If you haven’t read Sr. Julie Vieira’s blog, A Nun’s Life, then you are missing something special – a hip and irreverently reverent take on what it is like to be a nun in contemporary society. Recently, our friend Karen asked Julie what her most popular post was about and, to my considerable surprise, she replied that it was on “How to make a habit.” I don’t know if this is just a Halloween thing or if there are lots of people out there all year long trying to pass themselves off as nuns. We were talking about this and about the ‘mystique’ that surrounds religious life when Karen turned to me and said, “You know, I’d be fascinated to learn about what it takes to become a Jesuit.”
Well, here goes. (I’ll do a lot to get a popular post!)
The process for entry into the Jesuits is pretty rigorous: you need to go through many interviews, have great letters of recommendation, a clean bill of health, a mature level of psychological development, and a manageable amount of debt. The upper age limit is about 50 years old. Two more things: you have to be a man – we experimented with going coed in the 16th Century and it didn’t work out well – and you have to be Catholic. You might think that is obvious, but there have been lots of people who would have liked to apply, if it wasn’t for that stipulation.
Often, men thinking of joining the Jesuits will become “Associates” and spend a year or more visiting, working and – sometimes – living with Jesuits in various ministries.
When a man is accepted into the Novitiate [the first step in becoming a Jesuit], he enters either as a Brother postulant or a priest postulant. Since my own formation was directed towards ordination, I’ll concentrate on those seeking to be Jesuit priests.
The Jesuit Novitiate lasts two years. During the first year each novice makes The Spiritual Exercises written by Ignatius of Loyola. This “Long Retreat” lasts about 30 days and is the defining experience of the Jesuit’s life (even if, like me, he doesn’t recognize it at the time…) Novices are then sent on several “experiments” that allow both the individual and the Jesuits to see whether or not it is God’s Will for the novice to pronounce vows. Sometimes these “experiments” are tailored towards a novice’s strengths or challenges, but often they follow a predictable pattern: a stint as a hospital orderly, a pilgrimage on foot where you have to beg along the way, work with immigrants, and teaching in a Jesuit school, university or other apostolate.
Towards the end of the novitiate, the novice writes to the Provincial Superior (the “boss” of a region of the U.S.) asking for permission to take vows. The Provincial takes the advice of the Novice Director, his counselors and the men and women who have dealt with the novice on his various “experiments” before deciding whether or not to give the novice the go-ahead to pronounce vows. A final note on two unique aspects of the Jesuit novitiate experience – it is 2 years long (other religious orders are 1 year) and at the end the Jesuit pronounces perpetual (as opposed to temporary) vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.
After vows, the no-longer-novice is a member of the Society of Jesus and has the right to put the initials S.J. after his name. The correct form of address is: Mr. So-and-So, S.J. Internally, he is now known as a “Scholastic” and will remain a “Scholastic” until his Final Vows which normally take place several years after ordination to the priesthood.
For the very few who don’t have an undergraduate degree (i.e., the youngest members), the first task after novitiate is to get one. All the others, (some of whom already have Ph.Ds or are physicians or lawyers), will do a Master’s in Philosophy (and also take some introductory courses in Theology.) In the U.S., these studies are usually undertaken at Loyola Univeristy of Chicago, Fordham in New York or St. Louis University.
After two years of Philosophy studies, Jesuits start what is called “Regency.” Etymologically, a “Regent” is “one who rules” and so it should come as little surpise that most Regents are sent into the classroom to teach in Jesuit high schools and colleges, although others have worked with refugees or helped out in parishes. Although not yet ordained, Regents are enormously influential in their apostolates – they are usually the youngest and the most idealistic Jesuits and many who join the Jesuits talk about how Mr. So-and-So impressed them so much that they decided to investigate the possibility of joining themselves.
Regency normally lasts two to three years (although I have heard of one – perhaps mythical – person, “Sextus” McCarthy who reputedly spent 6 years as a Regent.) At the end of Regency, the Jesuit again writes to his Provincial Superior asking for permission to begin Theology. The Provincial enquires among his counselors and seeks input again from the women and men who’ve dealt with the Jesuit during his Regency and, if all is well, the Jesuit begins Theology.
There are two centers for Jesuits to study Theology in the U.S., Weston School of Theology in Massachusetts and the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. Some others might be sent to the Gregorian University in Rome or to France, Germany or wherever in the world seems most suitable. Towards the end of Theology, the Jesuit once again petitions the Provincial Superior for permission to be ordained and, once more, the Provincial consults widely before making up his mind.
The first step to priesthood is ordination as a “transitional” Deacon (as opposed to the Permanent Deacons parishoners often deal with) and this is followed, within a year, to ordination to the priesthood. Some outsiders might say that at this point that someone has finally “become a Jesuit” but, as I’ve tried to indicate, from the Society’s point of view you are treated as a Jesuit from the moment you take vows after the novitiate.
The newly ordained Jesuit can then be sent down several paths. Some will be immediately assigned to a school or parish (and subsequently may move on to further graduate studies) while others will immedately go on to doctoral studies or another terminal degree.
Once all the studies have been completed and, sometimes, after several years working in an apostolate, the Provincial Superior will invite the Jesuit to begin Tertianship. A Tertian, as the name implies, is in the tertiary, or third, part of his formation (Novice and Scholastic being the first two.) Until the last thirty years or so, this was a stand-alone 8-12 month experience but, increasingly, it is being done as a two-summer program with various activities during the intervening year.
The theory behind Tertianship is that the years of study may well have sapped the Jesuit’s passion and outward-looking commitment to the Jesuit mission, so the Tertian again makes the 30-day Spiritual Exercises, reflects on the Constitutions (the Jesuit “rules”) and studies the history of the Society to better appreciate and contextualize his role in the ongoing adventure that is Jesuit life in the 21st Century.
After completing Tertianship, the Jesuit is invited to apply for Final Vows. The more analtyical among you might now say, “But wait, you made such a big deal out of saying that a Jesuit becomes a Jesuit with the vows he pronounces after the two-year Novitiate.” Full points, you are correct. The Jesuit makes vows of perpetual Poverty, Chastity and Obedience and he offers the promise that “I will enter the Society of Jesus and spend my life in it forever.” Technically and juridically, a Jesuit (ordained or not) only becomes a full member of the Society at Final Vows. It is then that the Society makes the commitment to you that you made to it all those years ago. If this seems unfair to you, you’re obviously not cut out to be a Jesuit. A Marine friend of mine is proud of their slogan, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” It seems preposterous to me, but then I’m a Jesuit and not a Marine.
If I haven’t exhausted you and you want to find out more about a Jesuit’s vocation, here is a site where you’ll find a wealth of resources: www.thinkjesuit.org