Simon Bishop SJ
Have you ever met a red-haired Tanzanian? Well, now you have! My father worked for UNESCO as a teacher-trainer. This meant that, as a family, we had the opportunity of living in the most wonderful countries. Having been born in Dar es Salaam I grew up in Fiji in the South Pacific. You can imagine my confusion aged eight on arriving at the Jesuit school of Stonyhurst in deepest, darkest Lancashire. “There must be some mistake. My parents must have lost their senses … beaches, palm trees, the South Pacific for rain, rain and more rain!”
I did come to appreciate my parents’ decision: the care and education that I received from the Jesuits, the lay staff and from my friends was wonderful.
As a young student at Stonyhurst, Fr David Barlow SJ had invited a number of us to meet on a weekly basis to pray with the Gospel of St Mark. I remember at the end of it saying to myself, “That’s how I want to live my life!” The freedom, the love, the generosity, the crossing of boundaries – religious, social, political, emotional – of Jesus was so inspiring. Jesus’ ministry of healing, of reconciliation, with all people, even to the point of his own life – that’s how I wanted to live. Life to the full! And this is what I was able to experience at first hand when I left Stonyhurst and headed for Jamaica. I lived and worked with a north American Jesuit, Fr Louis Grenier SJ, teaching in the local secondary school and visiting in the parish.
Very reluctantly, I returned to take up a place at Cambridge University, but swapped studies from English Literature to Theology. The question of priesthood and religious life continued to inspire me but I didn’t believe that I would be worthy and worried whether I would be happy. I had so much admiration for the Jesuits, but the idea of having breakfast with them ..?! So, I contacted many religious orders: Carmelites; Dominicans; Franciscans. I had enormous respect and appreciation for them all – for their prayer, their learning, their simplicity, their single-hearted asceticism, but not one of them was enough. I wanted it ALL!
After university, I went and volunteered with Mother Theresa’s sisters, the Missionaries of Charity and then trained as a social worker, before working in Brixton, trying to prevent homelessness among teenagers. I discovered not only was my boss a Jesuit (it was like something out of the Musketeers) but also that the local parish, Corpus Christi, was being served by the Jesuits … the rest, as they say is history! I made an eight day retreat and then decided to give it a go. I remember entering my room in the novitiate and seeing a bed, a desk, a chair, a cupboard, a sink and bare walls, except for a Crucifix. I felt an indescribable joy and freedom. I was, despite all my fears and misgivings, free! I had been given ALL.
Having lived, studied and worked in a number of our schools and in the chaplaincy at the university of Oxford, I now find myself co-ordinating the spirituality life and work of the Jesuits in Britain. The same fire continues to burn within me, the fire of the Lord’s love, full of freedom and joy, wanting to bring His healing and His peace to all He asks me to serve.