CHARLESTON — The religious life runs in the family for Father Francis
The Jesuit has two brothers who are priests and two sisters who entered orders when they were young. He said his sisters found different vocations many years later, raised families and are happy grandmothers now.
“I also have an older sister who committed matrimony flat out,” Father Gillespie said with a chuckle. “Five of us felt a calling in one degree or another.”
The priest, who is administrator at St. Anthony Mission in Hardeeville, has been with the Diocese of Charleston for just under a year. He requested the post in South Carolina
because he wanted to help an underserved portion of the country.
“There’s a missionary dimension to the Carolinas relative to the northeast seaboard, but there’s a greater need in South Carolina than there is in North Carolina,” Father Gillespie said. He served a large parish in Raleigh, N.C., with a mixed Anglo/Hispanic congregation, but felt he could do even more in a rural area like Hardeeville. Father Gillespie came to pastoral work in a roundabout way, starting his religious service in academia until he received a secondary calling to be more involved in parish work, he said.
He had spent time teaching at St. Joseph University, served as a Jesuit superior, and held positions at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate as director of research and president. The national, non-profit center conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church.
It was during this time, while he was working with bishops and priests to conduct surveys on morale, that he first received “a whiff and a feel for parish life and
I started to say ‘I wonder,’” Father Gillespie said.
Heeding that call, the Jesuit sought permission from his order to enter parish life and subsequently spent three years in South America serving missions in Chile, Brazil and Paraguay. During this time, he picked up Spanish, and an attraction to Hispanic ministry.
His goal in Hardeeville, and something he would like to see for the whole church, is to have one flock of Anglos and Hispanics moving together toward integration, which he notes is different from assimilation.
“We have to respect our wonderful, God-given cultural differences,” Father Gillespie said.
At the same time, he said the hierarchy of the church must show an affinity for the people and the culture by speaking Spanish, or at least trying. He noted that bishops who reach out resonate with the love, care and affection for the people they serve, and the people respond to this.
“If you love others, it can’t be hidden. And that affection goes a long way when you don’t have the romance language to articulate what you want to say to them,” Father Gillespie said. “So if you don’t have the Spanish but you are trying to learn it and say Mass in it and get a tutor to help you … it is well-received by Hispanics.”
He said another area of concern for him is a lack of leadership in the church, whether it be religious leaders or lay women and men. He said the lack of vocations in a broad sense is troubling.
“There are untapped resources of women and men who could be doing more in the church,” he said. “The laity need to embrace more robustly their baptismal commitments to take leadership in the church.”
He suggested that those seeking to discern what their vocation might be
follow in the tradition of the Jesuits and immerse themselves in a spiritual retreat of at least three days.
“The voice of God which can be the hound of heaven is weak but persistent. Find a place to retreat to give that voice amplification,” Father Gillespie said.
This process has served him well all his life, starting just before his senior year of college. He was dating then and happy with that, he said, but also very taken with the Jesuits at St. Joseph University, where his older brother was in seminary.
“They integrate faith and reason matter-of-factly, and that intrigued the heck out of me,” he said. So he went on a retreat and followed the Jesuits’ spiritual exercises to find the answer. “I made a choice to see if it works or doesn’t work, and the rest is history,” the priest said.
He attended the Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues in Pennsylvania and was ordained in 1972. He said the Jesuit philosophy affected and inspired him, and their spirituality helps him live life here and understand life in the hereafter. Father Gillespie, who earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of Texas, said he enjoys being a rabbi and a priest.
“The privilege of serving others at existential points in their lives — births, first Communion, confirmations, deaths — and in the process fulfilling myself by finding an outlet for my love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self; this is rewarding,” he said. “I hope that I am the first of other Jesuits to come after.”