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The Man Behind the Mass: An Interview with Father John

With Easter right around the corner, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to sit down with Emmanuel’s very own Father John Spencer! Even if you haven’t been to mass in our beautiful chapel, you probably know Father John from school events, or running into him in the Muddy. Father John is a beloved member of this community known for his kind heart and humorous spirit, as well as often discussing the Kardashians. Let’s hear from the man himself and learn more about his exciting life thus far!

Her Campus at Emmanuel: Hi Father John! Thank you so much for meeting with me!Let’s start with the basics. You’re a Jesuit priest- can you explain what that means to readers who don’t know?

Father John: Well, in the Catholic Church there are different groups of men and women, like the Sisters of Notre Dame, and the Jesuits are a men’s group. The Jesuits were founded in the mid 1500s by St. Ignatius of Loyola, and most of our work in the church has to do with  education. Although, we do a lot of missionary work around the world, we also do a lot of pastoral work; running parishes as well as schools, from grammar school to college and university.

HCE: Oh cool, so that really lines up with the Sisters of Notre Dame who founded Emmanuel.

Fr. John: Actually, when Julie Billiart was founding the Sisters of Notre Dame her advisor was a Jesuit priest. So there’s always been a strong connect between the Jesuits and Sisters of Notre Dame.

HCE: Wow, I had no idea! So how long have you been a priest for? Not to reveal your age or anything!

Fr. John: [laughs] Well I’ve been a Jesuit for 51 years, and a priest for 37 of those 51 years. So it’s been a long time.

HCE: Yeah! How long have you been at Emmanuel?

Fr. John: I’m beginning my sixth year.

HCE: Were you in always in Boston?

Fr. John: No, actually. I was born and bred in Boston and went to BC High, and then I entered the Jesuits right from high school. Then the Jesuits sent me all over the place to study. I lived in New York for a while, Ireland, France, and on an Indian reservation on the Canadian border. I was in Boston for most of my studies, although I did study French for a year in Paris.  [French] is what I taught for a number of years, originally. Each Jesuit has to teach for a period of time and I taught up in Lennox, Massachusetts. I also ran a drug and alcohol rehab for a number of years, taught at BC for thirteen years, had a therapy practice, and was on the reservation. I’ve been all over the place!

HCE: You really have! Where was your favorite place to live?

Fr. John: Well, I really enjoyed the reservation. Having grown up in the city, the reservation was really different. It was all dirt roads into the reservation and coming from the city I had to make a big adjustment, but I learned to really love it. I loved it on the reservation.

HCE: Wow! What is something exciting that has happened in Mission + Ministry recently?

Fr. John: Two weeks ago we had a day called “Ministry in Action”, and we invited 15 religious orders of men and women to come so students could see the different groups. The next time we do it we are going to show all the various protestant denominations, and we’ll go down the line with various faiths.

HCE: I love that.So, since it is Holy Week and Easter is this weekend, how would you explain Easter to people who don’t know?

Fr. John: Easter is the focus of the Christian faith. The Christian faith is based on the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The days leading up to Easter are celebrations of all of that. There’s Holy Thursday, which recalls the beginning of the Eucharist; Good Friday, which recalls the passion and death of Jesus; and then there’s Holy Saturday, where Jesus rose from the tomb which spills over into Easter Sunday. That is the kernel of the Christian faith. During the year we have mass all the time, and the mass is kind of a nutshell of all of that. But Easter is the time we celebrate it in a more pronounced way.

HCE: What lessons do you think people can take away from the Easter season and apply to everyday life?

Fr. John: Well, what I hope students can do is take away a sense of knowing what their faith is about. I notice that a lot of students here don’t go to church and will say to me that they aren’t religious but that they’re really spiritual. I think students are looking for ways to express that spirituality and they see the traditional rituals as not speaking to them. Many of them are involved in service and volunteer work, and that seems to be a new way of expressing one’s faith. When we do reflection periods after service project or retreats, students often say,  “I really appreciate doing service work and it takes me outside of myself. I can see people in need; I can enter into a person’s difficulties or suffering; their life is very different from mine”. That’s very serious stuff, and I hope what we do in the chapel, in terms of ritual, somehow reaches across the chasm so that students can identify with faith. One of the things I would like to do here is expand our ministers. We do a lot of interfaith services, but it’s different when you have a Protestant minister or Jewish rabbi. Hopefully as we go forward and get more money (wink, wink), we’ll be able to expand what we can offer students.

HCE: That would be awesome. I love how accepting you, and Emmanuel as a whole, are of other religions and never try to push one specific one on anyone else.

