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photo: Ben White, Unsplash

Becoming a religious in today’s context is often a radical and difficult decision. To help young men in their discernment and to give them a taste of the life of the novitiate of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits of Canada have set up a house of discernment, first in Toronto (2019–2020) and then in Montreal (2020–2021).

I told Fr. John that if I had not had this experience of being in the house of discernment and praying, I don’t think I would have applied this year. It really helped me. The transition to the novitiate doesn’t seem so bad, given that we have already somehow lived that life.Abin Mathew, novice who lived in the house of discernment

Fr. John O’Brien, SJ, Director of Vocations, explains the purpose and impact of the house.

How did the house of discernment begin?

About a year ago, I became aware of some Jesuit provinces in the world (such as Haiti, Venezuela or Vietnam) that had a house of discernment for young men to live in and do more in-depth discernment before applying to enter the Jesuit novitiate. To my knowledge, none of the North American Jesuit provinces had such a program.

I had already spoken with a number of young men in Toronto who were looking for a place where they could live together while studying or working. It became clear to me that they wanted a space that would be conducive to learning about religious life, especially Jesuit life.

I believe that such a house is useful because the idea of joining a religious order today can be really radical and even difficult. So the concept behind the house of discernment is to offer a pleasant but meaningful space that can serve as a time of transition before a man enters the novitiate, making it less of a shock.

We had a house at our disposal—the former house of philosophy studies, which had been repurposed as a house of welcome for Jesuits who came to Toronto as visitors. It has many rooms and a beautiful chapel. The provincial superior gave us permission to use it as a house of discernment.

In the end, three men decided to move in. The four of us lived together, plus Brother Gerry (the director of the house). We lived together for most of the year, including most of the COVID-19 period. And we had a good year.

Abin Mathew cleaning up in the Toronto discernment house, photo: Fr. John O’Brien, SJ

Practically speaking, what do the young men do in this house?

The content of the program is light but focused. The young men commit to daily prayer and to participating in a weekly community meeting that usually consists of faith sharing, through which they become accustomed to being aware of and discussing their inner life and spiritual movements (a very Jesuit practice). Practicing this kind of discernment is as important before becoming a Jesuit as it is afterwards. In addition, they share responsibility for the usual community tasks such as housework, cooking, cleaning, etc. This is important because many of the young men have never lived outside their parents’ home. Apart from that, they are free as lay people to go to school, to attend mass wherever they want, etc.

The house of discernment is not designed to reproduce the novitiate. The emphasis is on discernment and preparation for the novitiate, on both the human and spiritual levels.

An advantage of the house in Toronto was the constant flow of Jesuit visitors. The young men were able to meet a wide variety of Canadian Jesuits and some international Jesuits.

For my part, I lived with the men during the week and returned to my own community on the weekends. It was a great joy to live with them, to pray with them, to cook with them, to accompany them during this critical year.

And during the lockdown, these young men were very generous, helping me with the online masses; it became a community project, we became a team offering service beyond the confines of the house.

What happened at the end of this first year?

I was very happy because two of the three gentlemen decided to apply and were accepted into the novitiate. The third made a very good personal discernment and was called elsewhere.

It really seems that the house of discernment played a positive role in helping all of them to discern God’s path.

For the year 2020–2021, the house of discernment will no longer be in Toronto, but in Montreal. What is the reason for this?

Every year, I try to determine where the winds are blowing. After this first experience in Toronto, an opportunity arose to create a house of discernment in Montreal. This year, the new director of the Villa Saint-Martin, Father Kevin Kelly, invited us to implement the program there. The context of COVID-19 means that it doesn’t matter very much which city the young men live in since most of the courses this year are online. The other advantage to Montreal is that for some it will be a time to learn French, and the novitiate is bilingual.

The new discernment house at the Villa Saint Martin in Montreal, by Raj Vijayakumar

In addition, I can see a permanent role for a discernment program and not only for those who live in the house. Other discerners could benefit from the house as a meeting place where they could come periodically for conversation and fellowship. This is what we are already doing in Montreal.

Are you thinking of setting up other houses of discernment in the province?

We are still studying the opportunities that exist for this type of program in different parts of Canada. One of the main criteria is to know where the candidates are. We almost opened one in Regina a few years ago and would be open to considering the possibility in other parts of the country. Toronto and Montreal are the best places for this because of the presence of Jesuit universities, communities, and apostolates.

Another option for candidates who do not live in a house of discernment is to live in a Jesuit community that offers a one-year internship or a session to get to know the Jesuits.

Martyrs’ Shrine, for example, has a long history of hosting young discerners for a season. But with COVID-19, it has become a bit more difficult. That being said, the house of discernment will carry on!

In their own words

Two young men, now novices, share their experience in the house of discernment.

After my spiritual director and I discerned that I might have a call to the Jesuits, I sent an email to John O’Brien, and on the feast of St. Ignatius in 2019, he told me that he was opening the new house of discernment. My stay at the house went well. At the same time, I finished my studies and obtained my degree in medieval studies.

I really liked living in community. And since the house also welcomed Jesuit visitors to Toronto, I got to know people, including the provincial. This gave me a taste of Jesuit life and helped me in my discernment process. Getting to know Father O’Brien definitely helped me, as did people like Abin, with whom I will be working for the next ten years! I started with the certainty that I was going to apply to become a Jesuit candidate, and all the time I spent at the house of discernment confirmed that. A “Come and See” weekend in Montreal was the little nudge I needed to apply this year. – John Simon

 

When I was in India in July 2019, I spoke to a Franciscan priest whom I knew well. He said, “Maybe you should join the Jesuits.” I had just finished my degree in psychology. After Googling “Jesuits of Canada” and meeting Fr. Edmund Lo, I called Fr. John O’Brien and said, “I think I need to get away from my family to make my decision. Is there somewhere I can stay in the meantime?” He replied, “We’ve just opened a house of discernment in Toronto!”

I needed to be away from my family, my school, and my friends to focus on my decision. It was a great idea. We were welcomed as part of the Jesuit family so that we could see what it was like, while being with other people who were in the same boat. We also learned about discernment, consolation, desolation… all these things that were already happening in my life and that I was able to recognize. We also visited other communities, especially those with scholastics, so that we could spend time with them and hear their vocation stories. We also learned what the older Jesuits have done with their lives. In February 2020, I went to visit my family in India. I had prayed for certain things to happen, to reaffirm my choice. I received answers to all these prayers, and on my return, I applied to enter the novitiate. – Abin Mathew

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