OSHKOSH — For Fr. Chris Manahan now, life as a Jesuit priest is the most satisfying one he can imagine. But he didn’t take his vows until the age of 37 because there were other avenues in life he wanted to try, he said.
“God is very patient,” he said. “He knows that’s something I wanted. Doing it the way I did was necessary for me to be happy. I didn’t want to have the ‘what ifs.’”
Fr. Manahan is the new director of the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh. He grew up in Rochester, Minn., number eight in a family of nine children. He attended Catholic schools through high school and was taught by Franciscans. A sister, Kate, entered a Franciscan order, and an older brother, Tom, entered the Jesuit order.
“Religious life was familiar to me,” he said. Yet he studied political science and journalism at the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1978. His goal was to head up a newspaper newsroom. He worked for three years at a small daily newspaper in Albert Lea, Minn., then achieved his goal at a newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, from 1982-1991.
“I wanted to head up a newsroom, have nice place to live, travel a lot,” he said. And that all came to pass. But then he started to think, “‘Do I want to keep doing this for next 35 years?’ I was focused so much on my work, and personal relationships and faith were put to the side. I liked the work, but I didn’t like that imbalance.”
His brother, Tom, became a Jesuit priest in 1985 after working in marketing for General Mills, and he now teaches theology and does campus ministry at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “I liked the change I saw in Tom during his formation,” Fr. Manahan said. “He was more calm, peaceful, balanced. That impressed me. I started to think about what might be better for me.”
He thought about a career in education or the religious life. He took a leave of absence from the newspaper to earn a teaching degree and met with his parish priest “to learn ways of discerning the choice I was trying to make,” he said.
A pension from the newspaper allowed him to take that time without financial concern. “God knows me,” Fr. Manahan said. “‘He’s going to worry about this otherwise.’”
A relationship “sparked thoughts of marriage, but I realized that that kind of relationship wasn’t what would complete me,” he said. “I don’t think I would have been satisfied without that experience, but I was looking for something else. I’m satisfied that the consecrated life feels for me like it does in a relationship between a husband and wife. I felt more complete and satisfied taking the vows. I had a clearer sense that I knew where God was calling me.”
Because of his brother’s example, Fr. Manahan decided that becoming a Jesuit was the best match for him. “The Jesuits focus on whatever an individual has for talents, skills and potential, and develop that to the fullest and use it for the greater glory of God.”
As a novice he spent some time at the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh. He then spent eight years working with novices at St. Paul Jesuit Novitiate of the Upper Midwest in Minnesota, where he was able to combine his interests in both teaching and the religious life.
Because Fr. Manahan comes from a large family, a community life provides the support he needs and relies on for his life. “That sense of community is one of the gifts that religious life offers,” he said. “Even though it’s not the same as family, it’s as valued and needed.”
Another advantage is the balance that he had sought for his life. “The personal, professional and spiritual are meant to be well-balanced,” he said. “The consecrated life encourages and fosters that in a way that I needed. For me, the formation received during the religious life has helped make me a more balanced person than I would be on my own.”
He hopes to bring that same sense of balance to retreatants to the Jesuit Retreat House. “They are coming here to pray and develop their relationship with God, listen to God and find God,” he said. The retreat house is in its final stages of a renovation and expansion that has about doubled the available space with new bedrooms, a small chapel and two conference rooms. A soft opening was held on Jan. 4, and a grand opening will be held July 11.
The fact that Pope Francis is a fellow Jesuit comes as a “tremendous shock,” Fr. Manahan said. “Our order is built on a premise we don’t seek higher office within the church. To be a bishop is unusual, and then to be elected pope…
“He seems so familiar because his formation as a Jesuit is similar — how he sees the world, talks about God, prays. Ignatius (of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order) wanted us to be out with people and to engage the world. It isn’t something to be separated from,” said Fr. Manahan. “You can find God in all things. God created all things to make himself present. When Pope Francis speaks, that comes through in the way that’s recognizable to other Jesuits.
“I feel gratitude. We’re grateful for Ignatius letting himself be guided by God’s spirit to let other people get the sense of God that Ignatius was given,” the Jesuit added. “It makes God very close and real to each of us. The way God worked through Ignatius, through the church and now through Francis, that’s what I’m grateful for, and it can make a difference in people’s lives.”