Fr. John Whitney, S.J.is the newest addition to the St. Ignatius Parish staff, arriving in San Francisco from St. Joseph in Seattle, where he was on sabbatical having previously served as pastor. We spoke with Fr. Whitney during his last week on the job, where he was in the process of completing “seven baptisms, two masses, and pretty much everything else" needed from him before joining St. Ignatius as an associate pastor. The following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Tell us a little bit about your biography and philosophy. I read on your webpage that you consider yourself a “seeker and a pilgrim.”
I was born and raised in San Mateo. I went to Bellarmine [Jesuit High School in San Jose], and then I went to Georgetown University. I very much feel at home in the Bay Area. As part of my personal identity as a Christian, I think we're all pilgrims, we're all aiming some place and we don't quite know where it is. There's a line that’s been used that we make our paths by walking on them. And that's what we're all doing as Christians. I think that's why Ignatian discernment is so important to me, because it's all about discerning, where should we be going? Where is the Spirit leading us? We have a companion for that in Jesus, but we don't have a road map for where we're supposed to go in this world. And so we follow that discernment methodology of Ignatius that helps us to find the spirit and to always be walking in the side of the Christ, our companion. That’s really my fundamental philosophy. It's why I'm headed out of the Northwest, which has been my home for really most of my life, and coming back to the Bay Area, because I really believe that this is where Christ is leading me.
You’ve also called yourself a “worker bee” how does that manifest in your role as a pastor?
I just believe that the reason we take our vows, especially about chastity, is so that we are available when the people of God need us. I was raised to work. I don't think I'm a workaholic, but I think that the work of the mission is exactly what I want to do. Part of my philosophy, or one of the problems I think we need to address, is a sense of clericalism in the church, not just with clergy, but also sometimes with the laity. I think that my job is to give people what already belongs to them. I mean, I've been trained and educated in the traditions of the church and that’s my job, but it doesn't belong to me. It belongs to the people of God. So my job is to make sure that they receive what is their inheritance. I feel like a state attorney who makes sure that the inheritance is distributed to the people.
Could you talk a little bit about which issues you think are relevant to parishioners today?
I think San Francisco and Seattle have very similar issues in some ways, homelessness for example. But I think the church itself has issues about how to include all members as full participants in the church and the life of the church. Take the whole LGBTQ community, and how to hear all the different voices in a harmonious way. For me, honestly, one of the big things right now is that our country is so divided. It is this notion of ideology. And I've been thinking a lot about this in the last year, the idea, and this really comes from Pope Francis, is that we too often choose ideas over life, and we don't look at the reality of somebody's situation, like someone who has had an abortion, who is transgendered or is divorced and remarried for20 years. Those situations are real life. We get into this purity of ideas, and it seems to me that ideology is driving our country. And yet the whole Christian tradition, the incarnation, tells us life is more important than ideas. Unlike Mao, Jesus, doesn't show up with a little red book and tell us these things, that this is what you should do. Jesus shows up his person, and we don't follow an ideology or a theory. We follow a person. Jesus is the truth. He doesn't tell us the truth.
You’ve got a blog and a pretty strong presence on social media. How has that helped your ministry?
I'm not on the cutting edge of technology. I am a photographer. I do digital photography. I like personal technology, texting and email. I'm probably one of the most available Jesuits that I know, because everybody in the world, I think, has my cell phone. I find Twitter dull, honestly. I like Facebook because it's just so accessible to middle-aged people. You're not going to see me dancing on TikTok, but I do believe technology is a great tool. I also believe it can be a really bad addiction and a distraction. Technology and personal connection should always be combined, right? I think we missed a chance during COVID of really reaching people in a lot of ways. Like if we had talked about the theology of hearing confessions, for example, over the internet, over Facebook, compared to face-to-face. What's the difference between talking to somebody on a screen and behind the screen?
What are you looking forward to most about coming to St. Ignatius Parish?
Liturgy is the most important thing that I can offer. I love to pray the Mass with people. And, you know, I, when I say I'm a worker bee, it's just that I want to be praying with people and help them feel that it matters.