Interview with our Deacon, David Paternostro, S.J.

20 Questions for Deacon David Paternostro

  1. You are a cradle Catholic with Sicilian roots via New Orleans. You must have other background as well.  Could you describe for us a little bit the young David Paternostro “with an active imagination”?

In many ways, my background is very much Southern–my mom comes from an old Georgia family, and parts of my dad’s family have been in Louisiana ever since it was a French colony. I grew up surrounded by the music and culture of the South, and thanks to my involvement in Boy Scouts, I got a chance to explore many of the natural beauties of the area as well. The novitiate where the Southern Province Jesuits first learn about Jesuit life is in rural Louisiana, which helped deepen my fondness for the region. I always loved camping and being outdoors, and long hikes where you could imagine any being on any adventure you pleased were always the best.

  1. You grew up in Texas. How was your faith affected by living in a predominately Protestant (or evangelical) culture?

In some ways, it made being Catholic easier — you had to know what you believed. Things like prayer or talking about Jesus publicly happened on a pretty regular basis, so there was a lot of space to be Christian. On the other hand, I also remember getting in a few debates over whether our sins could actually be forgiven through Confession.

  1. Those “WWJD” wristbands you mentioned in a recent homily — when did you realize that your attachment to Jesus was perhaps stronger than that of your classmates?

I don’t know if I ever realized my attachment to Jesus was stronger, but it was around my junior year of high school that I started toying with the idea of being a priest, although my initial reaction was to ignore the thoughts in favor of a Naval career. It wasn’t until late in my senior year that a friend from theatre pointed out to me that my inclination to become a priest was strong enough to be there in spite of my efforts, so that I should probably look into it more seriously. I took her advice, and here I am.

  1. When did you start becoming active in theater?  Has acting informed the way you communicate your faith?

I first became active in theatre in my senior year of high school. As a member of the A/V club, I had filmed a lot of the school plays, and at the start of my senior year, the drama teacher came up to me and flat-out told me that I was going to be at the auditions that afternoon. As it happens, I had been watching Kenneth Branagh’s movie version of Henry V a few days before that, thought theatre sounded like a lot of fun, and eagerly said “ok!”

One of the ways theatre—and teaching—has made me attentive to how I communicate my faith is that it does make me attentive to my audience. Putting on a show isn’t just for the enjoyment of the actors, but is trying to communicate something to the audience, and so you are always trying to make sure they are able to receive what you are trying to give without compromising the work itself—even if it is just a basic thing like “don’t mumble your lines and stand facing the audience while you speak.”

  1. You spent one year at Texas A&M. If you were already thinking about the priesthood, why did you go there?  Or if not, how was that year in a football-mad public university fundamental to your changing your life trajectory? 

I had started to seriously think about priesthood towards the end of my time in high school, and the summer before I started at A&M I had decided to apply to the Jesuits, but it was too late to enter that year, so I was advised to go to A&M as I had planned, and apply while I was there. The reason why I wanted to go to A&M to begin with was to go through the Corps of Cadets there and be commissioned as a Naval officer—quite a lot of my family, on both sides, has served in the Navy, so in a sense it was joining the family business.

The Catholic campus ministry at Texas A&M is actually quite vibrant—even at a weekday Mass, you will normally see about 100 students there—and it has a reputation as a place where a lot of people realize a vocation to priesthood or religious life (on average, about 10 people from A&M enter a seminary or religious formation program every year). As a result, I was exactly where I needed to be to grow in my faith, think more about my vocation, and talk with others who were going through the same process. God’s Providence is strange and surprising—when I submitted my application, I thought I was going to the perfect school to prepare for one way of life, and when I got there it turned out to be the perfect school to prepare for a different way of life.

  1. How did your parents and friends react to your decision to become a priest?

Generally very supportive. Even my evangelical friends could all respect making a commitment to God. My mom’s family is also very Irish Catholic, and so in the midst of the general support of my answering God’s call was also the reaction of “I knew we’d have a priest in the family someday!”

  1. What attracted you to the Jesuit order?

It definitely helped that I went to the Jesuit high school in Houston. A large part of what drew me to the Jesuits was the intellectual rigor of the formation, as well as the opportunity to teach.

  1. What do you think gave you the maturity, at age 19, to choose a career with a 13-year period of preparation?

A lot of people around me who loved me and encouraged me even from a young age to think about what my life would be about and act accordingly—though I don’t think many of them at the time knew where it would lead.

  1. You are from the Southern province — how did you end up out here?

For the Jesuits in the United States, our theology schools are for the Jesuits in the entire nation, rather than just one province, so for every Jesuit, you can be sent either to Boston College or here to the Jesuit School of Theology. For me, I got an email one day from my provincial informing me that I had been assigned to study in Berkeley.