Fr. John: We don’t try to push one particular one, but what I do like to push is helping students identify what faith they are and what that means to them, and how that can be a guide in their lives.

HCE: So, I’ve heard many of your homilies and know you often mention the Kardashians, so I will ask the question many want to know: how come you love the Kardashians so much?

Fr. John: [Laughs] You know I’m obsessed with them!

HCE: [Laughs] We know!

Fr. John: Well I think they’re a troubled family, and my background is in social work, so I can see the pathology and the narcissism. It astounds me how dysfunctional the group can be so I often use them as an example of what not to do (laughs). My fear is that younger people who watch them will think they’re the norm.

HCE: Right. Now, what is your favorite liturgical time of year?

Fr. John: Well I love Easter, I love ritual and I love the services at Easter. But at the same time I love Christmas. One of the things that we introduced here was an old tradition call “Lessons and Carols” that happens around Christmas and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a great service that any Christian can go to, it’s kind of interfaith Christianity. Last year, in fact, many people who aren’t believers said to me that they found that service so welcoming and uplifting, and kind of inspiring. It speaks to different people on different levels, and Greg (Shout out to Greg Pare!) does a superb job with the music in the choir. That’s a great example of collaboration. It’s a 25-voice choir made up of students, faculty, facilities staff, kitchen staff, security; there are so many people involved in it which adds to the beauty of the whole service.

HCE: You say how you love ritual and tradition; how would you express why we need that?

Fr. John: That is a really good question. Ritual allows us to experience the, and this is a heavy theological term, numinous. That means we can’t see God, we don’t know what God is like, and we read scripture so we can get a glimpse of God through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But in order to experience that sense of transcendence, ritual facilitates that. A good ritual will speak to an individual and allow that individual to experience something way beyond themselves. That’s why I say that while doing volunteer work and seeing those less fortunate than they are, that helps students get outside of themselves. I’ve had students comment on how they had no idea people lived like that, and that’s important to know because it’s the reality of the world. What I would like to do, and I’m planning this for this coming September, is have students take a couple of weeks and do a project where they go out into the city and take pictures of what they think is a sacred space.Then, I’ll ask the student “why is this a sacred space?” I think that will help create sort of a new ritual where students can express their faith,sense of the sacred, or spirituality. It doesn’t have to be a church or synagogue; it can be a park, or really anywhere: leave it up to the students

HCE: I hope that happens! So many big plans in the works! Are you here in the summer as well?

Fr. John: Yes, I am, I am here in the office!

HCE: Now, what’s your favorite yearly season? Are you a summer, fall, spring, or winter?

Fr. John: My favorite season is the fall! It’s still warm, and I love to go down the Cape in the fall.It’s still warm, you can walk the beaches when they aren’t crowded, the sunsets have a golden glow to them, it’s just lovely. The traffic is gone, and there’s still a lot to do like hiking trails and restaurants.

HCE: Are you a seafood person then as well? What’s your favorite food?

Fr. John: Fried chicken. Not spicy, just regular fried chicken. (The author would like to point out how immediate this response was, without any hesitation)

HCE: [Laughs] Well finally, are there any final comments you would like to add? Anything you want to say to the Emmanuel community?

Fr. John: Well, when thinking of the “Her” in “Her Campus”, and the focus on women – a particular scripture passage comes to mind. . In it, a woman washes Jesus’s feet with her tears and then dries them. Whether or not that happened, or how it happened, is filtered through centuries of traditions, but it’s written in the Gospel that afterwards,  Jesus says to the Pharisees,“she has done something really great and her faith has saved her, and the Gospel will be preached in memory of her.” That’s astounding when you think about it, because all of a sudden he takes this woman and elevates her to this collective memory. The idea was that she gave service, and that is repeated through that same act over and over again on Holy Thursday when Jesus washes his disciple’s feet. Christ gave honor to that woman, keeping in mind that this was a time when women were like second class citizens and there wasn’t any equality, and yet Jesus makes her an equal.

Thank you so much for sitting down with Her Campus Emmanuel, Father John! It sounds like, with Father John’s leadership, there are a lot of big plans in the works for Mission + Ministry! Maybe a night of watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians and eating non-spicy fried chicken will happen as well! Father John’s door is always open and he always loves talking to students, so don’t hesitate to drop by! Hoppy Easter everybunny!

Elisabeth (Liz) Staal is a student at Emmanuel College in Boston, MA, majoring in English, Communications and minoring in Music-Theatre and Psychology. She relates to Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Knope, and is a pun enthusiast. She has a passion for service, and producing a positive influence on the world to create change. You can follow her on Twitter @estaal15
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