William Pearsall SJ
William Pearsall SJ

William Pearsall SJ

As a young philosophy student in Innsbruck, Austria, in the late 1960s, I went through a period of quite strong anti-Catholic, anti-religion sentiment.  My thoughts were rather confused about God and our place in the universe.  But some time in my second year, I realised that philosophy wasn't going to give me the answer to anything.  In Munich I found a church called the Church of the Burgersaal; in that church is a crypt, and in the crypt there is a tomb, and in the tomb lies a Jesuit priest called Rupert Mayer who died in 1945. 

The Second World War was then in recent memory.  Signs of destructions were still all around.  The Nazi movement really took off in Munich.  This was part the history of a deeply Catholic people who had something very shameful in their past.  Mayer had been like a parish priest to the whole city in the 1920s.  He loved the poor, was free with himself and had the courage to say no to evil, even when it took a form which was popular.  His resistance to Nazism took him in and out of prison until finally he was incarcerated in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  When he seemed likely to die, he was released to a monastery so he wouldn't become a martyr.  He could continue to function as a priest though not to speak publicly.  He became a focal point of hope in the midst of the hell of the Third Reich. 

This man had a palpable presence in this chapel in the crypt. Every time I would visit, there would be fresh flowers on the tomb.  There was a book you could sign for the cause of his beatification.  I would notice people come in and they would pray, light candles, and sign the book.  While others made the Stations of the Cross around the tomb I remained detached, having no interest in doing it myself.  I wasn’t a believer.  All this was an interesting phenomenon but it was outside of me.  And then one day something just happened;  I decided instead of looking and listening I would actually try to pray.  What came together was this: the history of this people, the horror of it, but also the faith and hope, the personality of this priest Rupert Mayer, his resistance to evil.  I lit a candle, I signed the book for his beatification, and in that moment I realised I had crossed a threshold.  I was actually doing something that you could only do if you believed that he was not gone, that he was more than a memory, and his presence was not just a local one in that room but that he lived with God and somehow God is the God of the living.   This priest was helping me to find God  - he was an intercessor for me.  Finally after learning about Rupert Mayer and all that he stood for, I made the Stations of the Cross for the first time in my life.  Everything was changed for me.  I looked up to the mountains there above me and I no longer saw the emptiness  in the sky.  I looked in the faces of people in the streets and I no longer saw strangers.  Gradually I became again a child of God.

I was inspired by the priests who, like Mayer, were following in the footsteps of St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order.  I became attracted by this freedom that they had, this intelligence but also this great generosity of heart.  When I had finished with philosophy I asked to join the Society of Jesus and was accepted in England in 1971.  I continued studies in classics at Oxford and then theology at Heythrop College.  I was ordained in 1983 at Stamford Hill in London.  Subsequently I served as a pastor to street homeless in London, and worked in Jesuit parishes in Glasgow and Paris.  I was parish priest at Farm Street Church in Mayfair for eight years before moving to Manchester in 2013 as a member of the university chaplaincy team.

To learn more about Blessed Rupert Mayer please see our 2014 Calendar reflection