Father Mike Kennedy with Adriana Vasquez at his 50th jubilee as a Jesuit. (photo/ R.W.Dellinger)

At Father Mike Kennedy’s 50th jubilee celebration as a member of the Society of Jesus, Father Michael Engh, president of Santa Clara University, used part of his homily to recall a telling story about his fellow Jesuit.

Years before, Father Engh was on a sabbatical, helping out at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights. After a busy Christmas morning at the East L.A. parish, which Father Mike pastored for a dozen years, they hit the road. And Father Engh was really looking forward to staying at a freebee beach house in Cayucos for a few days of well-deserved R&R.

“Would you mind making one stop?” asked Father Mike, driving.

No problem.

A little later, the pastor said they were going to see the sick father of a friend. He wanted to anoint him.

Again, that was fine.

After more miles, Father Mike pointed out, “Oh, yeah, the anointing happened to be taking place during a Mass.”

Father Engh now figured they might not get to the beach house until that night. But that was OK, too.

When they arrived at the sick man’s home in Oxnard, there was a big family gathering going on with tables all over the driveway. Mass was eventually celebrated in the living room, with the man lying on a sofa. And after Father Mike anointed him, he pulled out another bottle of oil, giving it to the startled senior. “I want you to anoint all of us,” he said.

This one-by-one task took a while. Father Engh, realizing that they wouldn’t get to the beach house until tomorrow, wasn’t feeling all that pastoral. But then he glanced down at the old man’s withered hands. They were sunbaked leather from decades as a farmworker.

“And it dawned on me then: ‘This is the body of Christ living, gathered around the table for the Eucharist. This is the body of Christ!’” he recalled. “Eventually, yes, we did get to Cayucos. But I learned at that gathering from Mike that the body of Christ is living and breathing. And it comes in ways we never expect or in forms we never anticipate.”          

Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative

The jubilee celebration took place at Mijares Mexican Restaurant in Pasadena May 29. Close to 100 women and men sat on folding wood chairs before the makeshift altar in the back patio outside. Others stood. A pleasant breeze rustled the leaves of a Eucalyptus tree. Birds chirped, guitars played. Three  letters had been blown up poster size and displayed near the altar. The letters were back-and-forth exchanges between Pope Francis, Father Mike and locked up youths he serves as co-chaplain of the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar.

The work is part of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative he founded in 2009 and still heads up. JRJI is an apostolate of the Society of Jesus and functions under the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Father Mike and his team also do intense retreats in state prisons across California.

In addition, there’s advocacy work. During the last few years, its efforts — along with many collaborators — has contributed to the passing of California senate bills SB 9, SB 260 and SB 261, granting the possibility of parole to long-serving and life prisoners.

One member of the restorative justice team got up to speak passionately about working with the Jesuit.

“Since Father Mike has been fighting for teenagers to get second chances, I want to quickly remember June 12,” said Arturo Lopez. “That’s when Father Mike suffered cardiac arrest and was dead for 29 seconds. So for me to have him here today is a blessing, because almost two years ago he died on us. But it’s instilled in his heart, in his blood, that he had to keep fighting for kids, youths — for second chances. And he received that second chance as well.”    

Looking across the restaurant at his coworker he said, “I really want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, from who I am, on behalf of everybody at JRJI, on behalf of everybody who does this type of work, for people like myself making a real comeback in your honor.”

Second chance

At the end of Mass, Father Mike walked around the altar and put his left arm over the shoulder of the mother of Carlos Vazquez, who had really gotten a second chance. Three-and-a-half years ago he was arrested on a murder charge. During a gang fight he started outside Staples Center, one of his homies stabbed a rival gang member who later died. As a result, he was facing up to 50 years in prison. But through the intercession of advocates had his sentenced exceptionally reduced.

Carlos is now serving that sentence at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco in Riverside County, which features open dorms, instead of being locked up at a maximum-security prison. He is talking college classes. And he’s eligible for parole in just three years with time served.

Father Mike read a letter Carlos had received from Pope Francis after writing the pontiff from Sylmar.

Next he asked people on the wood chairs to hold up their right hands to bless Adriana Vazquez as he gave the blessing in alternating Spanish and English: “All the mothers who know what it’s like to suffer, mothers of victims and also mothers who have sons locked up. Visiting, driving, coming week after week. May the fidelity of God give you strength and your husband Carlos and your other two sons. May God truly be with you.”

From El Salvador to Sylmar

Born in San Jose, Father Michael Kennedy, 69, graduated from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley and was ordained in 1977. He served as a pastor in San Diego and then went on a mission experience in Peru. Back in Los Angeles, he served at Our Lady Queen of Angels (La Placita) and assisted with the sanctuary movement at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood.

Father Kennedy lived in war-torn El Salvador from 1980 to1983. Later after returning home, he was pastor of Dolores Mission from 1994 to 2007. He founded the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative in 2009.

Father Kennedy — who calls everyone “Reverend” — is the author of meditative books, including: “Eyes on Jesus,” “Eyes on the Cross,” “The Jesus Meditation: A Guide for Contemplation” and “Experiencing Jesus: Ten Meditations for a Changed Life.”