InsightOut: What Parish Are You At, Father?

Dr. Adam Hincks, S.J., holds the Sutton Family Chair in Science, Christianity and Cultures at the University of St. Michael’s College. Dr. Hincks, who specializes in physical cosmology, completed a B.Sc. in physics and astrophysics from U of T in 2004. In 2009 he earned a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University and then entered the Jesuit novitiate in Montréal. After pronouncing vows in 2011, he pursued philosophical studies at Toronto’s Regis College and later did a Bachelor of Sacred Theology at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. Returning to Toronto, he worked on a Master of Theology and Licentiate in Sacred Theology at Regis College from 2018–20. He was ordained to the priesthood in 2019.

What Parish Are You At, Father?

Colourful galaxy photograph

“What parish do you live at, Father?” It’s a question I’ve been asked a couple of times since I was ordained last year. The answer—“I’m not based at a parish”—can be unexpected for those who are only used to seeing priests at Sunday mass. The fact of the matter is that most ordained Jesuits are not parish priests, nor have we ever been since our founding in the sixteenth century. The same can be said for those in many other religious institutes, such as the Basilian Fathers who are so important to St. Michael’s College. This doesn’t mean that none of us have parishes—for instance, here in Toronto, Our Lady of Lourdes is served by Jesuit priests and St. Basil’s by Basilians. Nor does it mean that we don’t help out at parishes in various ways. But it isn’t our sole defining ministry.

In my own case, my principal assignment, which I just began in July, is as a professor here at the University of Toronto. To be honest, when I became a Jesuit in 2009 fresh off of a doctorate in physics, I never dreamt that I would come back to the St. George campus, where I had been an undergraduate, as a professor! I figured after the many years of Jesuit formation I would could end up in an academic setting, perhaps at one of the scores of universities we run around the world, but it was only a vague idea.

The position I have begun here is new and unique. Supported by the Sutton Family Chair in Science, Christianity and Cultures, I have an appointment both in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics and here at St. Michael’s College. The majority of my research is purely scientific, in the area of physical cosmology, or the study of the Universe as a whole. I work on telescopes that observe the very early universe and that map out the cosmos on its largest scales. But with my training in philosophy and theology, I also have an interdisciplinary interest in how science relates to faith and vice versa. And so a good part of my teaching will be precisely in this area—such as SMC371, “Faith and Physics”, which I shall teach in the winter term of 2021.

Still, one might return to the spirit of the question I began with and frame it a bit differently: why should a priest be engaged in research and teaching at a public university? There is the somewhat facile answer that there have been clerics on faculties ever since the first universities of the West arose in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Church has always valued education and the pursuit of knowledge, and thus her clergy and religious as well as her laity have always contributed to these great endeavours. But looking at the question from within the tradition of my own religious order, I am reminded of the notion of “finding God in all things”, a formula often used to capture a key aspect of the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, our principal founder.

“Finding God in all things” is not a vague aphorism or a flaky aspiration, but is rooted in the deeply Biblical conviction that as Creator, God is intimately present to his creatures, or, as Thomas Aquinas put it, “God is in all things, and innermostly.” This does not mean that if you use a powerful enough microscope (or telescope!) you will suddenly find scientific “evidence” for God. But it does mean that studying creation—whether through the lenses of the humanities, the social sciences or the natural sciences—can be a springboard to contemplating its Creator. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8, NABRE). And ultimately, it is “contemplation of divine things” that is one of the principal tasks of those of us in religious life.

So I consider myself blessed to have this opportunity for contemplation, even if the busyness of the job means that I can’t always advert to it! I am looking forward to collaborating with all my colleagues at this university—fellow faculty, other researchers and students—as we lift our minds to consider true and lovely things “worthy of praise.” Not everyone contemplates science from within a religious worldview, and of course there are some who think such a stance is ludicrous. But I’m excited that St. Michael’s College has opened the space to explore it further, and I’m excited to see where it leads. I trust it will make me a better scientist, a better Christian—and a better priest.

Read other InsightOut posts.