By Mike Gabriele
There are no two ways about it— it is a call of the Holy Spirit. When someone feels that desire, that call to enter religious life, if it is a true ambition, an honest yearning to serve God and the Church, it can be nothing less than a movement of the Holy Spirit.
So what is it exactly that moves a man to discern a life as a Jesuit, and what does the journey look like that he must make on his way to acceptance into the Society of Jesus?
Although many Jesuits first encountered and became familiar with the Jesuits in schools and parishes, 60% of those now seeking to enter the Society of Jesus have never met a Jesuit. Thanks to vocational insights on BeAJesuit.org and other similar resources, many men heeding a call to religious life are drawn to the Society of Jesus because they are drawn to mission—a world-wide mission. They see the opportunity of a life of service that is flexible to go where the need is greatest. Those who have known Jesuits or attended a Jesuit school or university are intrigued by the history of the Society of Jesus, the mission and tenets of St. Ignatius Loyola, the prospect of being formed as spiritual and intellectual apostles of Christ, and living in community with other Jesuits. In fact, the ten-to twelve-year formation program for Jesuits is remarkably a plus to most inquirers rather than a drawback. They see the importance of being well educated and prepared to encounter anything, to go anywhere.
The discernment process itself is usually a two-year journey before applications are submitted for entrance into the novitiate. After an initial inquiry, a man discerning a call to the Society of Jesus is assigned a spiritual director, a Jesuit priest or brother from the province. The spiritual director meets monthly with his inquirer to help guide his discernment and seek where the Holy Spirit is calling him. As Fr. Philip Florio, SJ, director of vocations for the USA East Province puts it, “The spiritual director is there to help the discerner unpack his prayer. Prayer is at the heart of everything we do as Jesuits and as Christians. For someone discerning a sacred vocation, he must truly be reliant on hearing and recognizing God’s voice—God’s movement in his heart—or his discernment will go nowhere.”
Fr. William Campbell, SJ, director of the Gonzaga Eastern Point Retreat House, serves as a spiritual director to men in discernment. “As St. Ignatius came to appreciate by lived experience, his sense of God’s invitation sometimes lacked focus until he engaged another in dialogue,” says Fr. Campbell. “I recently heard someone quote a proverb, ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go with a companion.’ Clearly, a man discerning a call to religious life as a Jesuit is playing the long game. I hope my candor gives him interior freedom and helps him pay less attention to me and more attention to the Spirit at work in his life.”
Br. Chris Derby, SJ, is also a spiritual director for men discerning a call to the Society and serves as provincial assistant for spirituality ministries for Jesuits USA East. He agrees that the spiritual director acts as a companion for the discerner. “We pay special attention to the desires of the discerner’s heart and to the challenges he may be facing too. What gets your mind and heart going? What excites you and fills you with energy and hope? What saps your spirit? What obstacles are you encountering as you look at your life and your future? And do you have a relationship, specifically a friendship, with Jesus?” Br. Derby finds that spiritual direction is a very rewarding and nourishing experience. “Noticing God in the lives of others, listening to their stories and insights, brings me closer to Jesus in my own life.”
“Offering spiritual direction to those in vocational discernment is humbling, challenging, and gratifying,” adds Fr. David Collins, SJ, a spiritual director who is also a professor of History at Georgetown University. “As I see it, my responsibility is to accompany young people who are opening themselves to a truly momentous kind of personal decision and to help them as they grapple with the most fundamental questions that Jesus poses to anyone who would be his follower, for example, What do you seek? (John 1: 35-38).”
Other companions available to those discerning a call are vocation mentors, men in formation not far removed from the discernment process themselves. These companions are not simply helpful for spiritual guidance, but for anything. “As a mentor, I find I’m able to share a lot of the practicalities of a sometimes endless and opaque ordeal,” says Jake Braithwaite, SJ, a third-year regent teaching math at Brooklyn Jesuit Prep. “How long will this next phase in the process be? What did your parents say? What should I bring with me to the novitiate? In discussing more quotidian concerns, I find I can help guys bring down to earth what otherwise might be a very heady, deep discernment.”
Brendan Gottschall, SJ, a second-year theologian studying at Boston College, admits that community and belonging is a key factor that often comes up in discussions with discerners. “The reality is that our culture, and even the Church, can be divided along ideological lines. Men want to know how that plays out within the Jesuits, and I reassure them from my own experience that Jesuits strive to transcend ideological divisions and be united in our focus on serving Jesus Christ and the Church. God calls Jesuits from a diverse range of backgrounds, and the Society of Jesus can be home to many different kinds of men.”
The discernment journey is facilitated with many events that bring these young men into close community with Jesuits living the call, and a new program even allows them to spend time volunteering at a Jesuit school or work of the province. In addition to spiritual direction and mentorship, discerners also undergo a rigorous and thorough application process. One that involves an extensive interview with the director of vocations, with a panel that includes Jesuits and a laywoman. There are also psychological assessments, reference and background checks, and a written spiritual autobiography, all to help ensure that the right fits are made for entry into religious life.
Fr. Sean Hagerty, SJ, who himself was ordained a priest last year following the long journey of discernment and formation, now serves as assistant director and promoter of vocations for the province. “Often, young men are seeking a sign from God as to their vocation; they pray that a neon sign will drop from the heavens and direct them on a path,” he says. “To discern a vocation means to engage with mystery, to engage with unknown, to engage with uncertainty. Discerning a vocation requires not only openness, but a tremendous amount of courage.”
“We, thankfully, have roughly 50 men in discernment right now,” says Fr. Florio, “and while some will not choose the Jesuits, one of my favorite days of the year is calling to tell a candidate that, after a significant time in discernment with us and an arduous five-month application process, the provincial has accepted him to the novitiate. Most get emotional when I share the news with them; some cry in absolute joy, and I cry with them, though I never let them know that! Suffice it to say, that is incredibly rewarding.”