Fr. Jayme Stayer, S.J., talks about his commitment to the priesthood
By Karly Kovac ’15
Fr. Jayme Stayer, S.J., suffered the first panic attack of his life – all of his family and friends were in town, and he was frantically preparing the last touches to make his day of commitment just right. He was being ordained a Jesuit priest. Fortunately for him, a brother Jesuit who was also a medical doctor had Xanax, which calmed him down and enabled him to enjoy the weekend.
“What was complicated about my ordination was the same for anyone getting married or ordained – and I’m high strung, which didn’t help things,” he says. “However, the ceremony, music, reception, pictures – all those were external. For me, the primary sense of what was going on during ordination was that I had spent 10 years training for the priesthood, and entering the Jesuits was my way of giving myself to the church.”
Fr. Stayer, an assistant professor in the English department at John Carroll, celebrated the day God gave him back to the church – June 13, 2013. With his good friend Fr. Patrick Gilger, S.J., sharing the day of the ceremony at Madonna della Strada Chapel at Loyola University of Chicago, it was a milestone in a long journey toward his calling.
“St. Irenaeus said, ‘The glory of God is the human being fully alive,’ and that’s what any vocation is,” he says. “We are all called in different ways to live joyful, purposeful lives.”The beginning stage of entering the priesthood within the Jesuit order is called the novitiate. During this two-year period, men are put into various situations and are given opportunities to challenge themselves and their commitment toward a more-than-a-decade-long process.
“The novitiate is like dating,” Fr. Stayer says. “You’re on board with someone and agree not to see anybody else, and you’re seeing how things work. Then, when you take vows at the end of your novitiate, it’s like being married and making the commitment.”
Subsequently, there are several Jesuit ideals to which one must commit. The three sacrifices Fr. Stayer vows to keep as a Jesuit are poverty, chastity, and obedience.
“From the perspective of the outside world, those are very countercultural vows,” he says. “They counter money, power, and sex – the primary values of our culture. So, the world looks at these Jesuit values and sees them as great sacrifice and pain. And I won’t sugarcoat it, they’re sacrifices, but they’re also liberating.”
From the age of 35 to 45, Fr. Stayer has had many Jesuits guiding him along the way at various stages of his formation. Those who impressed him most were those who exude a sense of humor and joy living as Jesuit priests.
“A sense of joy is characteristic of any vocation,” he says. “If you are married, meant to be married, and committed to that marriage, it should be obvious how happy you are. Sure, there will be difficult times, but if someone is married for 10 years and they’re miserable, then something’s wrong. It might be because of a wrong decision they’ve made or they haven’t fully committed to the reality they’re asked to live in that marriage.”
As Fr. Stayer lay face down in the aisle of the church during his ordination, listening to his family and friends pray for him and Fr. Gilger during the litany of the saints, it affirmed his sense that the people of God wanted him to be a priest for them and God.
“One of my friends was weeping after the ceremony and said it was the best wedding she had ever seen,” Fr. Stayer says, adding the ceremony was complete with music planned by him and sung by his colleagues from the Chicago Symphony Chorus, with whom he had sung when he lived in Chicago. “I knew what she meant, because I was being married to God, that was her sense of it. But the way in which it’s different from a wedding is that a wedding is private – it’s two people giving themselves to each other, with friends and family witnessing that from afar. An ordination is more public – it’s the church acclaiming men to be servants for them. When you attend a wedding, you witness the happiness of the married couple. But laypeople attend an ordination to witness their own happiness: ‘We get this priest. Now he’s ours.’”
• Has been a professional singer with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
• Is a T.S. Eliot scholar and is finishing a book manuscript, “Becoming T. S. Eliot: The Rhetoric of Vice and Audience in Inventions of the March Hare”
• Has several published articles about Igor Stravinsky, Ludwig van Beethoven, and 20th-century poetry
• Has published a rhetoric textbook, “Think About It: Critical Skills for Academic Writing,” with co-authors John and Karen Mauk.
• Has taught and worked at Texas A&M University-Commerce and Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador
The difference between the way students and colleagues approach Fr. Stayer now that he’s ordained can be stark. After teaching 13 years at the college level before joining the Jesuits, along with being a professor in academia for more than 20 years, wearing the Roman collar allows him to approach his professorship differently.
“I have more access to my students as a priest – my own students or others who come to my office to talk about theology, confess their sins, ask questions they have about the church, or seek counsel about something they’re struggling with,” he says.
When teaching his courses – which cover major British and major American authors – he invites students, especially upperclassmen, to call him Jayme, while others can call him Fr. Jayme or Dr. Stayer, whatever they feel comfortable with.
“I usually wear my clerics,” he says. “I make sure to wear them on the first day so students are clear about who I am. But I have a lot of identities. While being a priest is the most important identity, for my students who are taking my classes, I’m primarily a professor of literature. On my syllabus, I list myself as Dr. Stayer because that’s my professional identity, rather than my vocational identity.”
Fr. Stayer does most of his sacramental ministry at John Carroll for weekend and daily Masses for the students, but he also says the occasional Mass at Gesu. He hopes to start saying Mass for a Latino community in Cleveland. As a former faculty member at Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador, he’s looking forward to this opportunity.
“One of the hallmarks of Jesuit training is direct contact with the poor,” he says. “If we want to stand with the poor, it can’t be a sentimental wish or merely politically motivated. It must come from knowledge and friendship, which means you have to spend time with them. You can’t idealize them or speak for them, which means befriending them and being a part of their community. That’s why I want to get back to Latino ministry. It’s directly related to the gospel call to care for the widowed and orphaned, for the people who are on the peripheries or margins. Pope Francis said the great changes in history have occurred when reality wasn’t seen from the center but from the periphery.”
Being a priest is a public identity to which Fr. Stayer is committed.
“It isn’t something personal I do for myself,” he says. “Being a priest is similar to being a medical doctor. When you’re a medical doctor, you have a shingle outside your office that says ‘I heal this type of malady.’ So people look you up on the Internet or in a phonebook and say, ‘Oh, I need someone to do that.’ For people who grow up Catholic, they know what a priest is. Because he’s celibate and an ordained minister, he’s available for their needs. That’s what my shingle is outside my door.” JCU