A year ago today, 9 September 2010, Jesuit Father Ignatius Ikunza from Kenya turned 39. Four days later he died of a rapidly progressive illness at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, MA. He e-mailed me in June of that year enclosing lab work and scans prompted by some rather vague symptoms that he had mentioned a few weeks earlier. The labs and scans ranged from bad and worse. Four months later over 100 priests concelebrated his funeral Mass in the overflowing Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Campion Center in Weston, MA. He was interred in the cemetery there.
We met eight years earlier when I moved to the Georgetown University Jesuit Community where he was living while completing an LLM in immigration law. Though we lived on very different schedules and rarely saw each other during the week, a chance conversation resulted in my inviting him to Plymouth for a weekend. My entire family adopted him immediately, such was his charm. He spent Christmas with us several times (see photo below). It was more than a little amusing that he had keys to mom’s house and would visit even when I was stuck in D.C. He much preferred the small town milieu to D.C. or Boston.
In 2003 he moved to Cambridge, MA to complete his theological studies for ordination. Two years later I returned to Cambridge to finish the final year of theology. It was a blessing to be assigned to the LaFarge House Community where we lived in adjacent rooms.
Ikunza, as he was generally known, entered the Society in June of 1990. It galled me that this kid, 22 years my junior, was not only my senior in religious life but, when his ordination was changed from July 2007 to May 2007, he became my senior in the priesthood. He called a few days after he was ordained to note that now that HE was a priest he would be happy to hear my confession if I wished make it before my own ordination a month later. He had a wicked sense of humor.
He was an intellectually challenging man. He was very smart, articulate, quick, fluent in multiple languages, and blessed with a combination of unlimited energy and boundless imagination. His was a short life but one in which he accomplished a great deal working with immigrants and the large Kenyan Catholic Community near Boston, and in the social ministries in Kenya, to name just a few.
Nothing of what he accomplished happened without periodic conflict and frustration, but he never gave up in his understanding of his vocations to the Society of Jesus, the priesthood, and the law. It is difficult not to wonder what might have been had he lived the “seventy years or eighty for those who are strong” of the psalms.
We read in the psalm in today’s Mass:
“You will show me the path to life,
fullness of joys in our presence,
the delights at your right hand forever.”
Ikunza knows those joys in a way that we will know only
after our own deaths. “Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord . . . . “
Ikunza at Christmas 2003 in Plymouth and the Jesuit Cemetery at Campion Center in Weston, MA..
+Fr. Jack, SJ