Limerick to Canda, Zimbabwe to Trinity

John O’Rourke interviews the newest addition to the college chaplaincy, and his former school priest, Fr Peter Sexton.

Fr Peter Sexton SJ is a formidable man. My own earliest memory of Trinity’s latest recruit to the burgeoning chaplaincy team is of him in his role as music coordinator for Mass in my secondary school. On my first day in boarding school, I remember him at the pulpit intoning the arcane words of a Latin hymn for us to chime in and repeat. Nervous looks darted around the church as the new brood of overwhelmed twelve year olds wondered how much enthusiasm could be feigned without looking too “uncool,” before Fr Sexton launched into what we were soon to realise would be his trademark move. Moving swiftly down the aisle, he roused the entire congregation to a boisterous chant by energetically conducting the singing walking up and down the centre of the church, making us quickly realise that resistance would be futile. Our voices soon boomed out in echo, awe-struck and half afraid. As the months and years went by, these feelings were soon replaced by a deep reverence for this man of the church whose passion and commitment left a deep impression on me and my contemporaries, not least in the strange attachment to many of his favoured hymns to which quite a few of my contemporaries would still to this day confess.
Having swapped the cosy environs of secondary teaching last autumn to take on the challenging role of his new position as Catholic Chaplain for this university, Trinity News features Fr Sexton here not only to introduce him to the wider college community but also to raise awareness of the work of the chaplaincy as a whole . When asked to describe his new position, he affably responds; “My role in Trinity as chaplain? No one seems able to define the role of a university chaplain very succinctly! The full title of the University dating from 1592 is of course The College of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity – Collegium Sanctissimae Individuae Trinitatis. So I think the first role of a Christian chaplain, Catholic and Protestant, is to witness to the mysterious presence of the Trinitarian God – of Christ, of the Gospel and of the Church. How that witness is to be done is the daunting bit!
“Often I think in the simplest human way of supporting and befriending students and staff; of being available and willing to listen to people’s struggle for meaning and relationship in their lives; of being there when serious crises occur, such as the recent death of a student, not necessarily with an answer – no real crisis has an easy answer – but with a supportive and compassionate presence. Of course, the celebration of the Eucharist is central to the role of the priest, however marginal that seems at stages in the lives of many people in and out of university. I remember a wise priest psychologist onetime in a talk to parents worrying about the quality of their presence in the lives of their children recommending that their presence might be one of ‘alert indolence’! It was a creative and consoling way of looking at their role that, in my opinion, could be a useful description of a chaplain’s daily posture!”
Coming from a deeply committed religious family in Limerick, Fr Peter had been educated by the Jesuits in the Crescent for 11 years from the age of 7. “Because of the faith of my parents and the profound and daily part that faith had in our lives, the idea of becoming a priest came in and out of my mind during my secondary school years. However, in terms of career I also thought of going for Foreign Affairs and doing a BA, BL degree with that in mind. But in my final year at school I eventually decided to apply to join the Jesuits at the tender age of 18!”
As a Jesuit, he belongs to one of the most prestigious orders of the Catholic Church, renowned for their excellence in education around the world. But for him the choice was an easy one. “Why the Jesuits? Well, I had spent 11 years with them ! I never thought of joining “the clergy” as some group distinct from “the laity” – but rather of joining a community with a particular way of life. I was impressed by some of the Jesuits who had taught me and was attracted by the kind of people they were. Priesthood was not uppermost in my mind as it was a long way off as part of Jesuit formation. In fact I was ordained priest 13 years after I had joined the order, which was the norm.
The Jesuit’s remit seriously involves scholarship and learning, but teaching wasn’t one of Fr. Sexton’s motivating factors in joining the order. “Was I always focused on education? No. But I experienced the Jesuits as educationalists and once I joined probably thought I would also be in that field. Apart from an awareness of Jesuit missionary work, I had little realisation at the age of 18 of how diverse Jesuit apostolates were, even in Ireland, not to mention in countries across the world.
