The Denver Post reported that a few hours before he died, Jim Sunderland, S.J., asked his family and friends to put on his shoes, because I want to walk into heaven. Just like him: a flinty realism, a bit of humor and an undying faith. A Visitation sister, his friend for over 40 years, wrote, "Our dear friend Jim was a quintessential Jesuit. Indeed, I thought, may we all be like him. And I rued the fact that many critics of the Jesuit brotherhood had never met him. They would not be so facile in their judgments and caricatures."
If I remember correctly, my first attempt to publish something was a letter to the editor of a magazine called Triumph. It was a conservative Catholic publication that had run a withering critique of the Society of Jesus. As a young Jesuit in formation, I thought the writer had no idea what our life was like. As I recall, it turned out that the magazine used my letter in an article that still further criticized the Jesuits, though it acknowledged that there were a few idealistic, faithful ones, presumably dupes like me. That was in the 1960’s.
Over the years I have been given comic books that accused Jesuits of being a non-Christian sect that programmed robots like me, or a conspiracy that orchestrated the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, taught that the end justifies the means and cleverly plotted the rise of Marxism.
More painfully, I would later read books by Catholics who accused Jesuits of systematically plotting to undercut papal authority and weaken the church. The pain of it was not so much that I thought us falsely accused, but that these writers so recklessly reported on events and meetings, many of which I had attended, and distorted them so boldly. One commentator characterized me as one of those Jesuits disobedient to John Paul IIa characterization that anyone who knows me would find preposterous. The late Pope was and remains one of my personal heroes. But so it goes with people enamored of ideology.
Lately I read complaints from the left that America, intimidated by threats from the Vatican, has gone soft and tilted to the right. At the same time, some on the right portray us as conspirators undermining Vatican documents. What to do?
The Society of Jesus is not monolithic. I know no family, much less a brotherhood of 20,000 members, that is monolithic. A few theologians do not the Society of Jesus make. Nor does a university.
Jesuits are like most communities. Like the church, we have had people who have embarrassed us and people who have brought us honor. I have been disappointed and angered by some. Most of those have left us. Some who have left are stellar men, and I still grieve their departure. A few who have left and, God help us, possibly a few who remain are a discredit to the church and the Gospel.
Like the church we serve, we have disagreements among ourselves; yet we try to follow the Rules for Thinking With the Church in St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, especially the rule to put the best interpretation on the opinions of those with whom we disagree. Even in the pages of America, I have been rebuked by esteemed Jesuits who disagree with me. Although I still think them mistaken, I respect them and trust that they are seeking the will of God.
The death of Jim Sunderland brought all this to mind. If our critics had known Jim, maybe the discourse would be different these days. He was an ordinary Jesuit, like most of us. His ordinariness was in his formation, his scholarship, his works of ministry and mercy, his desire to follow Christ. What made him different was the intensity of his zeal, his courage, his seriousness about the Gospels, the Spiritual Exercises and the vows, and his fidelity to Catholicism. He loved especially giving and receiving the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation. Even long after being unable to celebrate the Eucharist publicly, with slippers on his feet and a walker at hand, he would answer parish requests to hear confessions.
Jim, believing that whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to Christ, was a pro-life priest, a Dorothy Day priest. He was an advocate for the unborn, yes, but he knew that countless unborn were killed in the terror bombings of cities and strategic strikes that have their inevitable collateral damage. How could you be for the bombing of Nagasaki and pretend to be pro-life? Thus Jim Sunderland, a man who had once been a student at West Point, became a stern critic of wars, in which the innocent and poor always suffer most.
What drew him most forcefully, however, were the dark corridors of imprisoned criminals, particularly those that led to death row. Having long been a chaplain to the sick and dying in hospitals, in his later years he became a pastor to prisoners. He surely cared for their souls. But he just as much cared for their lives, as the least among us. He believed that advocacy against capital punishment was not an issue of liberal against conservative. For him it was a question of sacrilege. Whatsoever you do to the least of these [in prison] you do to me. If he had a quarrel with fellow Christians, it was about whether we really believe the words of Jesus.
In the future, when I read another assured pronouncement of how the Jesuits have gone wrong, I will say to myself, They just didn’t know Jim or most of his brothers. And they do them all an injustice.