JOURNEYING WITH YOUTH
By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia
Be it simple complexity or complex simplicity, I encounter it a few minutes into my conversation with Samuel Vermeulen. He’s preparing to enter the Australian Jesuits and is waiting at a departure gate at Sydney airport on his way to the novitiate in the Philippines. His most immediate issue is to ensure that he doesn’t lose his boarding card or wander away when the flight is boarding. We’re talking about how Manila now represents the next big step in his life and he says: “The heart of Jesuit spirituality is realising how much God has given you.”
So you tell me: is this simple complexity or complex simplicity? Whatever your answer, the profundity and depth of that sentence is compelling. “I was probably about 19 or 20 when I started to really understand where my life was going,” he says. “There were many different factors – all seemingly separate but still inter-connected in a way – that brought me to the Jesuits. The starting point of that journey was my fierce interest in what I would describe as Christian radicalism from a young age, even before I was Catholic.
“I was very inter-church when I was young. I grew up Pentecostal but then I fell off the Pentecostal train after being drawn to the social implications of the Gospel and the Church. I think my conversion to Catholicism at 17 was prompted by a desire to follow the social teaching of the Catholic Church, a big inspiration in the process of my conversion. I had a significant interest in Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement and I was also influenced by the late Jesuit, Fr Daniel Berrigan, who had links with them. His peace activism, for which he spent a total of seven years in prison, was part of his consistent ethic of life which led him to protest against war.
“When I started discerning religious life, I had a pretty natural leaning towards the Jesuits. I had friends involved in politics and friends who identified as queer, so I found that trying to navigate that in a Christian way was really difficult. As a young person dealing with a lot of very challenging things in the secular world, I found that the Jesuits were the ones who were consistently talking about these things in a way that was not just faithful but charitable as well. That said, the Jesuits helped me find my way through those important issues. That was an added attraction to the Society.
“I always had an interest in missionary work and that was a big motivator for me. My grandfather was a missionary in Papua New Guinea and he was a very big influence on me. He didn’t showboat it around or anything, but his experiences were a significant part of our family history. Zeal for the Gospel was always present in my family.
“I grew up with a very white upper middle-class kind of Christianity and then when I started taking the Christian faith seriously, I realised that it was quite radical in terms of not just loving the poor but loving your enemy as well. It was about loving those who are regarded by some as quite difficult to love – the dispossessed, the widow, the orphan.
“I think that was why I started gravitating towards Christians who were conscious of that. I was lucky enough to meet young Catholics who also had that concern. I spent time in other churches too – a Lutheran Church and a house Church as well. But Christian radicalism and that side of things isn’t just restricted to political activism. It needs to be strongly tied to spirituality and mysticism as well, which I found was more the case in the Catholic Church.
“At this pivotal point in my life and exploring my vocation, what really drives me is a combination of all those factors. I know whatever happens next, it won’t be me doing the guiding or making the decisions, it’ll be God.”
On his path to this vocation, did the realisation occur as a light–bulb moment or a slow burn?
“Oh, definitely a slow burn. A slow, slow burn. Gradual, with a lot of small steps. I think it’s a process of being prepared for this since I was born, actually. I can’t imagine jumping into this without a lot of preparation or discernment.”
That’s so Jesuit, I remark.
“Yes. I love St Augustine’s reference to the way life makes more sense when you look at it backwards. It’s the point at which you’ve had all these different experiences and then all of a sudden you look back on them and you’re able to make order out of chaos. That happens because you’re looking at them in entirety, and from a completely reverse perspective. That’s been my experience too and now that I’m about to get on a plane and I’m heading to the novitiate, it’s a real time to recollect and reflect.”
Speaking of key moments in life, does he actually remember what he was doing at the time when he became convinced about his vocation?
He chuckles. “I can’t actually remember. I do recall certain moments, though. For instance, when I got the letter saying I had been accepted into the novitiate, I was on a train somewhere. Another thing I do remember was when I was coming to Sydney from Perth at the start of the year and after boarding the plane I was about to switch my phone to airplane mode. Just before I did that, I thought I should check my emails quickly and that’s when I got the heads-up that the novitiate was not going to be in Adelaide, as it had been, but was moving to the Philippines!”
What did his family say when he first told them about his decision? “It’s actually difficult to describe, because you can’t really compare it to anything else. It’s not like you’re getting married. It’s not like just moving somewhere to study. It’s a really unique thing and it’s hard to put into words. Obviously my parents were very supportive despite their natural pain at my leaving. I think that’s kind of beautiful though, because it strengthens the deep relationship I have with my parents and my family.”
What thoughts are going through his mind at the departure gate as he embarks on a whole new chapter in his life?
“I have a strong resolve, but there is a little bit homesickness already, after a lot of goodbyes in Perth and Sydney over the last couple of months. I think there’s a letter of Saint Francis Xavier where he talks about feeling ill prepared. I can identify with that! But that in itself gives me confidence because I know whatever happens, it won’t be me doing the guiding or making the decisions, it’ll be God. There’s a real comfort in surrendering to that.
“My current mindset is: I’ve done my part, I’ve got myself here, now God will do His part and lead me somewhere else. What happens next is a process of discovery where I’ll be trusting in God’s will more than mine.”