Fr Bruce Botha SJ
Fr Bruce Botha SJ

Bruce Botha SJ

It is only in recent years that I have been able to trace back the roots of my vocation to childhood circumstances. They were the rich soil in which the seed of a question—"have you ever thought of the priesthood?"—was able to grow.

I grew up in Durban, South Africa, we went to Mass every Sunday and I and my brothers went to catechism classes.  My grandmother, the hub around which the family revolved, was a much loved figure by her children and grandchildren. She had a down-to-earth spirituality, practical and characterised more by love in action than piety.

One of my earliest memories is of going to pray the rosary with her and Fr Canisius, the parish priest. The church was in darkness apart from the candles in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary. Three souls telling beads in a darkened church, drawn together in mystical communion. It was events such as these that prepared my heart to say "yes" when eventually I heard God’s call.

As a teenager I was a dutiful Christian, but without much conviction.  That changed when I got to university and joined a club for Catholic students. It was an experience of community and friendship that led me to be more at home in my faith. Our chaplain, Fr John Allard, saw something in me that I could not; at least, not then. He asked me if I had ever thought of becoming a priest. I hadn’t but he had planted the seed. Over the next year, the question niggled at me. What would my friends think? What would my family think? I spent a long time thinking "what if?" until I woke up one morning and realised that I had stopped thinking "what if" and was thinking "when". That realisation filled me with great joy. I had made a decision on a subconscious level and had yet to test and confirm it, but that sense of peace and joy seemed to be a sign.

Our next chaplain was Fr Nick King, a Jesuit who became spiritual director. He directed me on an eight day retreat. It was mind-blowing. My spiritual experiences both in the retreat and in daily life convinced me that my life would be empty, a meaningless void, without Christ. I knew that he was calling me to follow him, but was not sure where, or how.

I knew that community was important to me, that I wanted to live my life with a band of brothers. I had read a lot about the different orders, and met a whole variety, but it was the Society of Jesus that resonated most with me.

In those early days I was filled with spiritual ambition. I wanted to do great things for Christ, and my reading on the life of St Ignatius and his early companions had convinced me that if I followed the way of Ignatius I could also do great things for God. The early companions had their share of proud and wilful individuals, who, despite their flaws, went on to do amazing things for God, because they allowed the way of Ignatius to shape and inform their lives. This decision was again confirmed for me through prayer, and it was then that I applied to join the Society of Jesus.

At the end of a waiting period I entered the novitiate in Cape Town in 1996 where one of my experiments was to work in an AIDS hospice, as well as to do some basic counselling training and then pre- and post-HIV-test counselling.

This experience has marked me deeply. I fell in love with this ministry, filled with righteous anger at the plight of those with AIDS in South Africa. When I returned to the novitiate I wanted to continue with this ministry.  I was told that there was a different project in Cape Town that needed my help. When I expressed my unhappiness at this my novice master posed a question: was I a Jesuit or an AIDS counsellor?

As I have grown in the Society of Jesus I have made my own certain touchstones of identity, in particular "being a loved and called sinner" and the "Magis". More recently, our General congregations and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI have emphasised the "call to the margins”. These ways of understanding myself and my apostolic call are helpful when I am confronted with the stark reality that a Jesuit is often called to take up ministries that would not ordinarily be his choice, and that he is often called to sacrifice passions, dreams and relationships for the greater good.