in English Canada. What started off as a rather rebellious, unconventional, provocative, difficult vocation, ended as the superior of all those who once questioned his calling. Jim’s prophecy had come true. Not that he ever imagined himself as provincial, but rather his brothers finally recognized the prophetic and truthful value of all his innovative work for the oppressed and suffering. His rocked ship had come in. Jim returned with humor and humility and without any trace of resentment. His love for each of the Jesuits under his care was active and abundant. Cancer cut short his provincialate, but, as mentioned at the outset, never his smile.
On this World Day for Consecrated Life perhaps you might take a few minutes to do what I have just done. Remember fondly a nun, brother, or priest of some religious order who embodies for you the joy, freedom, love, amiability, goodness, charity, justice, intelligence and virtue of a person ecclesiastically dedicated to living out the Gospel. Maybe share a story or two about them with people you meet today. Let the affection you experience be a prayer of gratitude.
-Greg Kennedy, SJ
Greg Kennedy SJ is a Jesuit priest working as a spiritual director at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario. His prayer often takes the form of poetry. Care of creation is central to his vocation. On March 1, 2020, his new book, Reupholstered Psalms: Ancient Songs Sung New, will be available for purchase.