Sunday, May 23, 2010

This Jesuit life.

Today, on Pentecost Sunday, Jesuits from five continents gathered in the Chapel of St. Joseph on the campus of Saint Joseph's University to celebrate the profession of Final Vows by Father Joseph Sands, a Jesuit of the Maryland Province who has been living and working at SJU this semester. You can learn more about Father Sands and his background by clicking here and here. I first met Joe at Santa Clara University, where he taught political science for several years and where I spent a couple of months on experiment as a first-year novice. In typical Jesuit fashion, our paths diverged for five years and then reconverged at Saint Joseph's; in the intervening years, Joe had gone to work in the Brazilian Amazon while I professed First Vows, completed three years of philosophy studies and began regency. Our paths are set to diverge once more - Joe will move on to a new assignment this summer - but the relative smallness of the Jesuit world gives me confidence that we'll meet again soon.

The exact size of the clerical and religious world inhabited by Jesuits often surprises our lay friends and colleagues outside the Society. It always amuses me when I meet people who say that they've known other Jesuits but express a strange certainty that I would not know those Jesuits as well; in such situations, I typically press for names and, as often as not, I've met the Jesuits in question. At the same time, I've met others who seem to presume that all Jesuits (and perhaps all priests, religious and seminarians) know one another and are in regular contact - some have expressed genuine surprise when I admit that I do not know the diocesan priest or seminarian that they count as a treasured friend or valued acquaintance. The Jesuit world is a fairly small one, but the Catholic world remains somewhat large.

The nature of the vows professed by Jesuits is also a bit of a mystery to many outside the Society. In contrast with the practice of most religious orders, in which the first vows that a novice makes are temporary, the three vows that Jesuits make at the conclusion of the novitiate are intended to be permanent; at the end of two years of initial formation and probation, I made the promise that all Jesuits make to "enter this same Society to spend my life in it forever." In theory - and sometimes in practice - a Jesuit's First Vows could be his last and only vows, insofar as they represent a "total commitment of myself," an offering just as complete and entire as the one exchanged by spouses at the time of marriage.

By calling a Jesuit to Final Vows, the Society of Jesus offers an affirmative response to the total commitment of self made at the time of First Vows. The call to Final Vows represents a reaffirmation of the individual Jesuit's commitment to serve God in the Society of Jesus as well as something like a 'vote of confidence' in the individual Jesuit on the part of the Society. In contrast with most other religious orders, in which final profession comes a few short years after the completion of one's novitiate, Final Vows in the Society follows years of ministry - in most cases including experience of ordained ministry as a priest. Final Vows also follows the experience of tertianship, when a Jesuit repeats the thirty-day retreat that he first made in the novitiate, reviews the foundational documents of the Society, and reflects on how his relationship with Christ and his understanding of Jesuit life has grown and evolved over time.

To round out this post, I would like to share some reflections on the experience of making Final Vows in the Society of Jesus offered six years ago in The Hoya by Jesuit Father Kevin Wildes, then a faculty member and administrator at Georgetown and now the president of Loyola University in New Orleans. Having discerned his Jesuit vocation as an undergraduate at Saint Joseph's University, Father Wildes reflects gratefully on the years between his initial 'yes' to the Society during his time on Hawk Hill and his Final Vows in Dahlgren Chapel three decades later:
Though the event [of Final Vows] is hard to explain, it has led me to pray and reflect on the past 28 years. Looking back to when I entered the Society as a novice, I realize now that I had no idea what was ahead for me. In hindsight I can say that, at the time, I really wasn’t sure how long this Jesuit adventure would last.

In my last years as an undergrad at St. Joseph’s University, where I first encountered Jesuits, I had become intrigued by this community of religious men — this company of “friends in the Lord.” Now, I am a person who does not like to look back and ever wonder if I should have tried something. I would rather try and fail than not try. I was intrigued by the Jesuits and finally decided that I needed to test the waters. I didn’t know what would happen. I figured if it did not work out, I could leave and find a job, or go to law school. But I never wanted to look back and wonder if I should have tried it.

Well, that was almost 28 years ago and I can’t imagine a happier life than the one I have been given. Now, don’t get me wrong, not every day has been great. But the Society has been a wonderful place for me. It has brought me to a much deeper sense of my relationship to God and to God’s people. I have been privileged to enter into people’s lives at times of great joy, like weddings, births, graduations and other celebrations, and times of great sorrow, like illness, suffering and death. I have slowly come to realize that “I” don’t really “do” anything other than be there and accompany them on part of the journey of their lives. This Jesuit life has allowed me to explore the world of ideas with wonderful colleagues and students. It has helped me find the wonders of God in the life of the mind and see the impact of that life on the daily lives of men and women. The Society has not only given me a wonderful way to be a priest, but it has also given me great friends and companions for this journey that is my life. Ignatius and his companions called themselves “friends in the Lord.” Indeed they were. In the Society I have been blessed with Jesuit companions and friends who have supported me on this journey. . . . So as I look ahead to [Final Vows] . . . I think back on my life as a Jesuit and I can only say that it has been a wonderful life. . . .
Please join me in praying for Father Joe Sands on the day of his full incorporation in the Society of Jesus. Please pray, too, for all young men who are discerning a vocation to this least Society. As Joe Sands, Kevin Wildes and countless others already have, many they someday discover the joys of this wonderful life. AMDG.


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