By Carina Morroni ‘20
Mr. Aric Serrano was one of hundreds of homeless men, lying on a bunk bed and staring into the dark, his mind wandering back to the previous day. He was supposed to be 534 miles from here in Des Moines, Iowa, visiting the church where he received his first communion. And yet, somehow, he’d ended up here in a homeless shelter in Lansing, Michigan.
He’d never been homeless a day in his life before now, and it was humbling to say the least. He’d reluctantly handed over the backpack holding all his possessions, and was told to take a shower and put on the clothes the shelter provided. He wasn’t truly homeless, he supposed, as he would soon return to the Jesuit novice house in Louisiana to resume the normal Jesuit novice duties. But for now he was stranded in Michigan, his bus having been canceled, with no money and no idea what to expect.
“Of course I was scared. But, there’s a verse in the Gospel of Matthew that says to not worry about tomorrow, as tomorrow will take care of itself. I found consolation in that,” Serrano recalls.
In the first few days of his pilgrimage, he’d already started to learn what it meant to truly depend on God for everything. He literally had nothing in this moment, yet he trusted God would provide everything he’d need.
The process of becoming a Jesuit priest takes about 11 years, more or less depending on the individual’s journey. After the first year of this formation process, the young men, called novices, go on a pilgrimage. They recieve a list of places they are to visit, a piece of paper describing their task, five dollars, and a bus ticket and are sent on a two-and-a-half week journey across the country. Any money they earn along the way, they have to give to charity before moving on to the next city.
Only a few days earlier, Serrano had begun his pilgrimage in St. Ignace, Michigan, told to find and pray at the grave of a Jesuit missionary. During those first couple days, he stayed with the priest of a local church, speaking at many Masses, at the priest’s request. The parishioners were very generous and he accepted the money with a smile, even knowing he’d have to give it all away before leaving St. Ignace. Relying solely on God was difficult, to be sure.
“They need to learn these lessons of radical dependence on God to be a Jesuit. Our call is to go wherever He leads us,” says Father Tom Rochford SJ,’66, chaplain at Regis Jesuit High School.
There are many purposes for the pilgrimage, including helping the novices discern their vocation and begin to live out the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But, according to Father Tom, the most important goal is for the novices to learn to trust in God’s plan. They can’t plan ahead, having to simply follow wherever God leads them.
The tradition of sending Jesuit novices on pilgrimages was started by the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius called himself “the pilgrim”, going on many pilgrimages himself during his lifetime. The first of these was his famous journey from Loyola to Manresa, having just recently converted. Many of the aspects of the pilgrimages today come from Ignatius’ pilgrimage, on which he gave up the wealthy life he’d had and decided to completely hand his life over to God.
This tradition, however, has only recently been restarted. Only 44 years before Serrano’s own pilgrimage, a Jesuit named Father Dick Perl was sent on the first pilgrimage in centuries. He spent ten weeks, traveling around both the United States and Mexico, as he stayed with strangers, hitchhiked, asked for work, and was filled with astonishment at how God works through the generosity of other people.
“One of the basic thrusts that Ignatius had for his novices when he sent them out with no money was: ‘God will provide,’” Father Perl wrote in the story of his pilgrimage. “And how God did provide for me.”
Father Perl, on his own pilgrimage, experienced poverty both in his own life and in the lives of the people he met. And it was in the midst of that struggle that he learned to truly depend on God. This sense of trust he developed guided him through the rest of his life, which he spent entirely dedicated to working with the poor. The pilgrimage is not just a one time experience, but one that the novices will carry through their lives as they surrender themselves to God.
On his pilgrimage, Serrano went from Michigan to Iowa to Nebraska, ending up in Louisiana. In every place, as he got off each bus in a new and foreign city, he learned to give his pride entirely to God.
“I begged for money in bus lines. People would give some change, a dollar if I was lucky,” Serrano recounts.
Each day was another test of his trust in God. Serrano never knew if he’d get to eat that day or if he’d have a place to stay that night. Plans could change, and he could end up somewhere entirely different than he intended. He could arrive at his next destination at one in the morning and have nowhere to go, standing alone in the cold night air. Someone could give him the wrong directions, and he could end up going in the complete opposite direction of where he wanted to be.
The only thing Serrano ever knew for certain was that God was with him, always, guiding his steps and watching over him.
Four and a half years later, Serrano was sent here, to Regis Jesuit High School, hoping to teach music. What he found upon arriving was a need not just for a music teacher but also a theology teacher. He’d not planned on that. Instead of saying no and simply sticking to what he’d been expecting, however, he decided to trust that he had been sent to this school for a reason. He accepted the position and has discovered a surprising love for teaching freshman theology.
It was on his pilgrimage journey that Serrano learned these lessons of trust and dependence that have carried him through his life as a Jesuit so far. He will stay at Regis Jesuit for two more years before moving on to study theology, and pronounce his final vows to be ordained a priest. Beyond that, he has no idea where he will go. But that’s exactly how it was on his pilgrimage, which in many ways, is a model of the rest of his life as a Jesuit. While he may not be homeless, and will have a place to stay and food to eat, like all Jesuits Serrano must always be ready to surrender his plan to follow wherever God will lead him, just as on the pilgrimage.
“I was empty-handed enough to be ready for God, only to find that He was surprisingly ready too… way more ready than I was,” comments Mr. John Guerra, reflecting on his own recent pilgrimage.
The pilgrimage shows the Jesuit novices that God has a plan. On this journey, they learn to confidently follow wherever He leads them, knowing He will provide for all their needs. But it doesn’t end there. After the pilgrimage, this trust in God allows the Jesuits to live their lives as servants and missionaries, called to bring God’s light to the world.