Fr. Fitzgerald: In sickness or health, praise, reverence and serve God
As a man of faith and a son of St. Ignatius, Jesuit Father Raymond Fitzgerald said the sobering news from doctors that he has Lou Gehrig’s Disease led him immediately into a spiritual reflection that, in one way or another, he has been living out for more than 30 years as a Jesuit.
“One of the fundamental things that we try to preach here in the formation of young men in the faith is something from the ‘Spiritual Exercises’ called the principle and foundation – that man is created to praise, reverence and serve God,” Father Fitzgerald said last week at Jesuit High School, where he has served as president since 2011. “That’s why we’re here. Whether we’re healthy or ill doesn’t enter into it.
“We can do those three things in any condition of our lives, and God gives us the grace to do each day what he asks of us each day. And so, we face the tasks of today, and tomorrow we’ll face those tasks. But, today, God will give us what we need to do today’s work.”
Father Fitzgerald, 55, announced his illness to alumni through an email letter on Jan. 14, and he addressed the school’s 1,404 students at a morning assembly in the
school courtyard the next day. In an emotional address, he told students he intended to remain in his role as president, health-permitting, until the end of the school year.
Context of faith
“It’s always a privilege to speak to our students,” Father Fitzgerald said. “They’re really wonderful, young men. Some of the greatest blessings I’ve ever received have been through Jesuit High School students, and that continues to be the case. I was concerned with trying to put my ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and its effects in a proper context, which is ultimately the context of faith, plus highlighting certain medical realities. This is not something that progresses quickly overnight. It’s not like two weeks from now, I won’t be here.”
Father Fitzgerald, a 1976 Jesuit graduate, said he first had an inkling something was not quite right about a year ago when he noticed a loss of grip strength in his hands.
“I attributed that to, ‘I’m getting older, repetitive stress, carpal tunnel, all kinds of things,’” Father Fitzgerald said. “But the symptoms persisted, so when I had my annual checkup, I pointed them out to my doctor. He said, ‘This could be a number of things, so let’s run a few tests.’”
One by one, doctors began ruling out other possible medical causes. There was a twitching in his arms that was inconsistent with carpal tunnel. Last June, a neurologist made a definitive diagnosis of ALS, and he consulted another doctor, who concurred with the diagnosis in October.
“For me, it was a sense of, ‘OK, this is the reality we’re dealing with. This is the world I’m living in, and now, let’s see where we go,’” he said.
Medication can slow some of the symptoms of the disease, but it is progressive and there is no cure. Father Fitzgerald said thus far, it has not significantly impacted his schedule.
Fortunate thus far
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “Nothing of what I do has changed significantly. What’s changed is how long it takes me to do things, so getting dressed in the morning is a much more laborious process than it was before. I have to be more careful about knocking things over or picking things up. The symptoms so far have to do with loss of arm and hand strength. I can still do things. It just takes a little longer.”
Father Fitzgerald came to Jesuit from St. Matthias Parish, and he instantly connected with teachers and classmates. An avid reader, he blitzed through Latin and Greek, and he nurtured a love for the classics and for history. He remembers taking classes from a pair of Jesuit scholastics, Donald Hawkins and Anthony McGinn, Jesuit Father Roy Schilling and English 4 teacher Joe Dover.
“Mr. Dover barely raised his voice, but he had perfect control,” Fitzgerald said. “One of the privileges of going to school here really were the embarrassment of riches and some really fine teachers.”
Father Fitzgerald did not enter the Jesuits immediately out of high school, instead going to Loyola University, where his mother Mary was a professor in the education department, and taking a double major in the classics (Latin and Greek) and history. He speaks four languages and has “dabbled” in a handful of others.
During his college years, he began to seriously consider a vocation to the priesthood.
“I found that the things I was drawn to were the sorts of things I knew Jesuits did, and there also was the personal sense of knowing a number of Jesuits, who either had taught me or who were students that I knew from here who had gone into the society,” he said.
The key vocational question
“I found myself asking the question that to me is the key vocational question for someone considering religious life or the priesthood: Has this been an interest long enough and strong enough that there’s really only one way to find out, and that’s to go through the application process? Just keeping it in your own head doesn’t get you anywhere. At some point, you say, ‘That’s what the application process is for,’ and it really was a helpful process of guiding me in.”
After ordination in 1991, Father Fitzgerald taught for 12 years at Jesuit, and he tried to emulate the best of his teachers by drawing students into the material.
“The premise I find most helpful to work with is that every student is capable of getting the material,” he said. “It is my job as a teacher to see if I can make that material accessible to different students in different ways. It calls for an attentiveness and an attention to the individual about what is going to work with this young person, which may not work for somebody else.
“What’s true of any good teaching is that personal connection, whereby not just the material but the whole process of learning is brought out – led forth – from the student, which is what the word ‘education’ means, by a teacher who knows that student.”
Pressures on kids
Over the years, Father Fitzgerald has seen the pressures under which students live. They have to deal with parental divorce, cultural influences and peer pressure.
“One of the things I’ve found is that I am consistently and almost invariably impressed by how good our young people are, facing some of the challenges that are there in the larger society,” Father Fitzgerald said. “I don’t know what I would have done. I have found that the young people I’ve been privileged to come to know have made a real commitment to the good, to the honest seeking-after truth, to an openness to faith.
“I think there is an awareness because of so many competing voices that this is the key to a happy life. Many of them have become aware at a much earlier age than I that those (competing voices) are empty answers. I’ve really been very moved and impressed with the basic goodness – and I would even say holiness – of a large number of young people that we have. One of the great opportunities we have is building on that reservoir of good will and on that desire for a knowledge and love of God. There is an openness to what the church presents as the key to life, that God has created us to live. Really, when you have that to draw upon, it’s not so much a challenge as it is a very graced opportunity.”
Compassion all around
Father Fitzgerald has witnessed before the compassion of a Catholic school community, when students have “rallied around one another” in the face of a tragedy or a personal loss. He views the future as an opportunity to live out his vocation as a Jesuit, as delineated by St. Ignatius.
“It gets to that point from Ignatius – our purpose is to praise, reverence and serve God,” Father Fitzgerald said. “We can do that whether healthy or sick, whether with a long life or a short life, in any circumstance. The one constant is that God’s love and grace are always there.
“St. Paul says nothing will separate us from the love of God, and he says, ‘I can do all things in him who strengthens me.’ This is true of every vocation. There are some things you can do, and some things you can’t do when you are 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60. There are some things a 60-year-old, because he has lived that long, can do because of his wisdom and experience that a 20-year-old, however strong he might be, just couldn’t do.
“So, each age and each condition gives us an opportunity to serve God, and that’s how I’m moving into a new phase of my life. But, the same basic mission is there.”