Arts / Faith and Humanities / People of SU

Q&A with Fr. Tom Lucas

Written by Mike Thee

November 10, 2013

west exterior of St. Ignatius chapel features  a Roman ocher paint finish and modern stained glass windows

The new rector of SU's Jesuit community sits down for a conversation with The Commons.

Earlier this summer, Tom Lucas, S.J., began as rector of SU's Jesuit community, succeeding Pat Howell, S.J. Father Lucas comes to SU from the University of San Francisco, where he served as professor of Art+Architecture and directed the university's art gallery. He is a prolific author, an internationally recognized expert in Jesuit art history and a well-known liturgical designer and artist with an international portfolio that includes such projects as the restoration of St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai, PRC. A little over a month after being installed as rector, Father Lucas graciously spoke about his initial impressions of SU, the work he'll be doing on campus and more.

 The Commons: For those who might not be familiar with the role of rector, how would you describe the job?

 Father Lucas:  I joke with people that being rector is somewhere between being abbot of a monastery and auto repairman. As religious superior of the community, it's my job to work with and for the men in the community and to look after them. Part of my responsibilities is to animate community discussion and to keep us connected with what's going on in the province--and in the case now with the fusion of the two provinces of Oregon and California--but mostly, my job is to be a support for them personally and spiritually. So we meet, we talk, we're connected. I listen to what's going on in their lives and, to the extent possible, will offer them support and encouragement. On the practical side, I'm responsible at the macro level that everything works. Actually, we have a lot of really good staff folks who help us with the practical details of life, but the army marches on its stomach so you have to make sure the guys are fed and looked after and the basic needs of life are provided, given the obvious limitations of our vows of poverty and trying to live a modest lifestyle. The main thing I do is listen to people. It's the first time I've been in this position. It's daunting but not terrifying.

 The Commons:  How do you prepare for a position like this?

 Father Lucas:  Since I was appointed to this position, I've reflected on the rectors who have been successful and have helped me, and the people who have been less successful. I've been re-reading the society's documents and what I keep coming back to is a clear emphasis on really and intensely listening to people and taking their lives seriously. The best superiors that have been in my life are the ones who listened to me, treated me like an adult,  gave me the freedom to be creative and space to explore.

 The Commons:  You mentioned the fusion of the Oregon and California Provinces into a new West Coast Province. Has it been a challenge for you as a California Jesuit to not only move up here into a new community, but to lead that community as rector?

 Father Lucas:  Is hasn't been as complicated as I thought. The two provinces have known this was coming for some time. Father Jerry Cobb went from here to be the superior at Loyola Marymount so the province is deliberately mixing things up a bit to help us see that we aren't two distinct entities. The metaphor that I like to use is that we're one family that used to all live on the same street and as the vagaries of history happened, the family moved in different directions. We've stayed in touch and we've stayed related but now we've moved back to the same street again--although the street is now running from Alaska to Arizona. So, at the deepest level, it hasn't been as complicated as I thought it would be. Beneath the minor kinds of local variations, Jesuits are Jesuits. We have the same fundamental experiences. The similarities are much greater. There are slightly different customs and ways you celebrate this or that, but in general, it's been for me, at least, an easy transition. I have to say that the men in the community and the people of Seattle U have been immensely welcoming and that's made my life much easier. I've encountered nothing but friendliness and a warm welcome.

 The Commons:  What have been your first impressions of the SU Jesuit community and the university at-large?

 Father Lucas:  I guess they would be similar experiences on both counts. The Jesuits here are immensely hard-working people. They're deeply dedicated to the institution and to the social and pastoral works in which they're engaged. Just about everybody who is full-time in the community also does pastoral work on the weekends or other outreach work. I'm very deeply touched by the generosity of these guys and how hard they work. And extending that to the wider community, I just finished the New Faculty Institute and it was a great opportunity to meet colleagues. I was very impressed with the level of their understanding and incorporation of the mission and vision of the university into their work as faculty members. I've also been very impressed as I've met staff across the university. I was lucky--I was walking out of a meeting with some people from Facilities and there was an end-of-summer barbecue for temporary workers in the department and I got invited for a burger with the guys working down in the shops. I love working with my hands and with tools so I'm kind of becoming a semi-official chaplain of the Facilities Department. But I've been touched-across the board from the gardeners and the plumbers to the people highest in the administration-to see how focused people are on the mission of the university and really how stunningly gracious and welcoming they have been.

 The Commons:  What's it like to have the president of Seattle University as one of the community members. Is he just a handful to deal with?

 Father Lucas: (Laughs) It's just the opposite. Actually he's just one of the guys and that's part of Steve's great charm and genius. I've known Steve for a long time. When he was the provincial of the Oregon Province in the early 1990s, I was working on the national (Jesuit) staff in D.C., and we've always gotten along. And then he was on the board of the University of San Francisco when I was there and we were on the Facilities and Master Plan Committee together. I think the world of Steve. We will be meeting regularly to discuss ways of how the community can continue to contribute to the work of the university. But around here (Arrupe House), he's just one of the guys.

 The Commons:  In the homily you gave at your installation as rector on the Feast of St. Ignatius, you used the metaphor of "A house without windows or doors." For those who were not able to attend the Mass, can you talk about what that means and its significance?

