I spent six years as a seminarian at what was then St. Mary of the Lake Seminary preparing for my Ordination to the Priesthood in what was then called “the Main Chapel” on May 13, 1970. This experience had a profound impact on my life and my ministry as a Priest and Bishop.
The first two years living under the rigors of a structured life in the “old seminary” taught me the value of personal discipline. Yet, living through the last four years in the “new seminary” and the major transition of Mundelein from a classical seminary to the dynamism of a post-conciliar seminary, taught me the importance of flexibility and adapting to unexpected, new situations. I have many and diverse memories of those halcyon days in what one classmate called “the enchanted forest.” However, I would like to focus on the singular experience of having Father David Hassel, S.J. as my professor of philosophy and mentor in the years after that. David Hassel was a brilliant scholar and an excellent pedagogue. He introduced me to the methods of critical philosophical and theological thinking and to the person of St. Ignatius of Loyola and Ignatian spirituality.
Almost exactly 465 years ago on July 31, 1556, Iñigo López de Oñaz y Loyola (St. Ignatius of Loyola), 64, died in Rome, from malaria, which was widespread in Rome throughout the Middle Ages. He was the founder of the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits, who staffed the Mundelein seminary as faculty members for many years. Father Hassel said Ignatius’s life vision could be summed up with two of his favorite expressions: “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam” (“to the greater glory of God”) and “Ite, inflammate omnia,” “Go, set the world on fire,” a phrase that inspires Jesuits and other spiritual leaders to this day. Both of these ideas helped me to realize that the Priesthood for which I was preparing was “not a job,” but a life vision and a desire to, in some small way, “set the world on fire” by learning, loving, and living my Catholic faith.
Father Hassel introduced me to Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, a form of focused biblical meditation and prayer. Once I became familiar with “Ignatian spirituality,” I took a genuine interest in the Ignatian 30-day silent retreat, which I eventually made twice. These 30-day retreats, which help a person open himself more to encountering the Spirit of Jesus Christ and discern one’s life path, have played a key role in my interior life as a parish Priest and a Bishop. I have been able to translate a great deal of what I learned from Ignatian Spirituality into pastoral activities in the parishes and the dioceses where I have served. The introduction to Jesuit spirituality that I received from Father Hassel gave me the background and insights I needed to better understand the words and ministry of Pope Francis, our first Jesuit Pontiff.
Father Hassel was steeped in the writing of great Jesuit philosophers and theologians, especially Karl Rahner, S. J. (1904-1984) and Bernard J.F. Lonergan, S.J. (1904-1980). David guided me through key articles in Father Rahner’s voluminous Theological Investigations, especially the articles on Christology and Ecclesiology. While Rahner’s works are not light reading, they are worth the effort. His thinking helped me to see a vital connection between an existential philosophy of personalism and the critical realism of Thomistic philosophy and theology. Rahner’s writings help readers appreciate that human self-consciousness and human self-transcendence move each “spirit in the world” into the realm of the sacred, into the ultimate mystery of God, who dwells in unapproachable light.
Ultimately, it was the influence of David that led me to pursue my doctoral studies at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium on the thought of Father Lonergan, especially his magisterial book, INSIGHT: A Study of Human Understanding and the companion work, Method in Theology. Father Hassel helped me make my way through the unrelentingly difficult INSIGHT. David taught me that Father Lonergan, a transcendental Thomist like Rahner, asks readers to strive for self-appropriation by the personal discovery and personal embrace of the dynamic structure of inquiry, insight, judgment, and decision making. David used to say, “Bernie wants you to know what you are doing when you are knowing!” Lonergan wants a person to grasp his own intelligence, reasonableness, and responsibility which are the foundation of all inquiry and knowledge. Father Hassel taught me the pastoral relevance of Father Lonergan’s ideas concerning the known, the known-unknown, and the unknown-unknown, which opens one’s being to the reality of God.
I was deeply saddened when Father Hassel, 69, died in September 1992. He changed my life. That change would not have happened had I not been a seminarian at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary when he was the head of the Department of Philosophy. And he was only one of many outstanding seminary professors who changed lives during the past 100 years. Memories of the seminary can embrace many things: beautiful liturgies, solitary silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, heated philosophical and theological debates, walks around the lake, sporting events, plays in the auditorium, and making wonderful friends. At the deepest level, the goal of a seminary is to prepare students for authentic Christian living whether they become priests or not. That is what Father Hassel did for me. He helped me to hear in my own being the words St. Ignatius spoke to St. Francis Xavier as he departed for India, “Ite, inflammate omnia,” “Go, and set the world on fire with your faith!”