This fall, Georgetown University Law Center welcomed Fr. Ricardo Avila, S.J., as a new Visiting Legal Fellow and Scholar at the Health Justice Alliance. Originally from El Paso, Texas, Avila is a Jesuit of the Northeast Province. He has spent his Jesuit life working at the intersection of faith, law and poverty.
Campus Ministry staff writer Jonathan Compo met with Fr. Avila to discuss his life of faith and his role at Georgetown. Their conversation has been edited for clarity.
What was your earliest faith experience?
I grew up in a Catholic family and I am a product of the Catholic parochial school system. I went to a Christian Brothers high school. The University of Chicago’s Calvert House, the Catholic center, was also formative.
Was the priesthood always a consideration for you?
Yes and no. The priesthood had always been in the back of my mind, never a concrete thing: always amorphous. I would generally say that I had two moments of vocational conversion.
The first came after my family and I became the victims of a violent crime, a push-in. That caused me to think a lot about poverty and be ill-at-ease around the poor. However, at some point I got my hands on a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. And in the book’s epilogue Merton writes of the Lord’s invitation to him “to be a brother of God, be a brother to the burnt men.” Reading that, I too felt an invitation. I think, for me, the invitation was to be a brother to the “burnt men” who robbed me, who robbed my family. Furthermore, the invitation came from Jesus and this was the first time I had a real prayer encounter with Jesus as opposed to God the Father. That experience coupled with a summer internship at a Public Defender’s office changed my perspective: I realized that poverty is an affliction and not a choice.
The combination of all of that inspired me to go on a retreat with some Trappist monks. That was the first time I really considered religious life. That experience also moved me to go to law school with the hope of being a public defender. That said, I ended up working for a big, corporate, New York firm in mergers and acquisitions.
The second came, years later, when I received an invitation to go to an event put on by New York City’s Franciscan Friars of the Renewal called Catholic Underground. It was there that I had another strong prayer experience of just feeling close to Christ. I think that inspired me, along with the witness of the friars, to volunteer at the food kitchen at their friary. After a while I realized how much happier I felt at the end of a day of volunteering at the food kitchen than at the close of business of my job as a lawyer. And I thought: why am not doing this instead of that? And I think that’s when I really started discerning a vocation.
So, it seems poverty was involved in each of these conversion and discernment experiences. Do you see this commitment to your faith and your commitment to addressing poverty as connected, and if so, how?
During my regency, the Jesuits missioned me to do consumer protection advocacy and litigation work– protecting poor and working-poor people against debt collectors. And now, here, I have the opportunity to work at the intersection of poverty law and health law. So, one of the graces I received in saying yes to Jesus by joining the Society of Jesus was the ability to reconnect with my initial impetus for going to law school. It’s one of those things where you “offer it up” and God says, “Okay, you can have it back now.” Now, being a lawyer is not something I have to do. Being a priest is my primary identity, and practicing law is one way to do that.
What is a legal check-up?
It’s basically assessing legal needs. In the same way that you would have a medical check-up—you go to the doctor and they check your vital signs, they check you as a biological organism to see what your health needs are—you go to an attorney to assess what your legal needs are. The clinic tries to use the law to improve healthcare outcomes by addressing the social determinants of health. In fact, the Health Justice Alliance is a partnership with the medical school. Social determinants of health are socioeconomic and environmental factors. For instance, if your asthma treatment isn’t working because you have mold in your house; then, if we can get rid of the mold using legal tools, we can treat your asthma. We can improve healthcare outcomes and access to healthcare through legal means.
What is your role here at Georgetown?
I’m working with the Health Justice Alliance clinic. We’re trying to develop a new branch of the clinic, a new medical-legal partnership dealing with the Washington Hospital Center’s oncology patients. I’m helping set that up. Additionally, I try to help out with the Law Center’s Campus Ministry when possible– I offer some of the Masses and help with retreats.
Do you have any advice to offer students?
I think one of the valuable parts of being an attorney is that you are a professional: once you’re licensed you can always hang up a shingle. That gives you a certain amount of responsibility and freedom to maintain your own professional integrity. That means learning how to say ‘no’ to things. Furthermore, there are ways to maintain a pro bono ethic even in a corporate setting.
I know a lot of lawyers and the ones who are happiest are those who follow their passions. The golden handcuffs are a real thing. Once you get accustomed to making a certain amount of money, it is hard to leave that. To use the Jesuit lingo, what is important is that you’re following your deepest desires and adding to the Kingdom of God. And if you don’t feel that, if you don’t see yourself adding to the Kingdom of God in some way, that’s something to pray about and think about.
Jonathan Compo (COL’20) is a staff writer for Campus Ministry.