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Profiling Our Jesuits: Fr. Stephen Spahn, SJ

Fr. Stephen Spahn joined the Saint Ignatius Parish community in October 2014. Originally from Denver Colorado, Fr. Spahn’s path to the priesthood began while he was a student at Georgetown University. The youngest of ten children, Fr. Spahn, went to Georgetown with political aspirations: to attend the school of foreign service, then on to law school, and then return to Denver to be a “big fish in a small, dry, square pond.”

What lead you to embark on a path to the priesthood?

Prayer intervened in my life. Actually, Fr. Tom King, SJ, (of happy memory), celebrated a daily Mass at 11:15 pm in the Dahlgren Chapel of the Scared Heart. It was a sweet spot: that was the hour of the day when things were quiet; when you were just winding down. I was praying theExamen prayer without even knowing what that was. It was a quiet, prayerful Mass, simply and solemnly bathed in candlelight. This became an important reflective space. It was a special community. I used to gaze upon Dahlgren’s strong ceiling timbers and imagine the whole chapel as an “ark” of refuge amidst the stormy waters of college. It was an oasis.

Then, in the spring break of my sophomore year, my roommates were going to Cancun. I didn’t have the money to join them. But campus ministry was offering a 5-day silent retreat that I could afford.

Because five days of silence can be overwhelming, Fr. Bill Watson, SJ, then director of the retreat program, interviewed everyone beforehand. I remember he asked, “You know if you’re quiet for this long, you’re likely to hear God. Do you have any inkling of what he might say?” I remember a light going on in the back of my head and thinking, ‘I hope he’s not going to ask me to if I want to be a priest’.

Sure enough, at the outset of the Spiritual Exercises, there is something called the First Principle and Foundation. It’s meant to give the overall sketch of our lives (and the retreat it introduces). The opening line is: “All people are created to praise, love and serve God.” I remember allowing that idea to sink in: that the reality was thatmy purpose was to praise, love and serve God - and then becoming aware that I really wanted to ‘drink the koolaid.’ That is, I wanted that and wanted to do that completely.

But there was no duress. It was actually one of the moments of greatest liberation in my life.  I thought to myself, if this is what my purpose is, then “Why am I engaging in things that are so peripheral?”  I was indeed entirely free at that moment.  I believe I could have said anything heartfelt to God, but I knew I wanted to be a priest.

What came next?

Well, my retreat director was a wise Carmelite nun (Sr. Colette Ackerman).  She said, “Stephen, beginnings are fragile things. God will bring this to fruition if it is meant to be.” She told me to go back to Georgetown; not to be a martyr for the cause just yet, but to find a Jesuit I could trust and confide in.

So that’s what I did. I confided in Fr. Tom King, the Jesuit who had that late night Mass. The following year I spent abroad in Paris.  It was a great time away as it allowed me to experience the faith without all those external supports. My desire to be a Jesuit never waned.  I returned to the Hilltop – even spending a fifth year at Georgetown to pursue a Master’s degree.

Finally, I applied and entered the Jesuits in 1993 on the feast of St. Augustine, August 28.  

How did your family receive the news of your desire to enter the Jesuits?

My family wasn’t so surprised by my vocation. They were surprised that my brother, James, entered the diocesan seminary around the same time as I did. He was ordained in July of 2000 for the Archdiocese of Denver.

What is it like to have a brother who is a diocesan priest?

It’s great to have an ally, though it wasn’t always that way. There was a big contrast in our formation, and there was a moment when there was more tension than filial support. The family did not intend to draw the contrast but it was stark, because the Society invests so much in our formation. I like to say that we Jesuits are “slow learners.” We are afforded so many rich experiences: Apostolic opportunities, formation, study, travel. The diocesan formation is much shorter, and pretty much packs you full of theology then on to ordination. My brother worked secular jobs in the summers to make ends meet, whereas I went to China and Mexico, and other places.  

On the other hand, the Jesuits are not everyone’s cup of tea as it were - and in some circles (where then my brother dwelled), people are suspicious of the Jesuits’ fidelity to the Church. It seems even having a Jesuit Pope won’t change that perception!

You were a Jesuit for 11 years before being ordained in 2004. What were those years like?

We were the first group of Maryland Province Jesuits to go to St. Andrew Hall in Syracuse, NY for our novitiate. From there, I went to Fordham to study philosophy. Then I taught at Loyola College in Baltimore for three years, then went to Weston to study theology for three years, and was finally ordained in ’04. 

So, it was a work-study pattern before you were ordained.

Yes, the wisdom of Jesuit formation is that you are formed in the school of the heart before you have any formal theological training.  We like to say that Jesuit life is a three legged stool: Prayer, service and community.  Of course, becoming steeped in Ignatian spirituality is foundational. 

