By Tracey Primrose
To read the story in Spanish, click here.
Jesuit Father Robert Hussey, the new provincial of the Maryland Province Jesuits, has a Ph.D. in economics. A veteran economics professor who’s also bilingual, he can explain the most sophisticated economic concepts in both English and Spanish. Plus, he’s good at riding a donkey.
At St. Raphael’s in Raleigh, North Carolina, a diverse parish where Fr. Hussey just finished serving as pastor for six years, the Spanish Mass on Palm Sunday is one of the highlights of the parish’s liturgical calendar. Mass starts with the congregation reenacting Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. At the front of the procession, assuming the donkey cooperates, is Fr. Hussey. While honored to be asked to represent Jesus, Fr. Hussey laughs as he remembers climbing aboard a recalcitrant donkey thinking, “this was not in the vocations brochure.”
In his 25 years as a Jesuit, there have been countless joyful, life-affirming, soul-nourishing moments, which never could have been captured in a vocations brochure.
The oldest of four boys, Fr. Hussey grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His dad was a physics professor at Louisiana State University, and his mom was a teacher who became the principal of an inner-city school. His parents met through LSU’s Catholic Student Center; their first outing was a service trip to a local leprosy hospital. It was an auspicious beginning.
Fr. Hussey says that faith was always an important part of family life. And it was important in the community too. In predominantly-Catholic Baton Rouge in the early 1970s, neighborhood moms would take turns hosting CCD classes, and kids would ride their bikes to attend weekly sessions.
The idea of a religious vocation first entered Fr. Hussey’s imagination while attending Catholic High School in Baton Rouge. But his true vocational discernment was many years down the road. First, there was an undergraduate degree in economics, which he earned at LSU, followed by doctoral studies at Duke University in North Carolina.
His time at Duke helped Fr. Hussey “discover who I wanted to be as an adult Catholic. The practice of the faith was so connected with my family, but now I was on my own.” Active in his local parish, Fr. Hussey was excited about the role he could play as a layperson, but a men’s retreat upended his carefully made plans. Expecting the retreat to confirm the direction he was taking as a lay partner, he instead found he identified most closely with the priest and seminarian who led the retreat. He began discerning in earnest and, like any good economist, analyzed every option before deciding that God was calling him to the Jesuits.
From the outset, he was attracted to the Jesuits’ spirituality, which he calls, “world-affirming and world-engaged, a way of praying that is life-giving for me.” After finishing his Ph.D. in 1989, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pennsylvania.
Throughout his 11-year Jesuit formation, Fr. Hussey remained engaged in economics, at one point teaching the subject to graduate students in Santiago, Chile. The fact that he didn’t speak a word of Spanish was of no consequence. After several months of intensive language study, “a humbling experience,” he was let loose in the classroom. In his free time, he did pastoral work with the poor.
Serving later as a deacon at St. Ignatius Parish in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, for a year before his ordination in 2000, Fr. Hussey learned something important about himself: he loves to preach. He admits that he didn’t think preaching would be one of his natural talents, but he is happy to “help make the Scriptures come alive for people.” And, when appropriate, he infuses his sermons with economics, reminding parishioners that the “most significant IPO in history is Pentecost because Christ took his great enterprise public.”
Following ordination, he served for five years as an assistant professor of economics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Calling it “wonderful work,” Fr. Hussey was busy teaching, researching and immersing himself in a vibrant academic community. Knowing that he wanted to continue his pastoral outreach, he said weekly Mass in Spanish at the DC Jail. “Guys there were so hungry,” he recalls. “One of the most characteristic experiences of my Jesuit life over the years is that we walk in very different worlds, and we can be at home in all of them.”
Although he found his work as an economics professor gratifying, Fr. Hussey missed full-time pastoral ministry and in 2008 was assigned as the pastor at St. Raphael’s. A large parish, St. Raphael’s serves 3,900 families and has a K-8 school and a booming program in Hispanic ministry.
The pastor/economist was running a small business — one that employed more than 80 people. He was making decisions about everything from constructing a new parish activity center to replacing a crumbling 200-year-old rectory. Importantly, he was ministering to his flock and doing so in English and Spanish. “For many Hispanic people, the parish is their port in the storm. It’s a place they can take ownership of — when they don’t have ownership of much else. Feeling like they have a home where they can celebrate in their own language is key.” He loved every minute of it, particularly preaching in Spanish.
Now ready to embark on another challenge — one that blends his leadership skills with his love of pastoral care — Fr. Hussey takes on the role of provincial of the Jesuits of the Maryland Province. He will be charged with caring not only for the Jesuits of the province, but caring for the mission of the Society of Jesus.
To date, there have been four Ps that have defined Fr. Hussey’s Jesuit life: priest, pastor, preacher and professor. With this new assignment, he adds provincial to that list.
Ready to take on another challenge, he says, “I love the Lord, I love what he is about. And I love being part of sharing that good news.”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.