 Father Lucas:  In Saint Ignatius's life when he was just on the verge of founding the Society of Jesus, he and some of his companions were doing pastoral work in northern Italy, and for a period of about six months, they lived in a house without doors and windows. It was falling down and almost a shack, but from that place they went out and did great good for people across the social spectrum. I've always loved that metaphor. We may not be able to live in a house without windows and doors in rainy Seattle, but it's a metaphor for who we want to be and, I think, for what the Church should be now. It's certainly the vision of Pope Francis--that we want to keep the windows and doors open at all times. The Church isn't a fortress. It's a place where everyone needs to feel welcome. And as people who have dedicated our lives to working in the Church, part of our special responsibility as Jesuits is to keep dialogue going with contemporary culture in all of its forms, with people of different religious backgrounds, people with no religious backgrounds, and to be a witness to Gospel values. What attracted me to the Jesuits 38 years ago was that they were happy people and they were men whose lives were focused. They were energetic, smart, fun and funny. And that's why I've stayed all these years. (You can read Father Lucas's full homily A House without Windows or Doors by Tom Lucas.)

 The Commons:  I understand that in addition to your role as rector, you'll have some other responsibilities on campus. Can you talk about that?

 Father Lucas:  Yes, I'll be doing a few other things. I'll serve on the board of trustees here at Seattle U, which I'm very much looking forward to. I've been on other boards and it's a great way to serve and a great way to get to know the institution from the inside out. I'll be teaching half-time, starting in the winter quarter--most likely in Fine Arts, that's where my background is. One of the courses I've enjoyed teaching and hope to bring onto the curriculum here is a cross-over course between visual arts and theology. Father (Stephen) Sundborg has asked me, because of my experience directing the university museum at the USF to be the curator of the university art collection. We have a remarkable collection of art here on campus that Jerry Cobb coordinated over the years. It's time now do a serious database and refine our collections management to make sure that all the resources we've been given by generous people are properly cared for.

 The Commons:  You've been involved with a lot of artistic, architectural and liturgical design projects throughout the world. Which of these has been the most rewarding?

 Father Lucas:  One of my earliest projects, which in some ways remains closest to my heart is when I was involved in when I was a graduate student at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. I proposed and then had to figure out how to deliver a restoration and renovation of the rooms in which Ignatius lived and died (in Rome). That was really a remarkable opportunity to get to know not only about history and design and international relations and politics, but more than that, really getting to know Ignatius and to see the society from the inside out. That was a remarkable opportunity. I was young and I didn't know what I was doing but I had good support institutionally, and most important, a huge level of trust. Looking back on it now they were crazy to let me do it, but thank God they did! I remember a very close Jesuit friend came over to Rome to help me with the project and he said, "You know, I really have to hand it to you--you've set yourself up to fail more spectacularly than anyone I know! You'll take a face plant right in front of the whole Society of Jesus if you don't get this right." Fortunately it all came together.

 The Commons:  What state were the rooms in before the restoration?

 Father Lucas:  The rooms had been transformed into a 19th century shrine with red damask and gold geegaws. I joke with people that they looked like a French bordello--at least from what my research tells me French bordellos look like. They were pretty horrible. You had no sense of who the man living there was. A lot of the work I did was trying to peel away what was extraneous to get back in touch with the fundamental realities. So we pulled away the red damask and found the simplicity of the times and the simplicity of the man who lived there.

 The Commons:  How long did it take?

 Father Lucas:  The physical part of the project took almost two years; the research was another year. In the midst of all of that, I came up with another idea. This was all focused on the 500th anniversary of Ignatius's birth and the 450th anniversary of the founding of the society, and there were a lot of religious events planned but we weren't doing anything culturally to commemorate the anniversaries. The research I was doing to restore the rooms of Ignatius got me into Jesuit art and architecture, and so, again, I proposed and had to deliver a major exhibit at the Vatican Library on early Jesuit architecture. That was an absolutely crazy but wonderful experience. I found myself standing in the middle of the Vatican Library one day in a pair of Levis and a California sweatshirt looking at St. Peter's dome as paintings are being hung in this grand room and thinking, "This is a long way from Placerville (California)!"--which is where I grew up.

 The Commons:  How about the transition to Seattle. How's that been so far?

 Father Lucas:  It's funny, about a year ago I was chatting with some friends who are all about the same age and people were talking about what they were going to do when they retired, what the next step would be. And I said, "If I couldn't live in San Francisco, I think the one place I'd want to live on the West Coast is Seattle." Little did I know at that point that I was opening the door at least a crack and then the provincial comes thundering through (laughs). But it was a huge surprise.

 The Commons:  You are aware that it rains a lot here, right?

 Father Lucas:  I am aware, but then again, I come from San Francisco where it's foggy a lot of the year. The difference is that you have sun breaks here, which is my favorite new meteorological term.

 The Commons:  How about the NFC West? We've got the Seahawks and 49ers both picked to go far this season--where's your allegiance?

 Father Lucas:  I better just say "no comment" on that. Although I'd have to say that comparing the Giants and the Mariners would be a lot easier.

 The Commons:  In those rare moments you have some free time, what do you like to do?

 Father Lucas:  I still make stained glass windows, and fortunately I've been able to find a little studio space here. I'm an inveterate gardener. Gardening is something I used to hate to do as a kid and now as an adult, I can't get enough of it. I do a lot of work with my head and my mouth, so sometimes it's good to be quiet. I love to poke around in the dirt. And the plants don't talk back, unlike my students!