by Julie Bourbon
At the end of his first year as assistant for vocation promotion for the Chicago Province, Fr. Dave Godleski was anxiously preparing for the arrival of the province's new men at the novitiate in Berkley, Michigan.
"One of the most nervous days is Entrance Day, the day the guys are supposed to show up," says Godleski, who remembers standing there one time with all the novices and their families. All the novices but one. So they waited. And waited. Just before they were about to start the proceedings without him, the prodigal arrived, having finally shaken loose from a traffic jam.
"It's never happened that a guy didn't show up," laughs Godleski. A young priest, full of ideas and energy, he's in his fourth year as vocation director.
Vocation directors may be among the first contacts a man has with the Society of Jesus when he begins determining whether he is called to the Jesuit life. Although a man may have been thinking of becoming a priest or a brother for some time, once in contact with a vocation director he enters an intensive discernment stage that typically lasts six months to a year.
Vocation directors get to know a man as he gets to know the Society. They accompany and advise him, help him choose a spiritual director, and, ultimately, make recommendations, along with a committee of other Jesuits and lay people, about whether a man should be invited to enter the novitiate.
"It's sort of like running a dating agency," remarks Fr. Bob Reiser, vocation director for the Maryland and New York provinces. "Ultimately, it's 'Is this a fit? Am I falling in love with the Society?'"
Reiser, whose mother, to his dismay, often refers to him as a "recruiter," is entering his fifth year on the job (typically a six-year assignment, though some vocation directors have stayed much longer). The work offers great highs and lows, from the thrill of helping others determine their paths in life to the disappointment of unreturned phone calls from a once-promising candidate. Reiser's dating analogy fits.
Vocation directors tread the fine line between identifying men of high quality who could make a lifetime commitment to the Society and meeting the expectations of their fellow Jesuits who look to them to fill up the novitiates each fall. Godleski noted the "subtle pressure" of the latter.
"That's the hard part about being a vocation director," he says. "It's not how many people are you helping to discern, it's how many novices are you getting?"
That can be tough. "It's hard to do this work if you think that the results depend on you," remarks Fr. Steve Lantry, Oregon's vocation director, who knows that the demands of the job have led to more than one man leaving the Society after serving as vocation director.
In separate interviews, though, each of the vocation directors of the ten Jesuit provinces in the United States and the Upper Canada Province talk passionately about discernment, the process of figuring out what, exactly, God is calling each of us to be and the honor they feel in playing a role in that process.
"It really is a ministry to people searching for how to be of service to God and the Church"
—Fr. Dan Reim, SJ
Each has received training through the National Religious Vocation Conference, and they routinely, even daily, are in touch via e-mail about their activities, struggles, and questions. Always a collaborative group, the Chicago and Wisconsin provinces this summer jointly hosted the "Six Weeks a Jesuit" program, in which men discerning vocations lived and worked with Jesuits in Chicago and Milwaukee. " I'm pleased with the working relationship among the vocation directors," says Fr. Wayne Negrete, who is finishing his first year of vocation work for the California Province. "They have been a terrific mentoring group, very collaborative, very helpful."
The vocation directors all speak about the inherent contradiction of doing promotional work in a religious culture that trusts so much to the movement of the Spirit. They encounter a great deal of willingness among fellow Jesuits to talk with potential candidates or be their spiritual directors or direct retreats for them. Most Jesuit communities are happy to host dinners, "Come and See" weekends, and similar events that show men the Jesuit lifestyle. But there is still a fundamental uneasiness among Jesuits to promote. Perhaps it's a recruiter "stigma" that goes against the Ignatian grain.
"Sometimes guys are hesitant to do promotion," says Reiser, "because it's been our tradition to let the Spirit do the work."
For vocation directors, it's about working in tandem with the Spirit, which isn't as far from tradition as some might think, says New England Province's Fr. Jim Hayes. "Jesus called people. Ignatius called people. We've got to call people too," he comments. "We've been a little too passive in the past, thinking vocations will come."
"We all have a vocation somehow," continues Hayes, in his fourth year of this work. That larger picture can sometimes be obscured when the talk turns simply to numbers. Discerning one's vocation does not necessarily mean becoming a priest or a brother in the end, but that doesn't mean the discernment process has failed. Quite the opposite, say these men.
"For the process to have integrity, you have to set your personal desire aside and want what's best for the man," says Wisconsin's vocation director Fr. Warren Sazama. "If this discernment process results in their finding what God wants them to be, then it's a successful outcome." Hoping men enter for the sake of filling up the novitiates "is not a good goal, not an Ignatian goal," Sazama feels.
"Jesus called people. Ignatius called people. We've got to call people too."
—Fr. Jim Hayes, SJ
Fr. Dan Reim, Detroit Province's outgoing vocation director, concurs. "There's a part of me that wants to go yeah, yeah, yeah, it's about the numbers. But it can't be about recruiting and focusing on who's going to get in. That's just not true to what we're trying to do. It really is a ministry to people searching for how to be of service to God and the Church."
