By Tracey Primrose
When Jesuit Father John Cecero was a little boy growing up in the mid 1960s in an Italian family in South Philly, he had two passions: pretending to say Mass for the neighborhood kids and shooting the breeze with neighborhood moms, inviting them to “Tell me about your day.”
Fr. Cecero’s mother, now 91, still laughs when she remembers watching her seven-year-old boy hold court on the stoop of their Carlisle Street row house, where he listened intently, cared deeply and occasionally offered an encouraging word. It was the beginning of a vocation, although no one recognized that at the time.
Carlisle Street was his entire world. It was a place where you woke up every Sunday morning to the mouthwatering smell of your mom’s Italian sauce marinating, a memory that even today causes Fr. Cecero to salivate. The place was full of characters, including Aunt Vera, a resourceful woman known for speaking her mind freely and colorfully. In addition to her work with local bookies, she was a paid mourner who often brought her young nephew along on funeral home gigs. They were a dynamic duo, with Vera appropriately bereft and Fr. Cecero absorbing everything. With a booming laugh, he recalls, “I knew all the different types of caskets.”
At St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philly, he first met the Jesuits. “I was attracted by their obvious joy and humor. What struck me is how much they enjoyed working together and enjoyed the work they were doing. Their presence in the school was palpable.”
The young man who had pretended to say Mass when he was just a preschooler heard God’s call to the Society of Jesus. He entered the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, in 1976, five days before his 18thbirthday. Dressed entirely in black, Aunt Vera dramatically proclaimed, “This is the worst day of my life because you’re leaving me.”
After two years as a novice, Fr. Cecero attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Offered a choice of Jesuit colleges, he chose Gonzaga because he “wanted space to grow, and it was something entirely new.” Also sensing that the kid from South Philly needed to expand his horizons, Fr. Cecero’s formation director asked him to study in Paris for a year. He leapt at the chance.
When he graduated in 1982, Fr. Cecero was assigned to teach French and philosophy for three years at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., an experience that was both fulfilling and challenging. “Try teaching French to juniors in high school, all boys. Sometimes, I have nightmares that I’m being sent back to teach high school French, and I keep saying ‘There must be some sort of a mistake. I can’t believe I’m here.’”
Fr. Cecero’s next stop was theology studies in Boston, followed by ordination in 1989. Asked by his formation director to consider advanced studies in the social sciences, he laughs as he remembers his quick discernment. “I thought, ‘I like people. I think I relate well to people. Why not psychology?’”
He began working in a mental health clinic in Somerville, Massachusetts, and started applying to doctoral programs. But, first there was an unexpected curveball or, as he describes it, “the knock of the Holy Spirit.” He was needed on the staff of the Jesuit retreat center in Wernersville, also home to the novitiate. Initially, he wasn’t thrilled about putting his plans on hold, but was quickly reminded, “This is what obedience means, you’re being asked to do this.” He smiles as he says, “That was the first time in my Jesuit life that that line was pulled, but it’s probably not the last.”
Back he went to Wernersville for an experience that proved to be transformative. His two years working in the trenches of Ignatian spirituality, directing retreats and giving St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, laid the groundwork for his future.
At George Washington University in the nation’s capital, he earned his PhD. His postgraduate training included a one-year internship at the VA Hospital in Boston and a two-year fellowship in substance abuse treatment in New Haven at Yale Medical School, where he specialized in cocaine and heroin addiction.
Although his colleagues were initially wary of a psychologist who was also a priest, Dr. Cecero was quick to remind everyone that he was not there to proselytize.
Out of the blue, he received a call asking him to prepare a series of talks for clergy members on themes ranging from leadership to substance abuse to wellness. His sessions were a smash, and he was soon traveling the country speaking to priests. It was confirming because it was “the first time where everything came together: psychology, spirituality and priesthood.”
At Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, Fr. Cecero accepted his first job as a professor. He taught clinical diagnosis to graduate students and abnormal psychology to undergrads while also establishing a thriving psychology practice. The more he wrote and talked about the integration of mental health and spirituality, the more patients sought him out, drawn to his unique specialty. For him, the evolution of psychology and the growing recognition that “you can’t talk about human beings unless you talk about spirit,” is gratifying.
After 15 years as a professor at Fordham, Fr. Cecero is taking on a new challenge as the provincial of the New York Province Jesuits. He will be responsible for the Jesuits of the province and will also work with the province’s schools, parishes and apostolates on ways to support and advance their Ignatian/Jesuit mission.
Although he has given up his psychology practice, he still loves listening to people and hearing their stories. It’s a habit — started more than 50 years ago on a stoop in South Philly — that will serve him well in his new role.
With a sense of providence for the Holy Spirit’s knock, he says, “Things that I would not have sequenced happened in a certain way and with a certain purpose, leading me to where I am now. In my vocation, nothing is wasted.”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.