Fr. Brian Paulson, SJ, recently completed five years as vocation director for the Chicago Province. In this adaptation of a talk he gave to the Jesuits of his province, he shares his insights and convictions about those considering joining the Society of Jesus.
A lot of men show interest in Jesuit life, and you might be interested to know what attracts them. Their average age, 28 or so these past few years, is much higher than it was not long ago, but the interest is still there. While the Society of Jesus is growing in so many parts of the world, the relatively low numbers of men who enter novitiates in the United States these days might make some people wonder whether the Society's glass is half empty or half full. It might surprise these folks to know that in a typical year 80 to 100 men get in touch with the Chicago Province's vocation office asking for information, and this has been true for over fifteen years. Assistant province vocation director Fr. John Ferone, SJ, or I would meet with about half, between 40 and 50, usually for over an hour. Of the half who would come back for a second conversation, about a dozen begin a serious one- to three-year discernment process. Most of these men would make fine Jesuits if God gave them the graces and they responded with generous hearts.
In terms of what initially attracts them, it is not usually advertising. If Jesuit vocation directors had to live off responses from vocation magazine ads and posters, they would be closing up shop. If they had to rely on Jesuit alumni alone, they would have half as many novices. But vocation directors have great assets in the Society's history, reputation, and good name. Most candidates find the Society on their own when God gets their attention. I learned that the key thing was to treat them well by responding to their needs from the moment they first contacted me.
The Jesuits' reputation as learned, talented, and spiritual men with an esprit de corps who get things done makes people look at them, and thank God it does. As one man said to me when I first met him after he had looked us up on the Internet, "If I'm going to explore this vocation thing, I owe it to myself to look at the Jesuits, because you are the Yankees of religious orders."
The men who contact me are typically generous and idealistic and want to serve God, their neighbors, the poor, and the Church. Typically, they do not ask a lot of questions about Jesuit works; they usually know what we do. They are more interested in "being" questions, how Jesuits live and pray together and support one another, rather than in "doing" questions. They are searching for something distinctive and attractive in terms of who they are to become as Christians. Jesuits might say they are looking for the magis, the more.
These men do not assume that there is a necessary link between what Jesuits do and who Jesuits are, and perhaps for good reasons. So often these days, others do equally as well, at times better, most of what Jesuits do as teachers, researchers, counselors, administrators, and retreat and spiritual directors. And when it comes to the sacraments, Jesuits have not cornered that market either. Priesthood alone does not set Jesuit priests apart from other priests or make a compelling case for becoming a Jesuit. And, as we all know, there are Jesuit brothers as well.
This shift from "doing" to "being" is significant in terms of the way many men approach vocations to religious life today. The candidates of twenty years ago, who were much younger on average, were inspired by Jesuits who, frequently enough, were their teachers; candidates wanted to do what these Jesuits were doing and live as they were living. The doing was the initial attraction and an integral part of the package of who they were to become.
What Jesuits do certainly still comes into play in vocation discernment, but it is generally not the beginning nor the end of the process. Much more typical now is a candidate who focuses on the qualitative distinctiveness of Jesuit life: the witness of Jesuits' whole lives; how they do whatever they do; in what spirit, with what attitudes their way of proceeding how they live and pray and relate to one another through their personal and communal life and fraternal bonds. Candidates today ask themselves, "What kind of person am I going to become before God as a result of joining this group?" It's very understandable people in their late twenties and older tend to ask deeper questions about the meaning and purpose of their lives, whatever their chosen vocation or state of life.
This accent on being more than doing was frustrating when I expected candidates to get excited about the most recent articulation of the Jesuits' mission today; they did not seem to be as interested in that as they were in an article on prayer or celibacy. Most of my classmates in the novitiate seventeen years ago were inspired by the activity of the Church in the 1970s and were fired up about what the Society did. Our formation directors needed to turn us into men of prayer and vows.
Today's candidates have been taking personal and spiritual growth very seriously well before they apply much more so than many of those who entered at a much younger age years ago. The task of formation will be to get these prayerful men excited about the mission, to see where they might find a place and make a contribution, and to develop a spirituality that will sustain them for the long haul as contemplatives in action.