True, from the beginning of the order in 1540 Ignatius Loyola had always seen the key role of education at all levels and so education and scholarship have always had a major focus in our tradition. In fact, having done a BA in Classics in UCD and two years of philosophy, I have spent most of my Jesuit life in secondary education in three of the five of the Jesuit schools in Ireland – Belvedere, Gonzaga and Clongowes. So it was a very agreeable and timely change to come to Trinity this year as a chaplain!”
However Fr Peter’s career has not just restricted him to Ireland, but given him scope to visit several other countries. “It is part of the Jesuit tradition to have a global perspective and not to be limited to one country or ‘province’. Part of my formation, as that of many of my companions, was out of Ireland, particularly the nearly four years I spent in Canada for theology, during which I was ordained. Before Canada I had spent a year at Birmingham University doing an M. Ed. And then I worked for 3 years in Zimbabwe in the early 90s, teaching and accompanying young African Jesuits in formation. I’ve always felt it is good for us Irish to spend time outside Ireland and get a broader perspective on things. Living in Africa broadened my horizons considerably. Indeed I found it very difficult to return to live in Ireland after those years – life on return seemed to be much more confined and the weather didn’t help after the great open skies of Africa! It took me some time to adjust back.”
Members of the clergy have undergone a time of difficult ordeals and great upheavals in recent years, but many might still fail to recognise some other issues that affect them; “Biggest challenge in my time in the priesthood ? Probably that dark time already referred to in my adjustment back to Ireland after Africa, when I felt I had lost the sense of vitality and even meaning in my vocation or in my faith. Neither seemed to offer much consolation and the tunnel seemed endless – but it wasn’t ! The support of my brethren, family and friends enabled me to limp through that period. I don’t think I lost faith, but I had lost the sense of it for a time – and that distinction was important for me.
“Of course, dark periods in the history of the Church, such as recently in Ireland with the Murphy and Ryan reports, have been a severe and humiliating challenge also – but not to my faith, as anyone with any sense of Church history realises – unlike many journalists who have been writing about these scandals. Scandals in the Church have occurred since the very beginning of Christianity as even the slightest familiarity with the New Testament will make plain. Why ? Because the Church is a Church of mostly sinners as well as a good few saints. The Church in Ireland, and indeed worldwide, needs to be challenged vigorously on the use and misuse of authority at all levels, including of course and by no means least its exercise by the Vatican. But this critique and challenge, if it is to be valid and just, has to be done from a perspective that is balanced and historical. One of the hard things about being a priest in this country right now is that perspective seems glaringly absent. The best of human institutions have strengths and weaknesses. It is a very foolish thing to throw out the baby with the bathwater!”
This latest placement in Trinity has led to a more ecumenical environment than perhaps he may have been familiar with before. How’s he getting used to the change? “I think one of the attractive things about chaplaincy in Trinity is how closely the four of us (Julian Hamilton Methodist, Darren McCallig Anglican, and Fr Paddy Gleeson and myself Catholic) work together. We pray together once a week and formally meet after this. We run the one chaplaincy, not separate ones, and are in constant and easy communication with each other. Even the free soup and rolls on Tuesdays is an ecumenical project! Of course there are denominational differences that reflect the larger Church. I was surprised when I came on hearing of the denominational backgrounds of students today with 10% or so Protestant, meaning mainly Anglican, Methodist or Presbyterian, and over 80% Catholic background. I might have realised that Trinity reflects the national pattern.
This is not my first ecumenical experience however. When I was studying theology in Toronto the ambience there was very ecumenical – the Toronto School of Theology was made up a number of Catholic and Protestant colleges, and students took courses from the different traditions. One of the most influential persons in my own life was a Minister of the United Church of Canada, Bob Giuliano, under whose tutelage I did a 3 month clinical pastoral course in two Ontario prisons. He was a powerful and most perceptive man of God, one of the best preachers I have ever heard, who affected hugely my way of understanding ministry and has been a life-long friend.”