Fr. Jack attended Joliet Catholic High School in Joliet, Illinois, where he came across this “happy group” of priests and brothers. He particularly remembers Fr. Normal Werling, who moderated the Young Christian Students group, took students to movies, decorated for dances and, as Fr. Jack says, “just hung out with us.”
The way his teachers and administrators served students struck a chord in Fr. Jack. He was not even deterred by the vocation director who asked him why he wanted to join the community.
Fr. Jack’s answer, “I’m not sure I’d be happy doing anything else,” was the “worst answer he could give” according to the vocation director. To the director it meant that Fr. Jack was only concerned about his personal happiness. But, in truth the idea of service has continued to direct his life. “In the Carmelite community there are so many ways to serve — to assist people in their human and spiritual lives.” Doing so with a community of like-minded men makes the difference for him.
Witness to God’s presence
From his first assignment for a pastoral year at DeSales High School in Louisville, Fr. Jack has been a teacher. “The study and reflection and then communication of spiritual values and Carmelite tradition, inviting students to explore their faith, is energizing for me,” he says. Since then, he has taught at Mount Carmel in Chicago and gotten an MA in Theology and Religious Education and a Doctorate in Religious Education, focusing on human development. He has also helped form others in the Carmelite way of life.
God’s presence, as loving, healing, and forgiving is what Fr. Jack hopes his students take away from his classes, no matter the subject. “As Carmelites we’re about experiencing God in our lives and allowing it to change and transform us.” Even St. John of the Cross’s classic concept of the dark night of the soul has a positive spin for this educator. “God’s love is healing us past where we might have gotten stuck,” he says.
In addition to teaching, Fr. Jack is the “commissary provincial” for the Eastern region of the Carmelites. That means staying in touch with members up and down the east coast, knowing their needs, visiting, and helping in special situations. Fr. Jack tries to sit down with each member once a year. In some cases, it means helping those who are elderly or sick move into a better living situation.
– Fr. Jack Welch
Mary and Elijah are probably the most important figures in Carmelite tradition. Fr. Jack says that in addition to Elijah’s role as a traditional model for monastic life, his attack on the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel gives him a special closeness to the community that traces its roots to that mountain. Elijah’s determined defense of Yahweh and his location makes him a natural model for the Carmelites.
When the community entered into the mendicant movement in the thirteenth century and their way of life was in doubt, Fr. Jack says the Carmelites used Elijah to “anchor our existence in the church.”
Listening to God
For Fr. Jack, what identifies Carmelites as contemplative, even in their active ministries, is the common sense of prayer as core to their lives and their attentiveness to God. “We’ve dug back into our tradition to find better ways of defining contemplation,” he says. “Contemplation is not a lifestyle, but an attempt to listen to God always.”
Fr. Jack says many Carmelites list as a goal: “The experience of God.” It’s not that different from the human experience, he says. “Our lives require us to let go, to trust in a God we can’t name or control.”
What has been Fr. Jack’s experience as a Carmelite? “A very meaningful life, supportive companionship, good values, tuned into God, using my gifts for service.” It is human nature, says Fr. Jack, to seek fulfillment of our desires. But, it is the human condition to be unfulfilled because only God can fulfill us. It is this yearning, hunger, and restlessness — and love of God — that gives Carmelites the drive to serve.
The Song of Songs is a foundational story for the Carmelites. “It gives us the sense that it is a love story our lives are involved in,” says Fr. Jack. “Our sense is that we’ve woken up in the middle of a love story and we’re aching for fulfillment.”