The apostolic work was powerful. I had two foundational stints in New York City hospitals.  They were transformative experiences indeed.

My novice master, Fr. Gerry Blaszczak, a wise man and arguably one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known, sent all of us novices to work as orderlies at Calvary Hospital for terminal cancer patients. I was a pretty rigid kid. Rather than addressing that bluntly, he trusted that prayer and such work would soften my boundaries. Indeed it did.

The second summer of novitiate, I was a chaplain at St. Claire’s Hospital unit for AIDS patients. St. Claire’s was where many of the New York’s poor and IV drug users were treated. It was a different world. 

What were some of the highlights?

When I joined the Jesuit community I had no idea where it would take me or with whom. To find myself in community with men who were on fire with love for God and committed to supporting one another was a slice of paradise. I loved those novitiate years. Some people can’t wait to get out of the novitiate, but it was not that way for me.

Six of us took vows, and two of us lasted to ordination. The others have gone on to get married and have families. My closest friend from the novitiate lives in Silver Spring with his wife and two beautiful sons. I join them every Thursday night for dinner. The other priest, Lito Salazar, is a professor of theology at t. Peter’s University in Jersey City.

What were some of the challenges?

Losing a best friend in the Society, Fr. Christopher Lockard, and then my mentor, Fr. Tom King, was tough. Both seemed too young and too precious to lose. I had some tough words with God about it. It felt somehow like God was reneging on his promise. I’d say those were the greatest challenges.

What was the most formative experience overall, if there is one?

My father died in October of ’97, when I was studying at Fordham University. When the call came from my mother that it was time to come home, the Rector – Fr. Ken Caulfield (also of happy memory) – wrapped me in his arms and said, “Stephen, who do you want with you?” I gave him the names of five Jesuit brothers in the house. They were all there with me at the end.  How incredibly generous of the Society!

I went home thinking I had a lot of unfinished business with my father.  Then I realized (thanks to the prayer and love of the Society) that there were only two things to communicate to dad: Thank you and I love you.

I realized just how powerful my Jesuit formation was: I was able to accompany my father through his death, whereas some of my siblings did not get to that place, which still pains them. My siblings looked to me, the youngest, to give the eulogy, to shepherd them through. It was both deeply heartening and a bit terrifying to see my older brother who was a surrogate father and my two eldest sisters who were like surrogate mothers looking to me to hold us all together. It was a humbling, but beautiful experience. And it was the fruit of the Society of Jesus.  

To be fatherless in the world … it still takes my breath away.

This is your tenth year as a priest, and your first as an associate pastor at St Ignatius in Baltimore. How do you find going from university life at Georgetown to an inner city parish?

I feel like I‘m cut out to be a parish priest. I love being in a place where you accompany people from birth to death, during the happiest and saddest of times and everything in between. 

I was thrilled that Fr. Bill Watters would have me. He wears many hats, and is one of our most able, accomplished and generous members. He’s 80 years old and can run circles around me. He knows Baltimore and he loves this parish.

Being in a new parish is sort of like cooking in a new kitchen. You know there is a spatula somewhere, you’re just not sure where it is.  This parish is an admirable place. Jesuit parishes tend to be destination parishes, which can present certain challenges.  Yet, the tremendous dedication, service and generosity of spirit here are humbling.

I’ve only been here a short time, but I get a charge out of waking up in the city. I enjoy quiet walks in the morning but there is no avoiding the tragic brokenness of this town.

How do you pray and encourage people to pray this season?

The Examen prayer is foundational. During this time of year especially, I encourage people to find time to be quiet, which is hard. It’s misfortune that advent falls in a time that is one of the most harried in the secular world. It’s supposed to be a period of quiet and contemplation, and yet everything in our environment conspires against that very spirit.

So, I feel for Advent as a liturgical season! While cherished, the odds are against it. I encourage people to carve out quiet in whatever way they can. If I were the Pope, I would extend the Christmas season well into February. I think if we said we were going to savor Christmas for a good long while, we could better honor Advent for what it is.

Jesus has already been born, so Advent is really a time of preparation for the second coming. The first coming reminds us of who God is and how God works. So, we know why the consummation of this incarnational act of Love is still something that we long for.

So, Advent is a season of longing. My hope is that people will get in touch with what they long for. What we long for is informed by what we’ve already experienced: we have caught a glimpse of the promise. This informs what we desire. The incarnation fuels our longing.

Jesus is the prince of peace. Well, this world is racked by war. He is the light of the world, and yet darkness surrounds us. Just to be able to name what we hunger for is what Advent is about.





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