When Tom Greene was a junior at Jesuit High School in New Orleans, then-president Fr. Harry Tompson, SJ, told Tom’s mother that he would one day be a Jesuit. Young Tom laughed off the prediction.
“I wasn’t religious,” he says. “I had no desire to be a priest. I dismissed the idea pretty easily”
But then, Tom Greene’s life hasn’t turned out quite the way he thought it would. He thought he would be an attorney, a husband and father, the usual expectations. Instead, at 56, he’s a Jesuit priest, preparing to be provincial of the USA Central and Southern Province. As provincial, he will be responsible for overseeing the Jesuits and the Jesuit mission within the province.
He will assume his new responsibilities July 31, 2020.
A native New Orleanian, Fr. Greene graduated from Jesuit High, Loyola University New Orleans and Loyola School of Law. He worked for the district attorney’s office before going to work for a law firm in Lafayette, La.
He was working his plan. But he found himself easily distracted. He was becoming increasingly negative, even cynical.
“I would sit at my desk and stare out the window and wonder how I really felt about it all,” he said. “Did my work really make a difference in anyone’s life? How could I be doing so well professionally and yet so poorly personally? I needed a break.”
He quit his job and set off on a road trip to Alaska. “I figured by the time I got back, my head would be clear, and I’d know what I was meant to be doing.”
Three days into his trip, he decided to stop for coffee in Wyoming. He stayed for two years. He got a job teaching at a public school for low-performing students, the children whose social, behavioral or educational needs could not be met in traditional school settings. Earning minimum wage and working with children unable to articulate their needs or control their sometimes-violent impulses, he was incredibly happy. He knew he was on the right path and decided to pursue a master’s degree in special education to continue this work, but at a higher level, designing behavioral programs.
“I went looking for a program that would pay for my graduate school education and found Boys Hope Girls Hope in St. Louis, which was founded by Fr. Paul Sheridan, SJ,” Fr. Greene said. He committed to spending two years at the nonprofit, working with low-income children in a holistic approach.
“I would bring the kids to an inner-city parish, and I was always impressed by the priest,” Fr. Greene recalls. “He was involved in the neighborhood, doing good things, providing hope, serving as an anchor. And I remember thinking, ‘Why is the Church involved in this stuff?’”
Witnessing the way this priest lived the Gospel values led Greene to question his own priorities. He began studying theology and volunteering at a homeless shelter. He lived simply. Very slowly, he began to realize that what he wanted out of life was a vocation.
“One day I had this crazy thought that maybe I should be a Jesuit,” he says. “It just seemed so absurd. At times it still does! I tried to push it away, but it kept coming back. The question began to haunt me and kept me up at night. I realized I had to put this question behind me.”
He entered the Jesuits in 1997, at the age of 34. “Ever since, it’s been an incredible ride,” he says.
Father Greene completed the usual path of Jesuit formation: a master’s degree in philosophy from Loyola University Chicago and a Master of Divinity degree from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, Calif. He also earned a master’s in conflict resolution at Creighton University, Omaha, Neb.
His regency, however, was a little different. Instead of working in a Jesuit high school, as most regents do, Fr. Greene provided legal counsel to asylum seekers and unaccompanied minor immigrants through the Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance in Houston. Over the years, he would provide legal representation of detained immigrant children and asylum seekers in Chicago and New Orleans, as well.
Following his ordination in June 2007, Fr. Greene was one of the founding members of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans, where he specialized in immigration. While there, be began doing advocacy work with the state legislature on behalf of immigrants.
His expertise in immigration issues led to an assignment in 2014 as the secretary for social and international ministries at the Jesuit Conference of the United States in Washington, D.C. In that role, he continued his advocacy work, this time with federal lawmakers and other national and international organizations. He also worked closely with Jesuits and lay collaborators working in social apostolates around the world.
“I was able to see the Society of Jesus and its work on a worldwide level, and it was an incredible experience,” he says. “Frequently, I would think about the thousands of lives around the world impacted by Jesuits and colleagues working in schools, social centers and refugee camps and just be amazed at the power of that dedication. If everyone did that contemplation, the world would be a lot more hopeful.”
Father Greene was four years into his assignment at the Jesuit Conference when former Provincial Douglas Marcouiller, SJ, asked him to lead the formation community in St. Louis. Father Greene served as the rector (superior) of Bellarmine House of First Studies at Saint Louis University, from 2014 to 2017.
“Formation work was really pivotal for me,” he said. “I’d never been a superior before. I learned a lot … and I don’t think anyone got seriously hurt!”
Father Greene currently serves as Jesuit superior of the Jesuit Community of Belize, Central America, and as provincial assistant for international ministries. “I love the ministry in Belize,” Fr. Greene said. “The people there are so hungry for all the things the Society of Jesus has to offer. It’s also a great opportunity right now for us to reimagine our role in the Belizean Church by examining how we can empower lay leadership in the Church, particularly by way of the Spiritual Exercises.”
The Jesuits in Belize administer two parishes, a parish school, a retreat house, a high school and junior college. Jesuits are active in spirituality ministries, including training lay people and religious in Ignatian Spirituality. Father Greene has worked closely with the local Jesuits, the diocese, the staff at the parishes and schools and other religious, to assess the needs of the Belizean Church and consider the roles Jesuits might fill.
One big project completed under his supervision is the restructuring of the Jesuit residence, creating space for visitors to stay. The community has welcomed groups from Saint Louis University (SLU), Loyola University Chicago and John Carroll University, among others. It is hoped that in August 2020, two schools from this province, SLU and St. John’s College (SJC, Belize City), will launch Casa Belize, a study abroad program for SLU students at SJC.
His assignment in Belize has been the first in which Fr. Greene was able to do direct pastoral ministry. He says Mass, leads retreats, gives talks, visits the sick and the imprisoned.
“I love my day-to-day ministry in Belize,” he says. “It will be hard to leave. Few Jesuits enter the Society because we feel called to a life of administration. I’m not sure what God sees in me, but this whole Jesuit life has been a mystery to me. Despite my shortcomings, I have enjoyed every assignment and stage of formation.”
Father Greene succeeds V. Rev. Ronald A. Mercier, SJ, who has served as provincial of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province since its creation on July 31, 2014. Father Mercier will work closely with Fr. Greene during the coming months. Following Fr. Greene’s installation next summer, Fr. Mercier will begin a sabbatical.