A Jesuit Invasion of Georgia

The subject uppermost in the minds of parishioners, including me, at the 5:30 p.m. Mass at Georgetown's Holy Trinity Church Sunday was not that a Jesuit Pope was ending his historic visit to the United States, but that a Jesuit priest was ending his seven-year term as their pastor.

Father Mark Horak concluded his sermon by stating that this would be the last time he preached at Holy Trinity before leaving to become the pastor of a Jesuit parish in Decatur, Georgia, next February. His departure, which had been announced earlier, touched off a standing ovation and triggered a tearful response by Father Horak that would have made John Boehner proud

Father Horak, a lawyer, was ordained in Baltimore in 1994 and taught law in Baltimore, founding and directing a non-profit legal services program under the auspices of Catholic Charities for eight years. He subsequently served as parochial vicar at St. Peter's Church in Charlotte NC in 2002, as pastor at Old St. Joseph's Church in Philadelphia from 2003 to 2008, before coming to Holy Trinity in 2008.

Ironically -- maybe it's a Jesuit thing -- Father Horak has been never been to Georgia, where Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory appointed him pastor of St. Thomas More Parish. It will be the first Jesuit parish in the predominantly Southern Baptist state of Jimmy Carter, which is tied with West Virginia as the state with the least number of Catholics.

In fact, Father Horak will be only one of six Jesuits in Georgia, three of them in the Atlanta area. As he recently explained, he and a Jesuit colleague will replace two Archdioscesan priests. "Archbishop Gregory wants the Jesuits to make of St. Thomas More a Jesuit parish that can serve as a resource for the whole Archdiocese."

Father Horak's new parish serves some 1,400 families, most of them white and middle income or higher. The parish also operates a K-8 school that enrolled 486 students last school year, about 15 percent of whom are African-American and about six percent Hispanic or Latino.

"This is an exciting opportunity for me personally and for the Society of Jesus," Father Horak noted in a recent parish bulletin. "To transform an existing parish that lacks any previous Jesuit tradition into a Jesuit parish will be a challenge. I will take lessons I have learned in my previous parishes with me, and I hope not to repeat mistakes I have made in the past."

Father Horak said his first concern will be "to assure that we celebrate Sunday Eucharist well at St. Thomas More, since that is the most important thing any parish, whether Jesuit or not, can do. My second concern, of course, will be to introduce the people to Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuit way of praying, especially the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. This is what ought to distinguish a Jesuit-sponsored parish from all others, and if we do not do this at St. Thomas More, we will have failed the Society and the people of Atlanta."

Given his track record at Holy Trinity and other parishes he has served, I don't think Father Horak is likely to fail.

Meanwhile, Holy Trinity, the historic Georgetown parish founded in 1787 and where President Kennedy and his family worshipped, and where Vice President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi regularly attend, will be well-served by Father Horak's successor, Father Kevin Gillespie.

The president of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia the past three years, he may recognize some of his parishioners since he once taught and coached baseball at Georgetown Prep and Gonzaga high school in Washington.