Jesuit Novice Tony Cortese: Rules and Rebellion
Many students first saw Tony Cortese sitting in Benson dining hall behind a sign that said, “Hi, I’m Tony, a Jesuit novice. I’m available to chat. I’m not here to preach, to judge or to be obnoxiously religious.” Tony is in the second year of a 10-year process of becoming a Jesuit priest. He will take the three Jesuit vows of poverty, chastity and obedience this August. On campus, he has spent time in Campus Ministry, with SCCAP, and getting to know students.
Tony will spend the summer at a language school in Tijuana, take vows at Santa Clara in August, then attend Fordham University for a Masters in Philosophy starting this fall. Tony will only be at Santa Clara through May 22, so make sure to say hello before he continues his journey.
Selected Interview Highlights
Gavin Cosgrave: Why do you want to become a Jesuit?
Tony Cortese: My story is not as dramatic as some. I compare my story to a slow love story. You see someone who’s attractive and it slowly grows. I was raised pretty traditionally Catholic, and I would argue, a little too traditionally Catholic. When I was at Chico State (every time I say “Chico State” here, students giggle and ask if I partied, and I just smile) I discovered another side of the Catholic world when I got involved in Campus Ministry. The first person I met there was this incredible priest, and the second person was this gorgeous young woman. I though, “I think I want to keep doing this!”
I knew I didn’t want to get married anytime soon since I wanted to travel and have adventures. I did grad school at Sacramento State, and I was dating. There was a year period when the people around me noticed I was trying to spend some time alone. Some people around me asked if I had thought about priesthood or religious life. That planted a seed.
Eventually I met some Jesuits, and they seemed really joyful. They were not afraid to be a little bit on the rebellious side. I got a Jesuit spiritual director and discovered Ignation spirituality. Part of that is using your imagination, and so I started imagining my future.
I decided to give it a shot, and so far it’s been the most peaceful and life-giving experience I’ve ever had. I get to be close to so many people.
GC: What have been the most impactful experiences in your time at Santa Clara?
TC: I was most stunned when they asked me to read a reflection at the walk-out to end gun violence. I looked up and realized how many people were there. I felt a little bit of responsibility, and a sense that it was so beautiful that they all came out class for this. I got this weird privilege of bringing us to prayer in a way that isn’t obnoxiously religious and is open to the religious diversity to campus. I was kind of a public figure right then.
My favorite thing here though is one-on-ones with students. It’s a privilege for me to be able to journey with a student who may need to share about the weight they may be feeling. I’m not there to fix anything, but I can journey with, and that’s where community is built.
GC: People normally think of being a Jesuit as a very restrictive lifestyle. How do you think about rules versus freedom and what options are open to you as a Jesuit with that lifestyle?
TC: One of the hardest things about religion is that there’s a human tendency to view religion as an institution for rules and then we become slaves to rules. The Jesus story, in my experience, flips that. He doesn’t ignore rules, but it’s a matter of approach.
Do I harbor some disagreement with the church? Yes. It’s a discernment process for how to go about that. I acknowledge the importance of structure—there’s a reason why the institution has survived for 2,000 years.
I will be taking three vows in August. When we think of vows, we think of restrictions. That is not very life-giving. The vows are poverty, chastity and obedience.
Poverty doesn’t mean that the lifestyle I’m entering will bring me to sleep on the street. What it does mean is that I will not own anything under my own name. I will share, and if we have excess, our call is to give that excess to those who need it more. We’re called to live simply.
Chastity is the weird one according to society. As I talk to people, they say the word conjures up images of sexual purity codes and a bunch of “no’s.” If I approach chastity like that, I am going to be a repressed sexual being. That is not our invitation to chastity. Chastity the way I am living and moving into it is a healthy sexuality. It’s a deep recognition that sexuality is so much of who we are, and with that, there are great invitations to use that in a way that gives life.
Jesuits commit to celibate chastity, which means we are not going to be entering into exclusive romance. I’m still learning a lot about it. What I think I’m doing is saying yes to something deeper in me. By not getting married, it’s not that we think this is a holier way to live. This is just a lifestyle choice to become radically available to people. It wouldn’t make sense for me to have a wife and kids because it wouldn’t be fair to them. This is a weird lifestyle where we travel around a lot.
The last vow is obedience. It means that I am choosing to be available to where I’m needed and sent. I trust that there will be a mutual discernment process between me and my superiors about where I can best serve. There’s also an obedience to my Jesuit brothers where I’m committing to our life together.
For me the three vows are beautiful invitations to say “yes” to something. They give me a lot of life right now. They’re not perfect, and I accept that.
GC: What role do you see the Jesuit community or Catholic Church playing in human rights, climate change and other problems facing the world?
TC: It’s a huge reason why I joined the Jesuits, because I’ve seen the commitment to social justice. What I’m most attracted to is that it’s a commitment to a mutuality. It’s not about volunteerism, hopefully what we’re entering into is a mutual exchange of love. I’m showing my wounds and weaknesses and you’re showing yours, and let’s share a meal together, build relationships and expand the circle of compassion.
I need to stand on the US-Mexico border, meet people and care deeply for them. I need to be in the prisons and Juvenile Hall. I need to be in the hospitals. I need to be reaching out to people who have been hurt by the church. We’re invited to be on the margins. There are a lot of people who have been marginalized by religion.
Somehow we turn religion into “I’m right, you’re wrong” or “I’m in, you’re out” club. As a Jesuit, I hope I can spend my life breaking down that barrier. I’m very passionate about issues of sexuality. I think the Jesuits have a unique voice to play there. We just meet people where they are instead of bringing a clipboard. Our job is to meet people where they are and recognize the complexity of every human life. You can do that in a way that doesn’t water down the gospel.
GC: On a lighter note, what do you like to do for fun?
TC: I’m obsessed with the oceans and hiking. I used to want to be a meteorologist. I love storm chasing. Yesterday with the thunderstorm I was in heaven. I work out at least six days per week, and I do yoga. Ultimate Frisbee still has a big part of my heart. I love watching baseball. Sorry to all of you who think baseball is boring, you just have a short attention span!
GC: How did you get into Ultimate Frisbee? I found a bio of you on this Jesuit website and figured out that we both loved the SF Giants and Ultimate Frisbee.
TC: When I was in grad school, a group of us decided to start tossing a disc around. We looked up the rules and started a pickup thing in Sacrament that’s still going.
GC: You know, I think I played there quite a few times. I have a friend who has a math tutor and I played Ultimate on a club team the last few years of high school. On Saturdays, some of us would go to Sac State.
TC: You had a familiar face when I met you! :)