Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Jesuit Jubilarian Found His Destiny In Priesthood

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published January 15, 2004

In his genteel New Orleans accent, Jesuit Father Niel Jarreau has invited countless souls to step out of the daily routine to renew or deepen their relationship with Christ and realize their potential. His 60-year ministry as a Jesuit has largely centered around offering spiritual direction and leading retreats.

From 1982-90 and from 2000 through the present, he has served at the Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center in Atlanta, which his older brother founded. His role there involves teaching on the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuits’ founder.

“My destiny is to give retreats and to do counseling. It’s very fulfilling to see a person developing into the person he wants to be,” Father Jarreau said. “We have a system of contemplating and thinking that leads to the core of your own personal reality … (St. Ignatius’) idea was to bring a person to the point of experiencing God in everything.”

Pointing to a painting of a mountain before a lake, which he said reflects the Jesuit artist who painted it, he naturally moved into a mixture of theological and psychological thought, noting how God glows through the integrated person. Addressing the aspect of Ignatian spirituality of contemplating God in nature, he continued, is like seeing how a simple leaf glorifies the tree’s creator. St. Francis of Assisi was said to have had a mystical experience contemplating God in a spider web.

“You pull a leaf off a tree and say, ‘This is an experience of God who created the universe and he speaks to me through that leaf,’” he said. “In a retreat we have time to contemplate God’s creation. Everything is an experience of God.”

Father Jarreau, 77, entered the order in 1953 and was ordained on June 13, 1956, at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., where he completed his Jesuit philosophy training. He returned to his hometown of New Orleans this past July 31 for a Jesuit jubilee celebration on the feast day of St. Ignatius, a 16th century Spanish nobleman and soldier who founded the Jesuits in 1540. St. Ignatius developed his faith after reevaluating his life during a long recovery from injuries inflicted on him when a cannon ball struck his legs while defending Spanish Pamplona against the French. Through the experience of retreat from the world, he was converted to being a soldier to Christ.

Father Jarreau’s older brother, Father Martin Jarreau, SJ, who passed away in 1998, founded Ignatius House after the land and the home on it were donated in 1957 by Suzanne Spalding Schroder, the mother of a Jesuit priest.

Father Jarreau—after completing the seminary, taught Latin and English at a Jesuit high school in Shreveport, La., and later served as a dean for a Jesuit House of Studies in Mobile. From 1966-82 he practiced spiritual counseling in Dallas and Tampa, Fla., and has given workshops on topics including personal growth, spiritual direction, psychology and religion and assertiveness.

He explained that his approach in working with people is to get their thoughts, emotions and behavior in order and to help them grow into the persons they want to become. Human problems, whether a sense of feeling unloved or forgotten, affect one’s relationship with both other people and with God, he said. Although he doesn’t have time for counseling these days, he recalled a number of priests who have come to him deeply troubled through the years and in working through their struggles have gone on to rise up to take on positions of great leadership.

“Thinking, emotivity and behavior—when these things are synchronized, you have a well-adapted, confident personality. When a person is disturbed, there generally is something wrong with the thinking,” he said. “I try to get their thinking, their emotiveness, their behavior together. So much of the time we do what we feel like doing, even though as St. Paul says, ‘I do what I don’t want to do.’ The beauty of a human being becomes very apparent when the person becomes well integrated … God is what becomes apparent in a well-adapted person.”

At Ignatius House his time has been devoted to leading retreats and attracting enough people to fill the 50 individual rooms, “a full-time job.” He preaches and invites people on the retreats at churches across North Georgia, and after services, team members sit at registration tables to provide information and sign people up. “I’m in touch with about 225 recruiters and about 45 captains.”

They have future plans to build a chapel and recently began a spiritual director-training program through Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala. Retreats for special groups are held such as for a particular parish, for men or for women, for recovering alcoholics, or for married couples. Father Jarreau also preaches at the Jesuit province’s three other retreat houses. There are also “19th Annotation” retreats, where a person participates in the retreat exercises on their own, but meets with a spiritual director weekly. “The apostolate is growing.”

During retreats he and other leaders preach on topics based on Scripture and the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. Persons then have time to reflect privately about God, self, and the people and situations they encounter in ordinary life and focus on really listening to the Lord. They can meditate and walk on the 22 wooded acres on the property overlooking a pristine stretch of the Chattahoochee. Silence is observed during the retreat, except for opening and closing meals held in the renovated cafeteria where large windows reveal nature. Sacraments are available throughout the weekend.

St. Ignatius began developing the spiritual exercises on a stop in the town of Manresa in Spain on a journey to the Holy Land, where he had a vision while contemplating God on the banks of a river. There he is thought to have had an encounter with God as he really is so that all creation was seen in a new light and acquired a new meaning and relevance, an experience that enabled him to find God in all things.

Father Jarreau happily reported that in 2003 at Ignatius House there were 42 retreats that drew 1,012 people. Retreats are open to all people and draw non-Catholics as well as Catholics. Retreats are generally led by Jesuit priests, sometimes visiting from another part of the country, and a layperson, or by the Cenacle Sisters.

“People come here because they’re longing for an experience of God—they may not realize that. When I preach to people and invite them (to a retreat) what appeals to them mostly is just time away from the fast track, constant interruptions, to experience contemplation and thinking about the things in their life that are most important,” he said. “Miracles happen here, not physical experiences, (but) once you have an experience of God it’s something that is life-changing … A career and money can never fulfill a person as a human being … No one can face Jesus Christ and walk away unmoved.”

Father Jarreau enjoys reading books on the spiritual and psychological life, particularly with the rational/emotive therapy that deals with thinking, emotions and consequential behavior. He also runs on a treadmill in his very rare down time. He says he “just knew” his calling to the priesthood at age 7. He was attracted to the Jesuit order through the Jesuits who taught him in high school, and upon graduation began formation.

“I liked the Jesuits and their training. I joined the Jesuits because I felt God was calling me to that.”

Most recently, from 1990-97 he spent some time in a parish, serving at St. Rita’s Church in Lake Dallas, Texas, which was a highpoint of his career. Then from 1997-2000 he served at the Montserrat Retreat House in Lake Dallas, before returning to Ignatius House.

Like all Jesuits he makes an eight-day retreat yearly. He has also experienced God’s glorious presence at retreats in places like a monastery on the Greek island of Santorini, recalled through a picture in his office, and in Bethlehem, where he spent six weeks taking in the “breathtaking” sites where Jesus lived, and which added a new dimension of understanding to his faith.

These days he’s glad to be back at Ignatius House. While the clergy shortage has grown in past decades as fewer men consider the priesthood, Father Jarreau has never wondered “what if” or doubted his vocation.

“I’ve been very happy as a priest. I can’t picture myself doing anything else. I feel being a priest and doing what I’m doing is very exciting and fulfilling. These 60 years have been very happy years,” he said. “I think this is my calling, my destiny, what God wants me to do.”