One was greeted as Frater (Latin for brother) Willers, the other Frater McKenzie, when they arrived at the Jesuit novitiate in the hills above this city on Sept. 7, 1965. They were 18 years old and anxious; but each man believed that God was leading him to the greatest vocation on Earth.
Today, Chris Willers is a Jesuit priest living in Oakland. Chris McKenzie, who left the order after four years, teaches English at Belmont High School in Los Angeles.
For several years the two men were estranged by an unspoken understanding that one had succeeded while the other had strayed from the path. But since mending their friendship, they began to wonder what had become of the other youths who entered the order with such conviction 20 years ago.
Last weekend, McKenzie and Willers, both 38, hosted an event that is unheard of, they said, in religious communities--a reunion not only of those brothers who continued in religious life, but also those who never went on to make the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Of the 85 men who entered the Santa Barbara seminary--the sole Jesuit novitiate for men from California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada--in the years 1964, 1965 and 1966, 28 former novices showed up for Saturday’s reunion at the hacienda-style house that used to serve as the novitiate. (It’s now used mostly for retreats. There is a new novitiate house next door.)
Eight of the reunion-goers are currently Jesuit priests; the Jesuits historically have been the largest and most powerful order in the Catholic Church. Some of those who had left the order arrived with wives and children, evidence of the worldly path they had chosen.
“I looked forward to this more than to my 20-year high school reunion,” said John Aldrian, principal of a school for the retarded in Riverside County. In his shirt pocket he had a 20-year-old picture of himself wearing his black cassock, as well as a snapshot of his 2-year-old son, Eric. “I feel so much closer to these people than to my high school friends. I was very happy here. I really was.”
Willers agreed that the feelings stirred by the get-together were more profound than those inspired by the usual 20-year reunion. “We’re not here to see our old drinking buddies,” Willers said. “These are the men we prayed with, and intended to become priests with.”
Justin Green, 11, was anxious for the Mass to be over so that he could get his skateboard out of the family van and explore the hilly grounds of the novitiate, which commands broad views of the city, sea and mountains.
“He (my father) was going to be a priest, now he’s a probation officer,” Justin explained.
Steve Green of Santa Maria said that although he has never concealed the fact that he was a Jesuit novice as a youth, he doesn’t talk much about it to his family or friends because it is a difficult experience to explain.
“Some people are kind of awed by it, some hold it against you,” Green said.
“We used to play baseball out here where the lemon trees are,” Green, 37, remembered as he gestured toward the lawn in front of the residence. “We planted pickle weed all over the place (many of the reunion attendees hiked off to see what the years had done to their planting projects). At night we’d sit out here on the porch and watch the sunset.”
Justin said that he could never see himself entering a novitiate as his father once did. He competes in bicycle motocross racing every weekend, he said, and the religious life would interfere with his hobby.
Over in the new novitiate building, the young men who had entered the seminary the week before were observing a three-day silence.
The reunion-goers passed by a few of the youths as they walked on the grounds. For Chris O’Hearn, it was an upsetting meeting. He said he could see his own youthful face in the young men, and he knew some of these novices would be ordained, as he had once hoped to be.
“Even though it was my decision to leave the order, I haven’t 100% come to terms with it,” said O’Hearn, a professor of English at Harbor College in San Pedro.
O’Hearn said he left the community after the first year to work out some personal concerns, with the resolve that he would return. He reapplied three years later and a series of delays finally forced him to continue his life outside the religious community, he said.
“I’m married and have three children now, but this (the pain of leaving the community) has never totally healed,” he said. “I’m hoping that being here today will help.”
One who stayed was Tom Weston.
“I was 18 years old when I came here,” said the Jesuit priest, who was wearing worn jeans and a flannel shirt, with a fashionably stubbly red beard. “I’d been drunk a few times, been out with a couple of ladies and thought I was real slick. What a very, very young person I was.”
Life changed as the youths crossed the novitiate threshold, some of them stamping out their last cigarette at the bottom of the driveway. (Smoking is now allowed among novitiates; a number of other rules have been relaxed as well.)
Suddenly their futures depended on a man called the Master of Novices who watched them closely to evaluate their chances of success in religious life.
Upon their arrival they were expected to communicate only in Latin. McKenzie got by because he had taken four years of Latin at Loyola High School in Los Angeles. But Willers came from a public school in Phoenix where he had never studied the ancient language. The fact that a number of the novices were as ill-prepared as Willers meant that a sort of pig-Latin was used freely, McKenzie said. For instance, no one knew of a Latin word for toothpaste, so an inventive novice dubbed it dentifricium , and that’s what it was called ever after.
Two afternoons a year, the novices were allowed to go for a drive with their parents. Families could visit the residence one Sunday a month. All letters received or sent were opened and read by the Master.
They awakened at 5 a.m. and were at their prayers by 5:30. Every 15 minutes during the prayer period a bell would ring and the youths would switch from kneeling to standing to sitting on the hard wooden benches. “A lot of us developed surfer knees without surfing,” McKenzie said.
At 11:45 every morning there was a call to examen , a time of day set aside to reflect on thoughts or behavior unsuited to a man being groomed for the priesthood. (Those who wanted to become priests faced an average of 10 years of schooling after they left the novitiate and before they were ordained.)
“Those two years I was in the novitiate were very happy, but shutdown,” Weston said. “We lived the world of the 17th Century. Life was real simple and real basic. And we ignored whole areas--sexuality, social issues.” Weston now works with drug addicts, alcoholics and patients with AIDS.
Doubt broke the contemplative peace for McKenzie when, he said, he began to notice the novices committing breaches of the vows they had taken. He said he found that some men were carrying on with women, and that others owned things such as stereos and typewriters despite their promise to do away with possessions.
McKenzie’s doubts brought him to a state where he could not sleep or eat. With great anguish, he left the order. “I was suicidal,” he remembered. “I felt that my main purpose in life had been taken away from me. I wanted to be a Jesuit priest.”
Eventually, at the advice of his therapist, McKenzie tried to involve himself in the world again. He got a job collecting carts at a supermarket, then he went to work in a factory. The labor was disagreeable enough that he was motivated to go back to school and get a teaching credential.
He now likens the trauma of leaving religious life to that caused by leaving a marriage, and says that may have something to do with why he’s remained single: “I’ve been very reluctant to commit myself again.”
Several of the novices who left the order no longer associate with the church, and left the room during Mass at the reunion. McKenzie said he no longer attends church regularly. He did, however, read aloud from Isaiah during the ceremony.
Twenty years after they made the first step toward religious life, the novices--most of them now nearing 40--seemed at last to accept that some had been destined for the clergy, some for other paths. Those who had become doctors, lawyers and teachers learned that those who stayed in religious life had not been immune to worldly heartaches--as was apparent when Weston talked about his hospitalization for alcoholism nine years ago.
“At the time I did it (entered the seminary) because there’s a strain in Catholic education that says the highest vocation is to be a priest,” McKenzie said. “I now think that to be a loving human being is the highest vocation--and that can be done in a lot of different ways.”