So where are these men coming from, the ones who enter and those who do not? Many are Jesuit-educated or have a personal connection to a Jesuit who encouraged them to consider a vocation -- often the case in the Wisconsin Province -- then went on a retreat or talked to a spiritual director, thus getting the ball rolling. Others have responded to a poster or an ad or have come through cyberspace -- fairly typical in the Chicago and New Orleans Provinces -- or simply by chance.
A participant in this past summer's Six Weeks a Jesuit Program in Chicago, 20-year-old Pat Owens felt his calling while a student at Fordham Prep in the Bronx. Now a junior at Fordham University, he remembers happening upon Reiser in the hallway after a vocation talk. Owens missed the talk, but the two chatted at some length. The next year, as a high school senior, Owens began participating in novitiate weekends and the Jesuit Associates Program.
"That's where I met the Society," he says of Fordham Prep. In the intervening years, he has come to know the Jesuits better, and they him. "It was just a great time to get closer to the Society and understand what formation was about."
Owens's experience is quite different from that of Peter Folan, 24, who enters the novitiate in Syracuse this fall. A Notre Dame graduate, he worked at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he found himself in real conversation with a Jesuit for the first time. " I felt called to something other than parish work," says Folan, who has felt the pull of a vocation since childhood. "I just thought very simply, What are the things I love?" When he articulated those things -- learning, teaching, serving the poor -- he realized that they were in keeping with the work of the Society. He was hooked.
In his efforts to "hook" similarly well-suited young men, Fr. Marvin Kitten, whose New Orleans Province covers ten states with one Jesuit college, one university, and four high schools, does a lot of fishing in what he calls the "pagan ponds."
"You have to set personal desire aside and what what's best for the man."
—Fr. Warren Sazama, SJ
"We really depend on young men who go to state universities," says Kitten who, at twelve years and counting in vocation work, is by far the senior man among his peers. Kitten counts on getting young men from state schools to participate in discernment retreats, typically their first sustained contact with the Society. "There are often few Catholics and fewer Jesuits where they are." He travels frequently to secular institutions such as Texas A&M and Louisiana State, where he conducts annual Busy Student Retreats with the help of campus ministry. The retreats are so popular he does them once a semester now at LSU; A&M has a waiting list to participate.
"If we could get a Jesuit in every large state university, we'd have to build a new novitiate," Kitten says, noting that this fall they have ten entering and ten in their second year at the Louisiana novitiate. Of those twenty, nine attended Jesuit schools, quite unusual for the New Orleans Province. More typical is the class of a few years ago, when none of the eleven novices had a Jesuit background. "This is a tremendous increase for us. We feel very blessed."
His primary means of contact with these men is e-mail, and increasingly he calls upon lay colleagues to play a role in vocation promotion. The province has a vocation team that includes Jesuits and lay Catholics; the latter are frequently the ones to identify candidates in his province.
This same lay collaboration is more and more the norm for Fr. Len Altilia, assistant for vocations in Upper Canada. In a region even bigger than Kitten's, stretching five and a half time zones, part of Altilia's task is to "stimulate local initiative" by getting as many Jesuits and lay involved in the process as he can.
"In many of our schools, the predominant presence is lay people," he says. The province, acknowledging that reality, is establishing local vocation committees of five to seven people; the chairs of each local committee will form a province committee that will collaborate with Altilia. Even with all that planning and coordinating, though, and after seven years on the job, Altilia is more convinced than ever that human effort doesn't hold a candle to God's intentions.
While the United States has a tradition of vocations coming from Jesuit high schools and universities, that system does not exist in Canada, according to Altilia, and thus very few candidates come from a Jesuit background. World Youth Day in Toronto offered a boost, but almost all initial inquiries these days come via the province's website.
"It's always a mystery where candidates come from. I've come to the conclusion that I don't have to find vocations. That's the job of the Holy Spirit," he says thoughtfully. "That's a big burden off my shoulders."
Julie Bourbon writes and edits for National Jesuit News and In All Things at the Jesuit Conference in Washington, D.C. She is an alumna of Loyola University New Orleans, where she worked for campus ministry. Her uncle Frank Bourbon is a Jesuit.
Altilia's attitude resonates with Fr. Chris Pinné, a former high school teacher and administrator completing his second year of vocation work in the Missouri Province. "In the classroom, rightly or wrongly, you think you're in charge," he comments. "In this job, it's really clear you're not in charge. God is." Which is a good thing, because being product-, goal-, and number-oriented, "our culture doesn't help us as vocation directors," Pinné says. "The grace is, you get to meet young people who are really generous."
That, finally, is one of the great rewards of the job -- getting to know people who are called to serve, maybe not as priests or brothers, but in some capacity and in spite of the many conflicting secular messages with which they are bombarded. There is renewal in that for the vocation directors.
Oregon's Lantry feels privileged to hear the stories of the men drawn to the Society. "It's quite moving how God works," he says. "It's a real boost to my own faith life, and a constant reminder that I'm not in charge of anything." Even, ultimately, Entrance Day. The Oregon Province had hoped for eight men to enter this fall; all went through a successful discernment process, and six decided to enter.
"As Billy Pilgrim said in Slaughterhouse 5," quotes Lantry, 'And so it goes.'"