By PJ Williams
How are men transformed into Jesuits? Those familiar with the Society of Jesus know that Jesuit formation is a long process that can take well over a decade to complete.
Broadly speaking, it requires a great deal of prayer and a rigorous education, but there are nuances to each stage of that journey. And perhaps the most important stage of Jesuit formation is the very first one, the novitiate.
Spread over the course of two years, the novitiate is where men interested in becoming Jesuits go after a period of candidacy and the initial interviews with the vocation office and admittance by the provincial. Future Jesuits of the USA East Province enter Saint Andrew Hall in Syracuse, N.Y., each August. While in the novitiate, Primi (novices in their first year) and Secundi (novices in their second year) complete a series of “experiments,” a word which comes from the Spanish meaning “experiences.”
“A person can only learn so much about the Society before entering,” says Fr. George Witt, SJ, director of novices for the USA East Province. “A man may read every article, watch every video, talk to every Jesuit he can get in front of. But the only way he’ll know if Jesuit life is for him is to actually live it. That is what the novitiate is for.”
The novitiate of today is more in line with St. Ignatius’ original vision of novice life than even the novitiate of the mid-20th century. “A key novitiate experiment is making the Spiritual Exercises, a retreat of thirty days. In the 1950s we’d have maybe forty novices in a room listening to a lecture and then go off to do their prayers,” said Fr. James Carr, SJ, former novice director at Saint Andrew Hall. After Vatican II, there was a push for all religious orders to see if they had drifted from their roots, and in the case of the Jesuits, individual spiritual direction at the novitiate was one of those areas. “When you have a lot of novices, it’s hard to offer individual spiritual direction, but Ignatius’ original method was for a retreatant to meet individually with a director to receive instructions for prayer, which we have gone back to doing.”
As in any religious order, prayer is a key piece of a novice’s life. “That’s really at the center of it all, developing a loving, intimate friendship with Jesus through the Spiritual Exercises, through daily prayer, and through the experiments,” said Fr. John Wronski, SJ, provincial delegate for formation in the USA East Province. In their first year, the men make the long retreat, also known as the 30-day silent retreat. All novices participate in morning prayer, daily Mass, and evening prayer. They also have their own hour of individual prayer each day. And they pray an Examen twice a day, for ten minutes each time.
As to be expected, men who enter have different levels of familiarity with the Society, so learning more about the Jesuits is another component of their time at the novitiate. Novices read important Jesuit documents, such as the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, as well as the writings of Ignatius and other Jesuits. “This summer, novices from the U.S. and Canada will be learning about the history of the Society at Loyola University in Chicago,” explained Fr. Witt. “This course is offered every other year.” Jesuits at Saint Andrew Hall also study Spanish twice a week. Men are not expected to be fluent by the time they leave the novitiate, but will continue to learn Spanish throughout their formation. Novices take part in a Spanish immersion experiment during the summer that they are not studying Jesuit history.
Another key experiment of the novitiate is apostolic work. During the fall of each year, novices are out of the house two days a week working in a ministry. They work locally in Syracuse at a prison, nursing home, grammar school, hospice, or other apostolate. “I think one of the most wonderful things a novice can say is ‘Wow, I never would have chosen that apostolic work, but I can do more than I ever thought possible in it,’” explains Fr. Carr. “You want someone to see that, because as Jesuits, we’re frequently asked to do things that aren’t in our wheelhouse.”
After first-year novices complete the 30-day retreat in late winter, they begin their pilgrimage experiment. “The pilgrimage experience was originally designed for people to go outside of the house and beg for their way for a certain amount of time,” said Fr. Witt. “This made great sense in 16th century Spain, but makes less sense in 21st century New York.” Today’s novices do go out to serve underserved communities.
The hospital experiment follows the pilgrimage experiment. For the past 60 years, Jesuit novices have spent time working at Calvary Hospital for cancer patients in the Bronx. “They get training and are sent onto the floors where they help feed patients, make beds, and offer other direct care,” said Fr. Witt. “They function as nurses aides.”
In addition to the educational, spiritual and service components of the novitiate, there is a practical introduction to living in a religious community. “While novices are encouraged to remain in contact with family and friends, the primary relationships that they should be cultivating are the ones at the novitiate,” said Fr. Witt. Men who move to the novitiate are not just moving to a new city, but often a new state. They have to live with people in a community setting, which can present challenges. They are required to do apostolic work, which can be something out of their comfort zone. They also have a superior to whom they need to be obedient. While all this is happening, they are thoughtfully and prayerfully trying to discern what they are called to do in life. “It can be a really challenging time, but it can be wonderful,” said Fr. Wronski. “You really bond with your classmates, and become friends in the Lord.”
In January, the second-year novices leave the house and begin what is called the long experiment. They work in a Jesuit apostolate from January through May, and live in regular Jesuit community. “The training wheels are off,” said Fr. Witt. “To complete the novitiate, a novice needs this substantial time living in a regular Jesuit community with men who have been in the Society for a while.” After they finish their long experiment, the secundi can move on in their formation and take First Vows in August.
But what about when a novice realizes he is not meant to be a Jesuit? “It could very well be that a man determines that ‘this is not for me’ and he leaves the novitiate. If he determines this with clarity and freedom, I say, ‘Great! Successful novitiate!’” explained Fr. Witt. “And if he determines with clarity and freedom that this is the path that God is calling him to and he moves onto vows, also great! A successful novitiate!”
While the idea of a novice who could have made a very good Jesuit leaving the Society may sound disheartening, it is not. “Being a Jesuit has to feel like the best thing in the world for a guy,” explains Fr. Carr. Those who are called to stay in formation very much want to be Jesuits and are living out their vocations. Those who are not called to be Jesuits live out their vocations as lay people. As Fr. Carr succinctly sums up, “I think God’s going to call you to do the thing you’re in love with; he’s not going to call you to do something that you don’t love.”