This year, 29 men started their Jesuit journey when they entered the Society of Jesus in the United States. The novices hail from across the country and represent America’s great cultural diversity. The men led full lives before discerning their call to the Jesuit order: they’ve earned degrees, taught high school, managed nonprofits, worked in business, practiced medicine and volunteered both here and abroad, from East Los Angeles to Calcutta to Micronesia.
“We have excellent men entering,” says Jesuit Father Thomas Pipp, novice director at the St. Alberto Hurtado novitiate in St. Paul, Minn. “What impresses me is their high level of education and the many, many experiences they have when they enter, particularly of service in the developing world.”
While their pasts are varied, as they enter Jesuit life they will share a two-year formation process, following a detailed plan for Jesuit formation that was laid out by St. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus. During their time in the novitiate, each novice will work in a hospital, teach the Catholic faith, journey on a pilgrimage and make the 30-day Spiritual Exercises.
As Fr. Pipp explains, “To become a novice, he really is taking on a different way of living. He’s taking on the Jesuit way of living.”
First, the novices learn more about the Jesuits, including an introduction to Jesuit saints and Jesuit life. They also study the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, which leads into studying the “Autobiography of St. Ignatius” and various Jesuit documents.
“Along the way we’re also talking to them about prayer and about getting into the rhythm of prayer,” says Fr. Pipp.
These studies and prayer help prepare them for the Spiritual Exercises — the 30-day retreat that each novice makes. “The purpose of the retreat is to come to a deeper and more intense relationship with Christ, which really fires the rest of the novitiate and the rest of their Jesuit lives,” explains Fr. Pipp.
In addition to learning and praying, each novice at the Twin Cities novitiate has a teaching experiment, during which he might be placed at a Catholic grade school, a tutoring center for immigrants or Cristo Rey Jesuit High School.
During the first year, the novices also typically have a hospital experiment, in which they give hands-on care to those who need help because of sickness, mental disability or old age. The novices may serve older Jesuits at a Jesuit infirmary or people with developmental disabilities in L’Arche communities.
Fr. Pipp says the hospital experiment reflects on the fact that “in Ignatius’ day, the most marginalized people were in hospitals. It was humble service to the most basic needs of people in the name of Christ.”
The hospital experiment is followed by the pilgrimage experiment, one of the most unique parts of the novitiate. St. Ignatius wrote about the pilgrimage in the Jesuit Constitutions:
"The third experience is to spend another month in making a pilgrimage without money, but begging from door to door at times, for the love of God our Lord, in order to grow accustomed to discomfort in food and lodging. Thus too the candidate, through abandoning all the reliance which he could have in money or other created things, may with genuine faith and intense love place his reliance entirely in his Creator and Lord."
At the novitiate in St. Paul, it’s a monthlong journey where each novice is given a one-way bus ticket to a destination and $35, with instructions to return one month later. They must fend for themselves, whether through begging or working in exchange for food and lodging.
Jesuit scholastic Jeff Dorr, who entered the Society in 2009, took the bus from Detroit to Atlanta for his pilgrimage. He planned to walk 20 miles to a Trappist monastery and spend his pilgrimage in prayer, but he met a homeless man shortly after arriving in Atlanta and changed his focus. He ended up spending 18 nights at a homeless shelter.
“The point of the pilgrimage is to spend the month letting go of our typical securities of home, money, community, and in doing that, come to trust more fully in God,” Dorr said.
“The purpose of the pilgrimage is reliance on God alone,” says Fr. Pipp. “It’s a time to become detached from what’s familiar and the things of the world and to depend only on God.”
During their summers, the novices from St. Paul either attend a conference at Regis University in Denver to study Jesuit history or, in alternating years, travel to a developing country for a month of service to the poor.
When they return to the novitiate in the fall as second-year novices, they continue learning about the Society by studying the Constitutions and the documents of the General Congregations. They also have another experiment — ministry on the frontiers. The novices serve marginalized people, which may be through work at a veterans’ hospital, a center for the homeless or a jail.
In the second semester of the second year, each novice goes out on a long experiment where he is missioned to work in a Jesuit apostolate, doing the work a Jesuit would do, according to Fr. Pipp. Many go to work at Jesuit high schools, colleges or retreat houses, living life in a Jesuit community. It’s a key part of the novitiate, as it enables the novice to again “test out” his vocation.
At the end of the two years, the hope is that each novice has verified his vocation, developed a more intimate relationship with God and developed an increasing love for the Society of Jesus.
“I think the basic goal [of the novice’s formation] is to deepen one’s relationship with Jesus Christ, to come to love and serve him better,” says Fr. Pipp. “That’s primarily achieved with the Spiritual Exercises. You spend a whole month examining your status as a sinner called by Christ. To come to know him in an intimate way and then out of that prayer to come to a sense of ‘What is Christ calling me to be and to do?’”
Those novices who confirm their calling to the Society profess first vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and then move on from the novitiate to two years of graduate-level philosophy studies, followed by one year of graduate-level theology study.
It’s no surprise that the novitiate can be challenging. “It’s taking on a whole new way of life,” says Fr. Pipp. “To take on Jesuit life, to go on a 30-day treat or pilgrimage, they’re all pretty radical kinds of experiences that can deepen your relationship with God and really change you.”
However, he says that the novices are very generous and willing to try. “I’m always impressed by the excellence of the men who enter and how devoted and prayerful they are and how much they want to serve the church and serve people, especially the poor,” says Fr. Pipp.
And while much of the novice’s experience is based on what St. Ignatius laid out in the Jesuit Constitutions, the environment has changed with the times. Fr. Pipp notes that Jesuit formation has become less monastic and more apostolic since the Second Vatican Council.
“The culture has changed, and the men today are perhaps much more intentional about their choice,” he says. “It’s a much more radical and countercultural choice today. They’ve grown in focus in that this is the vocation they’ve chosen, and they want to serve God. They’re very devoted to Christ and focused on wanting to serve him.”