NEWTON - Dan Kennedy will graduate from Boston College on Monday, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and the recipient of the school’s most prestigious prize, the Edward H. Finnegan Award.
Winners of the Finnegan, given to the student who best exemplifies the BC motto, “ever to excel,’’ tend to go big - top grad schools, Wall Street, overseas fellowships. Kennedy is planning to give away his computer, recycle his Blackberry, and move to a modest communal house in St. Paul, Minn.
He will get $75 a month for incidentals. He will have no romantic relationships. He will go where his superiors ask him to go, and do what they ask him to do. If all goes well, Kennedy - “Dan-o’’ to his friends - can hope to be ordained a Jesuit priest in 2023.
Entering a religious order straight out of college is rare these days, particularly for a standout student at an elite school. One or two graduating BC seniors enter seminary each year, but never in recent memory has a Finnegan winner done so.
“Um, I could never see Dan-o on Wall Street,’’ Shannon Griesser, a junior, said, laughing. “I’ve never met such a kind human being, to the core.’’
Kennedy is no hermit, though. The 22-year-old and his three roommates are weekend regulars at popular student hangouts like Moogy’s restaurant and Mary Ann’s bar. As he walked around campus last week, iPod-wearing guys in shades and flip-flops slapped him five.
But he is hardly a “laxbro,’’ either, as one of his theology professors, Stephen Pope, quipped. (The term is slang for a lacrosse-obsessed frat brother.)
Medium height and solidly built, the bespectacled Kennedy keeps his room in military order, his comforter neatly folded, paper clips and pens exactingly arrayed in his desk drawer. He uses words like “unitive,’’ as in, “There’s nothing more unitive than enjoying a meal together.’’ There is no self-consciousness in his voice when he talks about his motivation for becoming a Jesuit: “My personal relationship with Jesus Christ.’’
“It’s the love I feel from God, and how I want to reciprocate that,’’ he said.
At the 10:15 p.m., Mass at Corcoran Commons last Sunday, Kennedy tended to his duties as sacristan in a faded green shirt, khakis and Crocs. He could scarcely take a step without someone hugging him or clapping him on the shoulder, and he stopped, again and again, to reciprocate. He radiated affability but spoke quietly,drawing privacy from the noise of the crowd.
“There’s a thing at BC called the ‘BC lookaway,’ where you meet somebody out or in class or you see them on campus, and you kind of look at your phone or look away,’’ said Dave Cronin, a senior. “Dan-o does not do the BC lookaway. He calls you by name. He knows who you are.’’
“And it’s never ‘Hi,’ and keep walking. It’s ‘Hi, how are you?’ ’’ said Brian Palumbo, also a senior. “You can tell he actually wants to know.’’
And at an age often given to trying on different identities and trading one set of friends for another, Kennedy seems unusually constant.
“Dan-o is as rock-solid as they get,’’ said his roommate, Christopher “Chritty’’ Schuele. “Everyone knows the same Dan-o.’’
Kennedy is entering the Jesuit novitiate at a time when membership in religious orders is shrinking. The Jesuits’ ranks worldwide have dwindled to about half their peak of 36,000 in the mid-1960s. Just 32 Americans entered the order as novices last year.
The Roman Catholic Church is still reeling from the sexual abuse crisis and facing a severe shortage of priests in the United States. Recent actions by the church hierarchy - including the Vatican’s reprimand of American nuns and the US bishops’ investigation of the Girl Scouts - have drawn scathing criticism.
Kennedy says he sees the church as a dynamic institution, and that he feels responsible for helping to bring about its renewal.
“I’m not entering the church of 50 years ago or 500 years ago. I’m entering the church in 2012,’’ he said. “So you have to be realistic about the challenges of the images of priesthood in this day and age. . . . I don’t find it daunting, but it’s going to be a challenge.’’
He says he shares some of the critics’ questions, such as why the Vatican decided to investigate the US nuns, and why the church has taken such a hard line against gay relationships. He talks about the importance of lay empowerment and of affirming the role of women as leaders in the church. When he becomes a priest, he says, he plans to adopt a consensus-building approach, as some of the best priests he knows have done.
“The intentions of leadership within the church I don’t think are bad - I don’t think they wake up every day and say, ‘How can we make someone’s life miserable?’’’ he said. “But . . . what is the lived experience of Catholics today? You have to account for that.’’
Kennedy never dated in high school or college. He says he did not plan it that way, and thought hard about this as he considered joining the Jesuits. But, he said, being single and having “that ability to be with people at a second’s notice - that always excited me more, held my imagination more than dating did.’’
Whether the celibate life is right for him will be one of many questions on his mind as he continues his discernment process this year, he said, and he’s open to “what God has in store’’ for him. “One never knows with the God of surprises,” he said.
