Jesuit says brotherhood is ‘about finding God in all things’

Br. Lee Colombino says Jesuit formation allowed him to discern life as brother

OSHKOSH — As a member of the Society of Jesus religious order (the Jesuits), Br. Lee Colombino’s vocation focuses on one of the precepts introduced by his order’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Jesuit Br. Lee Colombino holds up an icon depicting St. Francis of Assisi, one of two icons he recently completed. Br. Lee is one of five Jesuits, and the only religious brother, serving at Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh. When considering a vocation, Br. Lee suggests that young adults consider, “What is your heart telling you and where is it calling you in terms of your spiritual life?” (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“I love the life of a Jesuit brother and, for me, it’s about finding God in all things, or the sense of sacramental awareness,” said Br. Lee, who serves as a spiritual director at Jesuit Retreat House. “So it’s more about the ordinary experiences — how does God’s creative action unfold in our lives and being present to that. It’s beautiful to watch unfold.”

While his ministry focuses on spiritual direction, Br. Lee is an accomplished artist. He taught in the Fine Arts Department at Loyola Academy, a Jesuit high school in Wilmette, Ill., for four years prior to earning a master’s degree in spirituality with a focus on spiritual direction from Loyola University in Chicago. He was then “missioned” to Jesuit Retreat House in July 2020.

After arriving in Oshkosh, he set up an art studio/gallery in the lower level of the St. Ignatius Chapel building. Here he spends time exploring the relationship between his spiritual life and his life as an artist.

A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Br. Lee first learned about the Jesuits while he was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.

“I got involved with a liberation theology reading group and that was in the late ’80s,” he said. “While I was part of this group, we were reading Jesuit authors. That’s what kind of piqued my interest in the society, but it really was Ignatian spirituality which got me.”

After completing his undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology in 1991, Br. Lee moved to Chicago, where he first met members of the Jesuit order. He took a course at Catholic Theological Union taught by Jesuit Fr. Ted Ross and spent one year volunteering with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Kentucky.

When he entered the order in 1998, he was sent to Fordham University in New York City to study philosophy. “It was there when my superior at the time said, ‘Lee, you need to get out of your head. Have you ever thought of taking an art class?’ I was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to do pottery.’ So that’s actually when I first got started.”

While creating art on a pottery wheel, he uncovered other life lessons.

“There is a very rich confluence between the life of the spirit and the life of art. Even before you start throwing on the wheel, the clay needs to be centered,” he said. “Otherwise, if it’s not centered at the get-go, it will be off-kilter all the way through. 

“So, like the spiritual life, how am I centered and how am I not being centered? How does that affect the shape I take? That was like the further hook, if you will, for art and spirituality for me, those sort of life lessons,” he said.

Br. Lee said the retreat house does not offer programs related to art. “It’s a hope I have for the future,” he said. “We need to figure out what it would look like. How it would happen because, in terms of what we do here now, we have weekend retreats in the fall, winter and spring months and then summer months we are in our directed retreats. We have a packed program going on already.”

His life as a brother gives Br. Lee opportunities to share the story of his vocation and to promote religious vocations.

“It’s interesting because, in terms of a brother, oftentimes people are like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize there were Jesuit brothers,’” he said. “We are such a priestly order, it’s like, ‘No, we exist.’ Everybody knows what a priest does, they have a  definite idea of what a priest is supposed to do. So there is more of an opportunity to have a conversation of discovery” about brotherhood.

Formation in the Jesuit religious order can last more than 15 years and encompasses five stages:

  • Novitiate: A two-year period where men get to learn about the community and Ignaitan spirituality. At the completion they take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
  • First studies: During these three years, the Jesuit studies philosophy and theology while serving in the community.
  • Regency: This three-year period focuses on active ministry.
  • Theology studies: This three-year period is the final step before priestly ordination or continuing formation as a brother.
  • Tertianship: A five-year period in which the priest or brother reflects on his formation. He then professes a fourth and final vow: to serve the pope and the Society of Jesus.

“When you take vows in the society, you take vows as either a scholastic or a brother,” he said. “Scholastics are the ones who go on to become priests.”

Br. Lee said he considered the scholastic path during his novice years.

“It was the sacrament of reconciliation that was really drawing me to the priesthood,” he said. “One of the really beautiful things about Ignatian and Jesuit formation is that it’s so long. So I thought, ‘Well, since it is so long, I have time to just grow into the rest.’ Well, as I am going along, it was becoming apparent, ‘Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to be growing into the rest, or I’m not going to grow into it very well.’ That’s where it became a time of really good discernment.” 

During theology studies, Br. Lee discerned that he was called to religious life as a brother. “So if I remained (on the priesthood track), the art stuff would not have happened,” he said.

Br. Lee’s message to young people today about discerning a vocation is found in a question: ”What’s going on in your heart?”

“This is what I love in terms of Ignatian spirituality — the principal foundation from the spiritual exercise: we are all created to love, reverence, serve God and praise God,” he said. “And we have these gifts that we ought to develop for God’s greater glory. So I think that’s more my take, and it might be my ‘brother’ take on it — whether they become a religious or not. What are your God-given gifts and how are you developing them?

Having worked with high school students at Loyola Academy, he knows that young adults are encouraged to pursue material success and not explore other paths to fulfillment.

“We are becoming much more utilitarian in our thought process and that’s a great sadness for me,” he said. “I’m an old school, liberal arts type guy. So I think, ‘Where is your passion, what brings you joy and how are you developing that?’ There’s sadness for me how that change has happened, in terms of how education is more about getting a job now than learning and becoming a well-rounded human being and learning different perspectives.”

The same goes for discerning a vocation, he said.

“Within that question, ‘What is your heart telling you and where is it calling you in terms of your spiritual life?’ It’s tough and not just for kids,” said Br. Lee.