This Quarantined Holy Week I’m Thinking of a Brother Jesuit in Jail

The Kings Bay 7 carry a photograph of Fr. Steve Kelly, S.J., their co-defendant in jail before their trial in October 2019. Photograph courtesy of the Kings Bay Plowshares support team.

It’s because of Holy Week that we can approach the Coronavirus crisis with the hope we do. It’s because of Holy Week that we approach death the way we do. It’s because of Holy Week that Christians are anything at all. There is no doubt, and you will read this in so many tweets these days, this is “the holiest week of the year.” 

There are consequences to this week, however. 

“What is truth?” Pilate will ask Jesus. (John 18:38)  And Jesus will answer with his life. 

I’ve been thinking this week about a Jesuit brother of mine who has been sitting in jail in Brunswick, Georgia for the last two years trying to do the same: answer with his life. 

In the grand scheme of things, few people know about Fr. Steve Kelly, S.J. Few will ever know about him. Little will probably change because of Fr. Steve Kelly, S.J. Maybe some hearts. Perhaps the knowledge held by certain judges and court officials about nuclear weapons and bombs and Christianity. Definitely the schedules of jury members. Other than this, I expect little else will change. 

But, Fr. Steve and his friends aren’t concerned with being effective. They are concerned with being faithful, with giving witness to the truth with their lives. 

Fr. Steve is in jail because he broke into Kings Bay Naval Base two years ago with six other Catholics to “nonviolently and symbolically disarm the Trident nuclear submarine base.” They were protesting the ultimate logic of nuclear weapons which they say is omnicide.

The Catholics spray-painted scripture quotes on sidewalks, hung banners on the administration building, symbolically poured their own blood on the buildings, and used hammers to damage statues of nuclear missiles. It was, of course, highly illegal to enter this base. You can read more about their actions here and more about Fr. Steve here.  

I am moved by their actions. And, I’m mostly convinced by the arguments they give for their decisions. More than anything, however, I’m struck by their purity of heart. Their conviction. Their ability to stand like Jesus with such peace and propose the truth with their lives. 

Steve continues to enter my prayer these days as I contemplate the consequences of this Holy Week. His life and the decisions he has made are so conformed to the consequences of this week. He has spared no convenience in trying to give his life for what he feels God has called him (and us) to do. 

Fr. Steve will eventually be sentenced to time in prison, and it won’t be a negligible number of years. He will serve it, he will offer it. He will minister to people inside the prison walls, and he will write to many of us about the incredibly unjust carceral system. He will minister to prisoners as a fellow prisoner. He will refuse to eat meat and offer that up too. From all accounts, he will live what looks from the outside a very uncomfortable and inconvenient life for a number of years. 

And I will think of him often and question, did he really need to do that? Did he need to inconvenience himself in such an awful way? Is this whole business really that practical, realistic, prudent?

And, I will recall his letters that speak not only of the carceral system or nuclear weapons or the evils of white supremacy. I will recall seeing these words alongside Steve’s assurance that he feels privileged to share in the Lord’s sufferings. 

He wrote to me, “I carry a privilege in all humility, the meditation on third humility 1 is the heart of A.M.D.G.” 2

He refers to the Spiritual Exercises, the heart of Jesuit Spirituality. St. Ignatius describes this third type of humility like this: 

“In order to imitate and be more actually like Christ our Lord, I want and choose poverty with Christ poor rather than riches, insults with Christ rather than honors; and to desire to be rated as worthless and a fool for Christ, who first was held as such, rather than wise or prudent in this world.”

Fr. Steve is very much a fool for Christ and indeed rated as such rather than wise or prudent. And as we go through Holy Week and I see Christ giving up his comforts, hiding his divinity, and choosing such sacrificial love that we may be free, I am left with these other questions from St. Ignatius: What have you done for Christ? What are you doing for Christ? What ought you do for Christ?

  1. From Tim Muldoon’s “Three Kinds of Humility” — “St. Ignatius, like many spiritual masters over the centuries, suggested that humility was a prerequisite for the spiritual life. In his Spiritual Exercises, he described three kinds of humility: 1.) To humble myself to total obedience to God; 2.) To be ready for honor or dishonor, poverty or wealth, or anything else for God; and 3.) To desire poverty, dishonor, and even be a fool for God, since Christ was. The last of these, he said, was the most perfect, because it expressed a desire to be like Christ.”
  2. A.M.D.G. is short for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, the Latin motto of the Jesuits, “For the Greater Glory of God.”

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