Kennedy grew up in Toledo, Ohio, the second of three boys born to Mark Kennedy, a structural engineer, and Carol Kennedy, a pediatrician. His parents, who met in high school, are faithful Catholics who attend Mass every week, but they would not call themselves unusually religious.
Their middle son was another story. He played hockey and lacrosse like his brothers, but as a young boy, he pored over his father’s copy of “Lives of the Saints.’’ At 5, he told adults inquiring about his future ambitions that he planned to become pope.
“I was like, ‘OK,’ ’’ his mother said in a phone interview. “Not that this little boy grew up with a halo on his head, because he didn’t.’’
At St. John’s, a Jesuit boys’ high school, where he was manager of the hockey team and student body president, he became increasingly interested in his spirituality. He was fascinated, in particular, by the story of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a Basque nobleman who in 1521 experienced a religious conversion and later founded the “Society of Jesus.’’ Originally established to “help souls,’’ the order quickly adopted education as its spiritual mission, opening schools across Reformation-era Europe.
The Jesuits’ distinctive spirituality, now widely adopted by laypeople and even non-Catholics, is characterized by prayerful reflection and self-scrutiny, engagement with the world and, above all, “finding God in all things.’’
“Contemplatives in action,’’ as they call themselves, the Jesuits eschew monastic life, dress in street clothes, and work in the world, especially in higher education. In the United States, the order runs about five dozen high schools and 28 colleges and universities, including Boston College.
A theology and philosophy double major, Kennedy threw himself into his studies, which included a semester studying Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal. Outside of class, he helped oversee an intensive service learning program for BC students and participated in volunteer service trips to Belize and Mexico.
“He studies a lot of philosophy and theology because he takes it to heart; the material and books we talk about in class have a bearing on how to live,’’ Pope said. “His extracurriculars at BC are a reflection of the whole person, not something to put on his resume.’’
Many of his closest BC friends are religious - but many are not. Florence Candel, an atheist who said she arrived at school with “a lot of anger at the church,’’ developed a strong friendship with Kennedy, who presented a face of Catholicism that Candel said she had never seen before - open, accepting, and embracing her questions as invitations for conversation. “Dan-o just basically taught me that to say I have a lack of faith is incorrect,’’ she said. “I obviously have faith in some things. Maybe not the same faith as people around me have, but that’s OK.’’
Candel still calls herself an atheist, but she sometimes participated in the informal “examens’’ Kennedy held for friends in his room on Monday nights. A cornerstone of Ignatian spirituality, the examination of consciousness is a ritual of prayerful reflection on daily life.
For 15 or 20 minutes, the group would sit together in Kennedy’s dorm room, a suite shared with three roommates, and silently consider questions Kennedy posed: “Where did you encounter God today? When could you have been more loving? What were you grateful for?’’
“I love that because they’re big questions, but they’re grounded in reality,’’ said Candel, who said she now tries to do a five-minute version by herself each night.
The daily examen is just one of the ways Kennedy continued to explore Jesuit life. In addition to attending Mass at least once a week, and getting to know the Jesuits on campus, he began to meet with a spiritual director, the Rev. William B. Neenan, BC’s vice president and special assistant to the president.
He established contact while in high school with the Jesuits in the Chicago-Detroit Province, which covers five Midwestern states, including Ohio. He kept in regular touch with the Rev. Patrick A. Fairbanks, the provincial assistant to vocations, during his junior year of college. By the time Fairbanks invited him to apply in his senior year, he had developed “a collecting consciousness within myself that this is it.’’
Last month, after an extensive application process, Fairbanks called with good news. Kennedy, ecstatic, sent out a text to several dozen friends: “N S J,’’ the letters he can now, as a novice in the Society of Jesus, put after his name.
The road ahead is a long one, and usually more than half of all novices leave before the 11-year preparation for the priesthood concludes, Fairbanks said.
Kennedy will spend the first two years doing a series of “experiments’’ imitating the life of St. Ignatius, including a 30-day silent retreat, stints working at a hospital and with the poor. He will study a foreign language, and he will go on a pilgrimage with just $10 in his pocket and a letter from his superiors to speed his progress.
After the first two years, Kennedy will be sent to study philosophy for three years at a Jesuit university; then he will probably teach at one of the Jesuit high schools in the province. In the following three years, he will earn a master’s of divinity, preparing him for ordination.
Where will he go from there? It is impossible to know. The Rev. Jim Martin, who left a job at GE to become a Jesuit priest, has worked with street gangs in Chicago, helped refugees start small businesses in Kenya, and worked as a prison chaplain in Massachusetts; he is now culture editor of America Magazine.
“Entering the Jesuits was the best decision I ever made,’’ Martin says. “He is in for an exciting life.”