By Doris Yu
August 11, 2016 — Father Roy Joseph, SJ, has always seen himself as a connector between different people and cultures. His recent ordination to the priesthood continues in that vein: He is the first American Jesuit to be ordained a bi-ritual priest in both the Syro-Malabar and Latin rites.
Fr. Joseph grew up in Atlanta, but his parents — who immigrated to the U.S. from India — were members of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. The Church, founded by St. Thomas the Apostle, originated in Kerala, India. It follows the East Syrian liturgical tradition and is in full communion with the Catholic Church.
Despite his parents’ background, Fr. Joseph and his siblings had little connection with the rite while growing up. “We weren’t familiar with it, but when we would go to India for family visits every few years we’d experience it,” he says. “It was only after I entered the Society that I truly discovered it.”
The first Syro-Malabar diocese in the United States was not established until 2001, and it wasn’t until Fr. Joseph joined the Jesuits that he attended a Syro-Malabar liturgy in English, instead of in his parents’ native Malayalam language, for the first time. He was captivated.
“I fell in love with it,” he says of the Mass. “The liturgy was just so beautiful and the words helped me to enter into the great mystery of who God is.” He was entranced by “the language and the ritual and the vestments and, of course, the people. Women and men were dressed in their traditional clothes. It made me feel at home. Not that I didn’t in other churches, but it was something uniquely personal that I felt drawn to.”
He began attending Syro-Malabar liturgies, called Qurbana, while studying philosophy in Chicago and continued to do so when he was sent to teach in Houston. When he arrived in Boston, three years and one degree away from priestly ordination, he found he was being called to become a Syro-Malabar priest as well — and thus a bi-ritual priest.
Fr. Joseph sees his priesthood as linking what he grew up with and what he has become. “I was born in and I grew up in the United States — but I had what I see now as the great privilege of having the Indian side of my background, too,” he says. “I feel I’ve gone through a lot of the struggles that I see the teenagers and young kids at my parish going through. In a way, I’m uniquely able to minister to them and speak out of my experience.”
The second of four boys, Fr. Joseph was born in New Jersey and grew up in Atlanta, where his parents still reside. After graduating from high school at Woodward Academy in College Park, Georgia, Fr. Joseph attended Emory University in his hometown before heading to Europe for medical school at the University of Szeged in Hungary. It was there that he learned to share his faith, met the Jesuits and began to think seriously about a religious vocation to the priesthood.
Many of the university students attended a nearby Jesuit parish, and Fr. Joseph became involved in Catholic young adult groups during his studies. He went on pilgrimages throughout Europe and felt that he could talk about his faith with friends comfortably.
“It was the first time I had good Catholic friends with whom I could share things and actually speak about God,” Fr. Joseph says. “That made a huge impact on me. Being there and being alone in that place forced me to search and find God. Often I think that God led me there so that I could find Him.”
He believes his vocation found its roots during his time in Hungary and “in being with others and loving the company of others.” He was elected the student body president in his last year, giving him the opportunity to interact with various professional colleagues and classmates from different backgrounds. He was also energized by attending to his patients in medical school.
“I was thinking about what my future would be in a healing ministry, but a different kind of healing, on the more spiritual side. I was just so drawn to that. I think medical school actually helped a lot.”
After graduating from medical school, Fr. Joseph returned to Atlanta and gained more clinical experience while working on his medical board exams. But he still had a “thirst” for more. He began discerning the priesthood more seriously. “I thought to myself as I was praying and reflecting that I could keep going with this medical career for the next three years and then another three years of fellowship after residency, or maybe I should start giving God a try here and see if this priesthood thing was really something that could be my future.”
He got in touch with the Jesuits in Atlanta and joined the Society in 2005. After the novitiate, he earned a master’s degree in Applied Philosophy: Healthcare Ethics in 2010 at Loyola University Chicago and was then sent to Strake Jesuit College Preparatory in Houston from 2010 to 2013. He taught science for three years and helped coach the engineering team. In 2013, he began studies at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry toward a Master of Divinity degree.
In October 2015, Fr. Joseph was ordained a deacon in the Syro-Malabar rite at St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Framingham, Massachusetts, by His Excellency Mar Jacob Angadiath. He loved his ministry as a deacon, serving a community of Indian immigrants. At the parish, he preached and taught religious education to 10th graders and helped lead the prayer groups. His initial experiences at the parish persuaded him to spend a summer in India and more intentionally consider priesthood in the rite.
“I owe them a lot, because they were the ones that really helped convince me that, ‘Yeah, I want to do this, I think I can do this,’” Fr. Joseph says of his decision to work toward ordination in both the Latin and Syro-Malabar rites. “Something I really desire is to bring my Jesuit identity into my ministry with the Syro-Malabar Church.”
Although his main ministry will be with the Society, Fr. Joseph says that, as a priest, “I imagine myself doing work on the side, weekends or special events with the Syro-Malabar Church. With my Jesuit background, it would be wonderful to bring our Ignatian charism to them.”
Ordained on June 11 at St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis, Fr. Joseph is serving at St. Ignatius Loyola parish in Denver this summer.
Bridge-building “is exactly how I see my future priesthood,” Fr. Joseph says. “Bridge-building between two cultures, between two rites, reconciliation. I love this Year of Mercy; it echoes with my vocation so well. I’d like to bring peoples together, to bring people to God and in a special way to serve this immigrant community.”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.