by Tracey Primrose
March Madness is an advertiser’s dream. The tournament that determines college basketball’s reigning champion offers brand exposure on a national scale, a fact not lost on Gonzaga University’s new men’s basketball chaplain, Jesuit Father Jack Bentz. When the Zags suit up, Fr. Bentz is in collar and on the bench, and if a network broadcaster catches him in a wide shot, that’s just fine with him.
Fr. Bentz, who lives in Spokane, Washington, in a dorm on the Gonzaga University campus, is the vocation director for the Oregon Province Jesuits. He’s also the vocation promoter, taking every opportunity to spread the word about how meaningful life can be in the Society of Jesus.
When strung together, the words “vocation” and “promotion” make for odd bedfellows. Consumer products are promoted, but a vocation to religious life? Can you really plug something that starts with a call from God?
Yes, says Fr. Bentz. “We need to promote vocations to the Jesuits because people can’t choose what they don’t know. Five hundred years ago, Jesuit vocations were promoted by students passing around a letter from Francis Xavier, one of the early Jesuits. These days, the eyes of the nation are on the NCAA tournament, and that’s where we need to be.”
And if Madison Ave. ad executives were casting for the perfect pitchman for Jesuit vocations, they couldn’t find a better candidate. Fr. Bentz, 50, is a classically trained actor and director, the founder of award-winning theater companies in New York and on the West Coast. He’s taught acting, directed and written plays and served as assistant to the resident director of “The Lion King” on Broadway.
Not bad for a ranch kid from Eastern Oregon who showed up for his freshman year at Gonzaga in a beat-up Subaru. The campus was 450 miles from Fr. Bentz’s home in Drewsey, Oregon, but it might as well have been half a world away. Because their ranch was an hour from the nearest town, the seven Bentz children grew up attending a one-room schoolhouse. When they weren’t studying or reading, a family passion, the kids were working the ranch. Fr. Bentz notes, “If you’re going to run a ranch, make sure you have six tall, strong sons.”
Even as a kid, Fr. Bentz wanted to be an actor, so at Gonzaga he studied theater and English. When he graduated in 1985, he moved to New York, where he auditioned for plays and did a host of odd jobs — sales at Tiffany’s, catering, flower arranging — while waiting for his lucky break. It was a period of self-discovery, a time for Fr. Bentz to come face to face with something he’d contemplated on and off since childhood: Was God calling him to religious life?
He considered becoming a Trappist or a diocesan priest, but he knew that with the Jesuits, he could be both priest and artist, so, at the age of 32, Fr. Bentz entered the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits were quick to recognize Fr. Bentz’s entrepreneurial talents, and his early years in the Society were spent building things. He helped open a school, started a bilingual theater company and served as superior of the Capitol Hill Jesuit Community in Seattle. When he took on the dual roles of vocation director and promoter for the Oregon Province Jesuits, Fr. Bentz returned to Gonzaga, where he serves both as chaplain to the law school and chaplain to a freshman/sophomore dorm. “I find it energizing, and I like the students,” he says. “Plus, I’m a sound sleeper, which is helpful.”
With all his many responsibilities, Fr. Bentz is always focused on vocations. “The reason I said yes to being the chaplain of the basketball team is because of the visibility for vocations. I don’t have to introduce myself to anyone on campus because they’re all basketball fans so they know who I am, and that’s a leg up.”
During the last three years at Gonzaga, Fr. Bentz has built an on-campus discernment group for those contemplating religious life and also created a thriving young-adult group. He preaches a great deal and also still finds time to direct plays, including a recent run at Spokane’s Interplayers Theatre.
He also warms the bench, not that he’s complaining. “I’ve got the best seat in the house. I know who’s injured, who’s pretending to be injured, who’s having a great game. I love being that close.”
But more importantly, he says, “When we play in the NCAA tournament, gazillions of people will be watching the games and looking at the bench because it’s an interesting thing to look at. Having a priest there is my version of a slam dunk. ”Editor's Note: In third round NCAA action, the Gonzaga Bulldogs were defeated by Arizona on Sunday, March 23.
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuits.org/become for more information.