Friday 24 August 2012

Remembering a Prophet and Leader: Fr. Jim Webb, S.J. (1944–2012)

By Edmund Lo and Santiago Rodriguez, S.J.

Some have understood prophets as those who hear the voice of God in the cry of his people. It can be said that this description also fits the late Fr. Jim Webb, S. J.

Fr. Webb—henceforth, Jim—was the former Provincial Superior of the Jesuits in English Canada who recently died of cancer. He was a man who was deeply in touch with God's poor. He learned very early in his Jesuit life that in order to authentically live out the vow of poverty, there is a need to live with the Jesus who is present in the poor and humble of our world. In a sense, Jim heard the cry of the poor and he longed to become a companion of the poor Jesus. He found this motivation in the second week of the Spiritual Exercises, in which the key grace is to follow Jesus Christ as closely and concretely as possible.

His personal identification with the poor and humiliated Jesus led him to seek the poor in our world—be it at West Avenue in Toronto, in Jamaica or in other places—in order to develop deep and life-giving friendships with them. He sought authentic friendships with the members of the mystical body of Christ. He was aware that his ministry with the poor was a kind of sacrament: it was both a sign of and a means to become closer to the poor and humble Christ. Indeed, as we become closer to the poor, we become closer to Jesus.

Jim once told the Jesuits in formation that the more regularly we take time for discernment and prayer, the more fruitful the Jesuit ministry will be. This ministry will in turn feed and nourish our prayer life. As we become more prayerful and sensitive to the Lord's prompting in our ministries with the poor, we shall better see how the Lord is with us and transforms us through them. Jim understood this very well. For him, this was a good example of being a “contemplative in action”; this is what every Jesuit is called to be.

Jim was also a man who led and inspired in many different ways, a characteristic of a good leader. We would like to hereby highlight an unusual way in which he demonstrated his leadership: the way he carried himself as he was dying.

It was around January of this year when some of us began to take notice of his obvious weight loss, and the news on the metastasis of his cancer was made known in February. At that time, he honestly looked horrible; skinny as a skeleton, and “pale as a piece of paper” as the Chinese would say. It would not surprise me if his countenance managed to scare away a few young children. But he did not try to hide it. He carried on with many of his duties, ones that a terminally-ill person would normally avoid.

I remembered a speech that he gave at a public event in February, in which he said, “As I approach the end of my priestly life, I can honestly say that I have no regrets.” Here was a man who did not have the “Live-strong” motto of Lance Armstrong, because he quietly realized that not everything could be conquered; it was not a battle to be won or lost. It was a life to be lived, a life that has a beginning and an end. Jim was neither unrealistic nor cynical about his pending death. He was realistic about it in the most authentic sense: he knew that he was dying, and he was looking at his life through this lens.

Coming to terms with one's fate, if you will, is nothing new. Choosing to face it publicly is another matter. Most of us choose to face our sickness – and our vulnerability in general – away from others. Jim chose to die in front of our own eyes, allowing us to witness his physical decline without any reservations. He had firmly grasped the truth that death is not so intimidating after all, as it does not have the last word; suffering and dying do not define our destiny as human beings. This is only made possible through Christ Jesus, whose death and resurrection relegates death to a beginning of the next journey. To carry about in one's body the dying of Jesus (2 Cor 4:10) is an authentic way to lead by example, and it is a humble yet powerful way to give witness to the concrete meaning of our salvation.

For more on Fr. Jim Webb, check out this video interview by Tim Wilson and this obituary written by Jean Lowrie-Chin.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, guys. It's a beautiful and touching tribute to a truly great man. And a clear proclamation of faith. Amen!