Energy, Passion, Commitment: # 1 – Alan Fogarty, SJ

For an instant, I thought I was listening to one of those “Voice of the Pioneer” segments that CBC Radio used to air long so ago when most radio was on the AM band: “I was the last of 9 boys, followed by two sisters. There were eleven of us in all.”

This was not a vignette about early settlement in Nova Scotia. The “I” doing the talking was Alan Fogarty, the Jesuit who recently took hold of the reins of Salt + Light Media in Toronto. I was interviewing him not about his return to Canada after fundraising millions of dollars for various Pontifical institutions including the Gregorian University, the Biblical Institute, and the Oriental Institute, but about his family.

This is an especially timely series in light of the recent letter sent to every Jesuit by their Superior General, Arturo Sosa SJ. His letter is an appeal for collaboration and help in attracting “new companions for the future to which God calls us.”

The Superior General adds, “The best promotion of vocations to our way of life is by Jesuits who cherish their own vocation and reflect real joy in living it out.” He identifies three aspirations for Jesuit life: energy, passion, and commitment, which I use as the title of this series which was initiated before the Superior General’s letter was circulated.

I interviewed five Jesuits of different ages and backgrounds about the influence of their family on their Jesuit vocation. I wanted to understand what the pronoun “we” means when Jesuits talk about “our” spirituality. As they become “brothers” to each other and “fathers” to the rest of us, what experiences and what individual family cultures do they bring to and receive from the Society of Jesus?

In sharing their family and vocation stories these five Canadian Jesuits open a window into that mysterious call that in the words of their Superior General, “frequently appears in surprising ways at unexpected times and places, inviting those who seem least likely.”

Here are some brief excerpts from my much longer conversation with: Alan Fogarty, SJ.

Living in what must have been a very crowded family home in Stellarton, at a very young age, Alan Fogarty had a life-changing experience.

“I think I had something happen to me where, as I look back, it was a kind of direct insertion of God in my life. Something happened to me when I was five. I heard someone playing the bagpipes and I said: ‘I want to do that.’ It was almost, some might say, an obsession. I just had it really bad for that music and for that sound. There was something resonating in me. My name is Irish, but I come from a county in Nova Scotia, Pictou County, that is heavily Scottish. Four of the five towns had a pipe band. And then in Antigonish and Cape Breton there was all the fiddle culture with singing and step-dancing. I felt something was hanging around in my psyche from my ancestors. I didn’t have a choice in liking the bagpipes. They found me.”

In time, he became a highly successful competitive and then professional musician, playing those bagpipes in celebrated bands and then as a soloist. In his late teens he felt the experience of being guided once more, this time when a musician friend asked him what courses he was going to take at St. Francis Xavier University.

“Coming from a poor family where my oldest brother was the only one who went to university, my friend’s question was not ‘Are you going?’  It was: ‘What are you going to take when you go to St. F-X.?’ There was a presumption in his question that changed everything. It wasn’t like I was just going to take a trade. My future was being thought of. I was being guided again, I think, by the Holy Spirit that guided me first to this instrument of the air, a symbol of the holy spirit, and guided me through the graces of my friends in their own reflections and their care for me.”

A cradle Catholic, that cradle was severely rocked when after 27 years of marriage his parents split up, though they maintained close relationships with their children. Of the many consequences, this former altar boy dropped his church habits until years later, when as a student at St. Francis Xavier University he arranged to meet his father’s aunt, who was a member of the Sisters of Martha of Antigonish.

“She asked, ‘Do you go to church?’ But she didn’t let me answer. She just said ‘Go to church! There’s too much evil in the world. Young people need to hear scripture. Go and listen to scripture. Go to church, receive the sacraments, and fight the evil in the world.’ That’s what she said.”

And that’s what he did.

He also relocated to Mount St. Vincent University, and became a daily communicant. A realization was rapping at the outside window of his attention that perhaps concerned something a little more urgent than bagpipe or drumming skills.

Alan Fogarty describes his anything-to-prove-that-this-can’t-be-the-case response to his great aunt’s guidance.

(Clip 1: “I was walking down the hill to class one day… Runs:  47 seconds)

What did his mother, an Anglican who converted to Catholicism when she married, say when he told her that he was thinking about becoming a Catholic priest?

“My mother is an amazing woman. She still is with us. She is 89. Of course, as a mother of eleven children there is not an ounce of guile. When I think of all she did for us, I have to stop thinking because I think I am going to implode. She taught me how to work. In June 1987 when I was accepted into the Jesuit novitiate the first thing I did was call mum, and she said, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do?’ and I said, ‘Hell no! But I’ve got to find out because there’s this thing, and if something keeps coming back at me, it is a clear sign that I have to address it. I have to find out what it is, and really get at it till it’s resolved. Mom.’ Then I said, ‘If it doesn’t work out it doesn’t work out, but I’ve gotta find out, because I’ve got to get this off me.’”

Discernment is often as circuitous and indirect as it is intense. It turned out that the Jesuits were both a surprising and natural fit for him. His eventual Jesuit postings were certainly eclectic: secondary education in Manitoba (president of the prestigious St. Paul’s High School), fundraising in Rome (president of the Gregorian University Foundation and member of the Jesuit Roman Delegation), and now back in in Canada and involved in broadcast media in Toronto as the chief executive officer of Salt + Light.

During his time in Rome, Alan Fogarty had several meetings with Pope France, and after one of them it turned personal. He recalls how in 2015, after a meeting with Pope Francis and Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, the then Superior General of the Society of Jesus and Fr. Arturo Sosa, who would eventually be chosen as his successor, the conversation turned to the Fogarty family. When he learned about the size of Alan Fogarty’s family, Pope Francis helped him solve the challenge of choosing a combined birthday and Christmas present for his mother. Listen as Alan Fogarty tells the story.

(Clip 2: The rosary anecdote – in the Vatican, “It’s a long way to Tipperary” – and his mother’s response back in Canada. Runs: 2:07)

Throughout our conversation, Alan Fogarty uses imagery from “Laudato si’” and “Fratelli tutti”, the 2015 and 2020 encyclicals of Pope Francis to connect the various elements of his work as a Jesuit. I asked him these encyclicals influence his work now that he is back in Canada and he began with three questions:

“What is good in the world? What are people doing that is positive, things that help other people? What challenges the human spirit to soar? You bring in Catholic social teaching, you bring in our beloved Pope Francis, and there it is. These are the papal encyclicals that I hope can organize the thinking and the direction of Salt + Light for the next how many years, showing what is right with the Catholic church, what’s good in the world, and making the human spirit soar. It’s all in there, we just have to do it.”

Next in this series, John McCarthy, SJ describes his search “for meaning and goodness and creativity” that is at the heart of his work as a Jesuit.

Ottawa-based author and editor, Kevin Burns is a frequent contributor to igNation. His latest book, Impressively Free – Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood and co-authored with Michael W. Higgins, has just been released by Paulist Press in the United States and by Novalis in Canada.

  • graeme quinlan
    Posted at 06:45h, 30 June Reply

    I really loved this delivery, It brings out so much of the inner human search for fulfillment in life. We all find ourselves on different paths in life, we just have to sometimes wait for the right promptings to realize that we are all being called to a vocation, and its to hear that voice that is constantly speaking within us .Thanks Kevin.

  • Julie Flynn
    Posted at 10:59h, 30 June Reply

    Thank you for such a fantastic article, beginning this series. I look forward to the upcoming pieces with anticipation!

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