Photo courtesy of Dolores Mission
At Dolores Mission in Los Angeles, Fr. Scott Santarosa gives homily to children.
Photo courtesy of Dolores Mission
At Dolores Mission in Los Angeles, Fr. Scott Santarosa gives homily to children.
The new leader of Northwest Jesuits wants the men of the Society of Jesus to keep serving “on the frontiers.”

The phrase has multiple meanings for Father Scott Santarosa, a 48-year-old former inner city pastor. He will be provincial superior of all far west U.S. Jesuits when the Oregon and California provinces combine in 2017. The Jesuits — who focus on education, mission work and parish ministry — are the largest religious community in the nation.  

States under Father Santarosa’s watch now include Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon. In four years, add California, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah.

Father Santarosa will urge Jesuits to keep ministering on literal frontiers, like the outer reaches of Alaska, the reservations of Montana and the Mexico line. He also hopes his men will tend the figurative wild borderlands — like the streets of LA, Portland and Seattle — and serve the west’s panoply of cultures.   

Chief among challenges Father Santarosa sees in his new post is maintaining Native American ministry, a venerable tradition that fewer Jesuits are choosing. He imagines local Jesuit universities may be able to step in. A related task is continuing work in remote Alaska. In cities, the new provincial will work to make sure Jesuit education reaches beyond the wealthy. He says St. Andrew Nativity School and Jesuit High in Portland have made exemplary strides that need to continue.

For Catholics in Oregon, Father Santarosa says the Jesuits can serve as experts in discernment. “We ask people, ‘Where do you think God might be calling you today?’” Father Santarosa says. “We pose questions like ‘Where do you feel joy calling you?’”

Jesuits, he says, presume God is working directly in each person, and trust the experience but always tempered by the teaching of the church.

Father Santarosa does not want Jesuits to “stand out” or become famous. He does want people to be inspired by their prayer and ministry. “We are men of the church, at the service of the local archbishop,” he says.  

His mission is to care for the 200 Jesuits of the Northwest, send them into ministry and support them. Since May, he has traveled around the province to see what the men need. He is looking at the province as his parish and at the Jesuits as his parishioners.

The Oregon Province has emerged from bankruptcy caused by sexual abuse allegations, in large part from Alaska. A fund is in place if more instances of abuse come to light. Father Santarosa reports that all Northwest Jesuits say they are moving forward more humbly. They all take regular sexual abuse awareness courses.

Father Santarosa grew up in Sacramento, one of four children in an Italian-Catholic family. He cared for younger siblings, including diaper changes.

The family attended Mass and discussed the homily on the way home. At Sacramento’s Jesuit High School, his Jesuit teachers seemed like men with their feet on the ground with good senses of humor. That fascinated him.

It was in high school that young Scott began studying Spanish, which he now says is one of the greatest gifts of his life. As a Santa Clara University engineering student, he put Spanish to use on a mission trip to Mexico and saw people living in cardboard houses, but still loving God and loving neighbor. It changed his course. After graduation in 1988, he signed up as a Jesuit Volunteer and ran an after-school program in a low-income housing project in Newark, N.J. At the end of the year, he started formation as a Jesuit.

At seminary, in addition to reading Plato and Thomas Aquinias, he practiced his Spanish with the cook and taught English to day laborers.

After ordination, he taught at an inner city high school in the Watts section of Los Angeles. In 2007, he became pastor of Dolores Mission, a Latino parish on a gang boundary in East L.A. The people were splendid, but bullets would fly and he feared for his parishioners. All in all, it was his dream job.

“Jesus really does work through other people, especially the poor,” he told a Portland audience this spring.  

Father Santarosa deeply misses the mission. On his wrist is a bracelet made by school children there. The students inscribed the words, “Si, se puede,” or “Yes, it’s possible.”

He says people in low-income neighborhoods where he served want three things: immigration reform, jobs and safety from violent crime.  

“The poor teach me the Good News,” Father Santarosa says. “We need to be in contact with the poor. That is going to change the church.”

On the wall of Father Santarosa’s office hangs a portrait of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the murdered Salvadoran churchman who shifted from a mild life to staunch advocacy for people who are poor. Father Santarosa keeps in mind stories about Archbishop Romero, who would drop whatever he was doing to meet with visitors, especially if they were poor. The priest tried to do the same at Dolores Mission and intends to keep an open door in the provincial’s office.

Father Santarosa keeps a prayer routine, getting up as early as he needs to. He also performs an examination of conscience each evening before bed. He makes regular trips for prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Lafayette. As of late, a part of Isaiah 42:16 persistently enters his prayer: “By unknown ways I will guide them.”

He figures he may not always know what he is doing, but trusts God to show him the path.