A remarkable convergence is apparent in most of the studies being done on the current state of vocations and the future of religious life in the United States. Young people are attracted to groups with explicit religious goals, intense community life, and passion for worldwide evangelization. They have a desire for justice and often to work with the poor. They also want their mission to have a clear and significant religious dimension. A tall order, indeed.
If candidates focus more on how Jesuits live and work and less on what they do, the focus in vocation ministry moves much more quickly to the life of the vows and personal and communal prayer. In fact, the magis that candidates look for in the distinctiveness of our Jesuit lives as religious needs to be most evident in the life of the vows, community life, and personal and communal prayer, as elusive as these may seem.
Jesuits individually and communally should articulate a theology of the vows they can share and live by an understanding of the vows that is true to Vatican II, true to the Society's traditions, true to their best aspirations and lived experience a theology understandable to those to whom and with whom they minister.
Biblical scholar Don Senior, CP, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, describes the vows of religious life as a "public expression of what God has already done to us." For Jesuits, as for all religious, vows are a moral and spiritual engagement that affirms the action of God in their lives and proclaims that God has invited them to be companions of Jesus in a radical way. They believe living this way is worth sacrificing all the other possibilities: spouses, families, partners, careers, worldly success. By their vows, which are not just another lifestyle choice in the marketplace of Christian vocations, they become touchstones of the divine, bearers of the mystery of God. By their vows they pledge themselves to intensify the way they live their baptismal promises and to make their journeys of faith publicly available to other followers of Jesus. By their vows they are set apart by God within the body of Christ so as to build up the body of Christ. And they hope that because of this special consecration Jesus can touch others.
There's an old saying: people almost never leave the Jesuits because of poverty, they rarely leave because of obedience, but more often than not, if someone leaves, it has something to do with celibacy and unfulfilled desires. Jesuits know the truth of this when it comes to departures from the Society, but do Jesuits think enough about the implications of that realization when it comes to a decision to enter the Society, which turns more often on this vow than any other?
A functional explanation of this vow will not inspire many people to come follow Jesus. Sure, this vow makes Jesuits available. Yet what is most distinctive about their lives as religious is that God has made them so aware of the urgency of the coming of the kingdom that they take St. Paul at his word: they are single and will stay that way, bonded closely with other Christians, as they wait and labor in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior. It is only in this way that Jesuits can make greater sense of the sacrifice of intimacy and generativity involved. In spite of the hundredfold of love and relationships and brotherhood so many Jesuits experience in this life, there is still an irreducible remainder of aloneness that is the price of this vow and that needs to be understood as more than just Church discipline and availability for mission.
Practical matters such as the visibility and accessibility of Jesuits are real issues, but the most important issues have to do with their comfort level with the "distinctiveness" of their life and willingness to share their faith journeys and to allow the Spirit to work through them to touch others and encourage their faith, hope, and love. If they are to accomplish their mission, Jesuits have to talk about their experience of God and prayer because the world around them is so spiritually hungry.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus cautions his disciples against losing their zeal, warning them that they would become like salt with no flavor or lamps hidden under bushel baskets. Ignatius had that same concern and gave his men a way to maintain and grow in their passion for the Kingdom. In the Spiritual Exercises Jesuits have a rich spiritual patrimony that helps them to be salt and light in a distinctive manner and to share their faith with others. Once they get to know Jesuits, the men who seriously consider and enter the Society today are attracted and inspired by Jesuits who live their vocations as gifts from God, who think the sacrifices involved worth enduring, who radiate Christ's love, who love and care for the poor, and who preach the Good News by example and word.
The Society's glass is really more than half full. Talented, faith-filled, generous men, men who want to follow Jesus and serve the Church, are taking a good look at the Jesuits and are entering. Jesuits should continue to inspire others to follow these generous men by the example of their lives as companions of Jesus, servants of Christ's mission.
Fr. Brian Paulson, SJ, heads to Australia for his tertianship, the final stage of Jesuit formation before pronouncing final vows.