By Doris Yu
September 13, 2016 — This fall, 47 new Jesuit novices joined the Society of Jesus in Canada, Haiti and the U.S., the largest group of novices in the last 10 years.
The journey to becoming a Jesuit priest or brother can take from eight to 12 years, and it begins with two years in the novitiate. The formation process follows a detailed plan that was laid out by St. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus.
After arriving at novitiates in California, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, Quebec and Haiti on Entrance Day, the newest Jesuits will learn to live in community, work in Jesuit ministries, serve the poor and marginalized, make a pilgrimage and complete a 30-day Spiritual Exercises retreat.
At the novitiate, the men will also have the chance to just sit and chat, play an instrument, play sports, watch TV or go out to a movie together.
“Community life is one of the blessings of being a Jesuit,” says Most Rev. Terrence Prendergast, SJ, Archbishop of Ottawa. “I cherished the priests, brothers and scholastics that made up these communities for the support and challenge they gave me as a Jesuit and a priest. We celebrated Mass and prayed together. We studied, worked and argued together. We laughed often and cried sometimes. We asked pardon of each other. We played hockey and bridge with a passion. We generally enjoyed each other’s company.”
Days at the novitiate consist of classes taught by the director and his Socius (assistant), daily Mass, group prayer, talking with one another in small groups about their spiritual journeys, helping with chores around the house, social time and unstructured time.
In their first year classes, the novices learn more about the Society of Jesus, including an introduction to Jesuit saints and Jesuit life. They also examine the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the “Autobiography of St. Ignatius” and various Jesuit documents.
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, a periodic assembly of Jesuit representatives from all parts of the world and the highest authority in the Society of Jesus. This will be particularly relevant since General Congregation 36 will be taking place this October to elect the successor to Father General Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, who has served as Superior General since 2008. Since its founding in 1540, the Society has convened only 35 General Congregations.
At each novitiate, the novice director and Socius will guide the novices through the formation process and get to know each novice well. The director sends the novices on “experiments,” including hospital work, a pilgrimage, teaching, or learning a foreign language. The novices go on a “long experiment” lasting several months in their second year, where they are assigned to a ministry at a Jesuit apostolate, often a Jesuit school.
These activities allow novices to dive into the work of the Society, at the margins, as fellow Jesuit Pope Francis has urged.
During the recent historic flooding in Baton Rouge, the Jesuit Novitiate of St. Stanislaus Kostka in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, did just that. The novices of the Central and Southern Province Jesuits helped clean up a home destroyed by the disaster in August.
Initially shocked and saddened by what they found — soft, moldy walls, debris-covered floors and rooms smelling of mold and decay — they emptied the house to dry out and prepare it for repair. At the end of the project, the Jesuit novices shared a celebratory moment with the homeowners.
Jesuit Father Mark Thibodeaux, novice director, says, “There could be no better way to teach the new novices about the mission of the Jesuits than by responding to this sort of need. In the end, I felt that I could not, inside the novitiate walls, teach that Jesuits will go anywhere and do anything to reach out to those in need while just outside the walls 60,000 families were in grave need.”
“A Jesuit should never feel that he is locked away in his ‘monastery’,” says Jesuit Father Erik Oland, novice director at the novitiate in Montreal. “Rather, he should feel constantly the impulse to be in the world — where the action is — so that he may be poised to respond to the challenges of the current social climate and to meet individuals where they are, even if it might mean that the call takes one to the center of an Occupy Wall Street encampment, to Parliament Hill, to a Native Reserve or to a street corner where the latest moral controversy is being debated.”
Serving others is just one way the novices will determine whether becoming a priest or brother is what they are being called to do. They will also have the help of deep introspection and daily prayer, tapping into Ignatian spirituality.
In their first year, novices go on a Spiritual Exercises retreat, a 30-day silent retreat designed by St. Ignatius.
“It’s a fantastic experience, probably the most powerful experience of my life,” says Jesuit Father Dave Godleski, Secretary for Formation and Jesuit Life for the Jesuit Conference. “It was very rewarding but it wasn’t easy. You’re praying in silence for 30 days, letting the Lord work on you. You have some warts that you have to let the Lord work on, but you also receive much consolation.”
Faith in God is also tested during the pilgrimage experiment during the novices’ second year, where generally they are sent out with a one-way bus ticket, little or no money and the clothes on their back, and are expected to return within a few weeks to a month.
“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,” says Jesuit scholastic Jeff Dorr, who, as a novice, was put on a bus from Detroit to Atlanta with only $35, and told to find his own way back in 30 days.
At the end of the two years, the hope is that each novice has become confident in his vocation, grown into a more intimate relationship with God and developed an increasing love for the Society of Jesus. The basic goal of the novice’s formation is to deepen his relationship with Jesus Christ, to come to love and serve him better.
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 courses.
“The novitiate was tough and I went through many trials and struggles during it, but up to the very end, after two years of mining away at the depths of my soul, I realized that all that mattered was that God was with me,” says Brook Stacey, SJ. “Wherever I went, whatever I did, I knew that was the most important thing.”
Meet the men who have answered God’s call to ministry by clicking on their photos in the right column.
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.