In Grand Coteau, his Ignatian mission is to pray
When Jesuit Father Raymond Fitzgerald was president of Jesuit High School, one of his favorite activities, fundamental to his mission of influencing unsuspecting kids to dedicate their lives to the greater glory of God, was getting out from behind his desk during the five-minute break between classes and reliving his khaki youth.
On weekdays from August to May, the wide hallways at Carrollton and Banks are teeming Alaskan streams – salmon with backpacks swimming in every direction.
The angular Father Fitzgerald, Blue Jay Class of ’76, stood out easily amidst the contraflow because he towered over most of the 1,400 teens worried about the pop quiz coming after the next bell.
There was a purpose to his smiling, spectacled presence. Father Fitzgerald would spot a wide-eyed eighth grader, and instead of asking him if he had seen the swimming pool on the roof (a classic con run by seniors), he would use another approach to get the 13-year-old to relax and laugh.
“If we were to release Rottweilers on the third floor, would that make your day better or worse?”
Or “What would be the safest place here in a zombie apocalypse?”
When Father Fitzgerald announced at a student assembly in January 2014 that he had ALS – Lou Gehrig’s Disease – he made it clear in a very Ignatian way that the progressive illness had changed nothing in his life.
The “principle and foundation” of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises declare that “man is created to praise, reverence and serve God,” and whether a person is healthy or ill does not change that life’s work. It’s called holy indifference: one can praise, reverence and serve God in sickness or in health, in abundance or in need.
It has been 2 1/2 years since Father Fitzgerald addressed his student body. Now, 150 miles away from New Orleans, he slowly walks the wide, serene halls of St. Charles College in Grand Coteau, the Jesuits’ formation house, retreat center and infirmary. His arms, which first signaled in 2013 there was something wrong with his body, are at his side. It is difficult for him to swallow. He takes his meals through a feeding tube. His words come softly, but, as always, they are SAT-precise.
When a visitor asked if his regular stream of visitors – former students and colleagues – was “tiresome,” he smiled and probably reflected on the vocabulary cards he once devoured as an English, Latin and Greek scholar at Jesuit: “Tiring, but not tiresome.”
“I’ve been here about 13 months, and obviously the disease is progressing,” Father Fitzgerald said last week in his bedroom, outfitted with a computer that has eye-recognition technology making it possible for him to read, turning the pages with his retinas, and to compose and answer emails. “I can still walk, but sometimes I am more comfortable in this (wheel)chair. The care here has been excellent. The nurses and aides are really wonderful, and they have adapted with me as my needs have increased.”
The Ignatian ideal of holy indifference is never far from his prayer.
“It’s something I think about in my best moments,” he said. “Of course, there is the other 99.9 percent of the time. We are created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord, and we can do that in any circumstance, as Christians have been doing for centuries in all points of life and in all manner of ways.”
Father Fitzgerald said his mission as a Jesuit at this stage of his life is to “pray for the church and the (Jesuit) society” and for those who have asked for his prayers.
“I had an email exchange with another Jesuit on the point of our promise to say ‘yes’ to God in every moment of the day,” he said. “Our ability to do things changes and eventually diminishes, but we can always offer God that ‘yes.’”
He joins 21 other Jesuits who live in the infirmary – “we are a full house!” – for daily Mass, which he concelebrates. Most days, despite his difficulty swallowing, he can consume the Eucharist.
He views his life as a gift.
“I mean, ultimately, God has given us everything, and it’s all his,” he said. “For each of us, everything we have is temporary. One of the many ways this has been made less difficult is that I was hit with ALS in my 50s, when we already are starting not to be able to do a lot of the things we could do when we were young men.”
He has not yet seen former Saint Steve Gleason’s powerful documentary of his own ALS battle, which began when Gleason was in his 30s. But shortly after Father Fitzgerald went public with his own di agnosis in 2014, Gleason sent him “an informative email” about the journey ahead.
“He has been very supportive,” Father Fitzgerald said of Gleason. “His email is something I really treasure. He really has shown how much one can do in the face of a situation that really wouldn’t be a part of anyone’s plan.”
Father Fitzgerald’s mother Mary, who is 86, lives in New Orleans and has been “a wonderful role model” in acceptance.
“When I told her, this obviously wasn’t good news for her, but she said, ‘In one sense, nothing much has changed. We are all going to have something that will change. There will be things you can and cannot do, and this is no different.’ Her attitude has been a wonderful inspiration for me.”
Because every ALS journey is different – the disease attacks on different fronts and in different stages – it is difficult to predict what might happen next.
“With me, it was arms and hands first, and with others, it’s legs,” Father Fitzgerald said. “Speech and swallowing often come at different times. If you take any two or three ALS patients and put the right parts from us together, you get a fairly functional human being. Of course, if you put the wrong parts together, it’s not too pretty.”
He remains united in prayer with his former students, who would swim past him in the hallways at Jesuit every day and try to answer his mystical questions.
“Their prayers have been a source of enormous encouragement,” he said. “Everything I have seen since I left Jesuit confirms that many of the students I’m in touch with, who are now in college, are really outstanding, holy, young people. God has been very generous in his blessings, and I think in their hands, the present and future of the church is in fine hands. It’s a real source of comfort to me knowing how many good, young people there are.”
The prayer most emblematic of St. Ignatius is the “Suscipe” – Latin for “receive”: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.”
The hallway at St. Charles College is a conduit of God’s grace.