October 17, 2019 — The Society of Jesus in the U.S., Canada and Haiti welcomed 33 new Jesuit novices this fall at novitiates in California, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, Quebec and Haiti. They have taken the initial step on their journey toward Jesuit priesthood or brotherhood, known as “Jesuit formation,” which can take a total of eight to 12 years.
In these first two years as novices, the men will learn what it means to live in community, adopt the rhythm of daily prayer and deepen their understanding of God’s call to the Society. They have selflessly devoted their lives to the service of the marginalized, to the church, to God and to each other.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, who co-founded the Society in 1540, first defined the elements of Jesuit formation in his Jesuit Constitutions. Jesuit novices still follow this plan today — adapted to the modern world.
“The novices best support the needs of the church in the modern world by preaching the Gospel in a way that all sorts of people can receive it,” says Fr. William O’Brien, SJ, novice director at the Jesuit Novitiate of St. Alberto Hurtado in St. Paul, Minnesota. “For this mission, they must learn to discern God’s presence in the wide range of cultures, sensibilities and human experiences that they will encounter.”
Learn more about all five stages of Jesuit formation.
Thus begins a comprehensive program of service, ministry, study and prayer, methodically devised to help Jesuits grow in their relationships with Christ and identify how they can best serve him and all humankind.
At the novitiate in California, the novices’ first week starts with a welcome Mass and lunch for the new novices, families and guests, says Fr. Stephen Corder, SJ, novice director at the Jesuit Novitiate of the Three Companions in Culver City, California. The new Jesuits attend orientation sessions, take on house jobs, share vocation stories and visit local Jesuit ministries. In the second week, they do a three-day silent retreat given by the second-year novices.
From then on, typical days at the novitiate consist of classes taught by the director and his assistant (known as the Socius), as well as daily Mass, group prayer, discussion of their spiritual journeys and chores around the house.
Fr. Joseph Sands, SJ, director at the Jesuit Novitiate of St. Andrew Hall in Syracuse, New York, draws parallels between the novitiate and academics (something the Society knows a thing or two about). “I would compare entering the novitiate to starting college. I think they’re pretty courageous for it,” he says. “They may be anxious because they don’t know exactly where it leads, but once they get in, they find it a very positive and human environment.”
Indeed, the novices’ Jesuit community becomes their new family. “The novices enjoy going to movies together, bicycling, going to the Loyola Marymount University gym, playing volleyball at the beach, cooking and hiking,” Fr. Corder says.
Of course, the novices remain close to their old families at the same time. “Normally, the novices have opportunities to visit their families for the Christmas holiday and in late June, after returning from their summer program,” says Fr. O’Brien. Family members and close friends come to the novitiate for visits and stay connected through email and phone calls.
As for the work outlined in St. Ignatius’ Constitutions, the novices complete a series of “experiments” to explore their vocations and help them discern the specific ways they might be called to serve the church.
For example, experiments for the new novices in California might include working with prison retreats, spiritual programs and juvenile hall through Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative; becoming chaplaincy volunteers at a low-income hospital; care for the elderly at a nursing home; tutoring at Dolores Mission School; and providing a pastoral presence at the well-known gang intervention program Homeboy Industries.
“The purpose is to find that at the heart of our mission is a call to be with people on the margins, enter the struggles of the world and find the face of Christ,” says Fr. Andrew Kirschman, SJ, novice director at the Jesuit Novitiate of St. Stanislaus Kostka in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. “All these experiences help the novices grow in awareness of Christ laboring with us in the world today.”
Novices also make St. Ignatius’ 30-day Spiritual Exercises silent retreat, which they commonly regard as the most meaningful part of the novitiate.
“It surprises the novices,” says Fr. Sands. “They’re grateful for the way they encounter God’s attention, care and love for them.”
The novices aren’t the only ones on a path of discovery. Fr. Corder has found his duties allow him to view the Society through each novice’s fresh eyes.
“I’m always impressed with their generosity, compassion and desire to walk with people,” he says. “They have a good sense of humor and openness to God’s grace.”
Another part of St. Ignatius’ Constitutions instructs novices to embark on a month-long pilgrimage “without money … begging from door to door … to grow accustomed to discomfort in food and lodging.” The pilgrimage teaches novices to adapt to God’s mystery in unique ways, a necessary skill they’ll draw on for the rest of their lives as Jesuits, as Fr. O’Brien explains. “In addition to an active prayer life and training in Christian theology, the qualities of flexibility and empathy that Jesus exemplified are indispensable.”
Details of the pilgrimage assignment vary at each novitiate, but Jesuits are generally sent out with a one-way bus ticket, little or no money and only the clothes on their back. They are directed to return within a few weeks to a month.
“Pilgrimage tends to be every mother’s nightmare. To be sent out of the novitiate with a one-way bus ticket and just $5 sounds terrifying. And yet there is an adventure side — rooted in Ignatius’ life experience — that novices find inspiring, even compelling,” says Fr. Kirschman. “Post-pilgrimage is grace-filled as novices return with a profound sense of trust in God.”
In the second year of their novitiate, novices are missioned to an assignment at a Jesuit-run organization, similar to an internship. Called a “long experiment,” this segment of the novitiate lasts several months.
Long experiments for the Jesuit novices in the Midwest Province have included helping with Clinical Pastoral Education programs in Omaha and Chicago, while others worked in Jesuit schools such as Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha, Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland and Red Cloud High School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Others served at Jesuit-founded social centers such as the Casa Romero Renewal Center in Milwaukee, Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles and the Thrive for Life Prison Project in New York City.
As novices, Jesuits in the U.S. and Canada spend one of their summers at Regis University in Denver at a conference on Jesuit history, delving more intensely into St. Ignatius’ life while meeting their peers at other novitiates.
After two years, the hope is that novices will have become confident in their vocations, nurtured a more intimate relationship with God and developed a profound love for the Society of Jesus. At the end of their time as novices, they profess First Vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Read about the novices who recently professed First Vows this past August.
No longer novices, they are called “scholastics” as they continue to the next stage of Jesuit formation, First Studies, for two years of graduate-level philosophy courses.
For those considering religious life, whether with the Jesuits or elsewhere, Fr. Kirschman suggests young adults “begin by looking for Christ in the suffering around you.”
“Can you find Christ present in the messiness and brokenness of our world, of our cities and church, of your own heart?” Fr. Kirschman asks. “If so, Christ might be calling you to labor with him as a companion.”
The next step, Fr. Corder advises, is to “pray, let God love you and find a spiritual director you can talk to.”
Above all, Fr. Kirschman says, “Trust Christ … and come and see!”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit beajesuit.org for more information