“I Made a Promise to God”

Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. has made available a stream of wise and beautiful books for countless Catholics.

For those of us for whom Ignatius Press has long been a source of nourishment to the soul, Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., its founder and publisher, remains a revered figure. Without question, his publications have been a principal pipeline these past forty years for almost everything of value produced in the Catholic world. But for the work of Ignatius Press, my own life would most certainly have remained decidedly poorer in so many ways. 

In fact, were it not for the wonderful translations of writers like Ratzinger and de Lubac and von Balthasar, whose work early on took hold of my life, I might never have pursued doctoral studies in Rome, nor have gone on to teach theology all these years since. Not to mention the two or three books of my own so kindly brought out by Ignatius Press over the years.    

And so, for all that I rejoice to know of my Catholic faith and her theology, no small amount of that patrimony I owe to Fr. Fessio and his splendid publishing house. It has been, quite simply, an unrequitable debt.

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But that is not all that I and others owe to this man. There is, above all else, the compelling witness of his priestly life, of his love for the Church, the unsullied Bride for whom he has shown constant and steadfast devotion. In a moving tribute paid to Cardinal de Lubac on his ninetieth birthday, Fr. Fessio described his great mentor as “above all else a man of the Church,” as one who had both “received all from the Church and returned all to the Church.” It is an encomium which, in the judgment of many, easily applies to Fr. Fessio himself.   There is, above all else, the compelling witness of his priestly life, of his love for the Church, the unsullied Bride for whom he has shown constant and steadfast devotion. Tweet This

He has long been our mentor as well. He entered the Jesuits in 1961 and was ordained in 1972, so he has been a priest for more than fifty years, an impressively long time for anyone to have remained faithful. In fact, he was recently asked how he managed to do it. I mean, how did priests of a certain age survive the storms of the 1960s? What exactly was it that enabled them to face the tumult and the unrest of a time when so many were leaving the priesthood and the religious life? 

One needs to recall the state of the Church back then. Wholesale abandonment was in the air, causing huge numbers of vocations to be thrown to the side of the road, often with an alacrity that seemed even then to be shocking, indecent even. And yet he stayed. Why was that?

His answer, which he gave to Bishop Barron in a fascinating and wide-ranging interview, was both simple and profound: “Because I made a promise to God.”

How quaint that must sound amid the relativisms of today. Like an antique drum sounding a march so out of step with modern music that it’s a wonder any of us can even recognize the tune. Was there really a time when people actually made vows which they’d sooner die rather than break? An oath made to a God whom you cannot see, yet for whose sake nothing on earth can persuade you to betray? How are such anachronisms possible?

To answer that, one needs to know what exactly it means to make a promise, to say to God: I will remain faithful to you and to the Church you founded. That whatever circumstances conspire to get in the way of that promise, I shall be steadfast, I will not break my word. 

It is no trivial thing, no transitory attachment. One does not make provisional promises to God. Or to the Bride to whom God has given Himself over, making Himself more present to her than she could possibly be present to herself. St. Augustine tells us that the moment he began talking about the Church, about the Bride he had fallen helplessly in love with, he simply could not stop.  

And why was that? Because, quite simply, he had found Christ in her. She is like the lunar light we are drawn to, are comforted by the sight and the warmth of, because of that far greater, that infinitely brighter light of the sun which she reflects. Or, as St. Francis of Assisi would say, “It is not Christianity that I love, but Christ whom I find in Christianity.” It is He whom we are to love, who animates and shapes the love we are to give to the Church, indeed, to lavish upon her. 

If the whole point of the Church is to show us Christ, who shows us the face of God—if she exists only in order to lead us to Him, imparting His life to us—then what greater esteem can we pay her than to love her? And why shouldn’t we love her? After all, it is because of her that we are able to love Him.

“It is quite possible,” Georges Bernanos has suggested, “that Saint Francis of Assisi was not any less thrown into revolt than Luther by the debauchery and simony of prelates.” Why, then, should he have been less incensed by the infidelities that gathered round to defile the Bride? “The Church is wounded,” St. Ambrose reminds us, “not in herself but in us. Let us have a care, then, lest our sin should become the Church’s wound.” 

But unlike the relentless and rabid Luther, Brother Francis did not fixate upon the corruptions within the Church; he was not even tempted to do so. “Instead,” says Bernanos, “he threw himself into poverty, immersing himself in it as deeply as possible among his followers.” Rather than setting out to despoil the Church as did an enraged Luther, “he overwhelmed her with invisible treasures, and under the hand of this beggar the heaps of gold and lust began blossoming like an April hedge.”  

The only acceptable way to renew the life of the Church, therefore, is not by insult and revilement—there is no shortage of these—but by a willingness to suffer for her, to undertake a life of virtue on her behalf. To stay the course, in other words, like de Lubac who, when silenced by stupid superiors who should have known better, kept silent, awaiting better days to come. Meanwhile, redeeming the time; which, in de Lubac’s case, became The Splendor of the Church, a symphonic masterpiece which, for thirty years or more, I’ve been performing for my students. 

That is what Ignatius Press and Fr. Fessio, who catalyzed it all into existence, have made possible for countless Catholics: an apostolate for providing wise and beautiful books—to keep alive the historical memory of what a Catholic culture steeped in learning and piety actually looks like.  

“What the Church needs,” concluded Bernanos, “is not critics but artists…When poetry is in full crisis, the important thing is not to point the finger at bad poets, but oneself to write beautiful poems, thus unstopping the sacred springs.” 

Such beautiful poems Fr. Fessio has given us. For which we are no end of grateful.    


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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