  1. Could you describe “Thomistic personalism” in one paragraph?  Why did you chose this topic for your thesis? 

Thomistic personalism, in a nutshell, combines the insights of Thomas Aquinas about being and objective reality with the insights of personalism about relationship and subjective experience. The result is a recovery of Thomas’ ideas of the active and dynamic nature of being, noting that “to be is to be in relation” (a common axiom of the movement), and that the intrinsic dignity of the person (be it a human, angelic, or any other kind of person) comes from the fact that our intellect and free will shapes the quality of those relations.

In his days as a philosophy professor, John Paul II did a lot of work with this line of thought. Another major thinker in this area was the American Jesuit Norris Clarke, whose work I hope to continue. He observed that if a philosophy could present to people a truly compelling vision of the world, it would become something they would want to know, love, and act upon. That is where my interest in Personalist Thomism comes from: it provides a vision of the world that people can fall in love with and know the world better through, and from there appreciate even more what Catholicism has to say about reality.

  1. Does your focus on Thomas Aquinas give you a special affinity for the Dominican order?

Oh, absolutely! And St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, who studied under the Dominicans for both philosophy and theology when he lived in Paris (studying in the same place where Aquinas taught, in fact), said in his autobiography that he often considered what Dominic would have done in a given situation, and encouraged Jesuits to study Thomas, even before that was the norm. So the Jesuit intellectual heritage does owe quite a lot to that of the Dominicans.

  1. How would you define the difference between the Dominicans’ and the Jesuits’ mission and charism?

The Dominicans stress contemplating the truth of Christ and then preaching this truth, which can result in greater focus in thought and ministry, and seeing the value of more speculative thought. The Jesuits strive to reconcile the world to God through all things, which can result in greater breadth of thought and ministry, as well as a certain pragmatism of thought. Thankfully, the Church sees the need and proper place for both.

  1. What do you like best about being a Jesuit?

That the realities of Jesuit life keep me just uncomfortable enough to make sure I grow.

  1. How do you envision your future as a priest?  

At the moment, it looks like much of my future ministry will be teaching, either at the high school or university level. One of the interesting things about Jesuit life, though, is that we do have a wide variety of ministries, and plenty of Jesuits have worked in multiple fields over the course of their lives.

  1. You are a self-proclaimed introvert — does that character trait influence the choices for your future sacerdotal life? 

Not as much as you’d think. You’ll find Jesuit introverts and extraverts doing many of the same jobs (though there tend to be more introverts in the order). We all have unique personality traits—the trick is to be aware of them enough and utilize them so that they are a boon to what you do, rather than a hindrance, and to know how to work with others in ministry so that everyone can balance each other out.

  1. Have you worked with RCIA before?  What have you learned so far this year?  What will you do differently next Fall, based on what you have learned? 

I actually had worked with RCIA when I was at Texas A&M, although it was a little different because it was a very large group– between the size and the difficulties of student schedules, we actually needed three opportunities a year to receive people into the Church, rather than just doing it at the Easter Vigil. A lot of the learning this year has been focused on getting a hang of the logistics and how to best organize things. One thing I would like to try and do next year is get sponsors involved earlier, and invite them to play more of a role in the formation/education process.

  1. What do you most want to convey to your catechumens and candidates? 

That in the Church and in the sacraments, they can experience the love that Jesus Christ has for each of them in a very concrete and life-changing way.

  1. The current transition aside, how does our parish seem to you?  That is, how does it compare to your home parish in Texas, or other parishes in which you have lived or worked? 

My home parish maybe wasn’t quite large enough to be a “mega-parish,” but it was certainly in that direction, which has advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is that it was sometimes difficult to know everybody, even at the Mass you attend, whereas here I think that people know one another fairly well and produce a tight-knit feeling. In past parishes, it also seemed more common for people to float between the Masses (going to the early Mass one week, and the full choir Mass the next), whereas that is less common here, which certainly helps the people at a given Mass to all know each other.

  1. What, in your opinion after having spent five months here, do you feel our parish needs to work on, in order to become a stronger community of faith?

We can always do better at talking to one another, and making sure that we’re talking to people in the parish who aren’t necessarily part of the circles we run in. That’s going to be even more important over the coming months as we help each other deal with the transition of the parish. But if we can do that, remain connected through our common faith in Jesus Christ, and keep inviting others to join in that bond of faith, we will meet whatever comes our way.

  1. What is one thing you would like parishioners to know about you that I haven’t asked? 

That I’m glad to be here, and glad to be staying.