By Amy Korpi
As recently as 50 years ago, Jesuit vocations were built on familiarity. Schools affiliated with the Society of Jesus were the primary source of priests and brothers. Others were welcome, but there wasn’t a lot of general outreach. Nor was it crucial, as numbers of those entering were high.
For example, Fr. James Stoeger, SJ, regional vocation director, was ready to apply to the Society right out of St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati. “Entering at that age was common back then,” he says.
But the world was changing—both in the larger context, for example, through student movements, and within the Church as it entered the modern post-Vatican II era.
“When we entered the novitiate in 1964, we were one of the last large cohorts to do so,” recalls Fr. Stoeger, whose high school and novitiate classes included Fr. Richard Baumann, SJ, another Midwest Jesuits regional vocation director.
Along with the changes in the outside world and the Church, the characteristics of the individuals who inquire about a Jesuit vocation were also evolving. Although a fair amount of today’s candidates have had a Jesuit high school and/or college experience, many go on to an extended community service program or another career altogether before applying to the Society. Others might consider diocesan life or another religious congregation first.
“People who apply today are more often exploring their faith journey on their own and conducting a personal search for how to live it,” says Fr. Stoeger.
In true Ignatian fashion, the Midwest Jesuits have responded to these developments with innovation.
According to Fr. William Murphy, SJ, vocation promoter, the need to “market” vocations outside of Jesuit circles coincided with the growth of the internet, and BeAJesuit.org has become a key source of inquiries.
“Today’s vocations world demands sophistication and specialization,” Fr. Murphy explains. “The roots planted in the mid-1990s through our website have blossomed to include social media strategy, audience segmentation, and analytics.”
The changing nature of the vocations world has also led to the creation of a team. “We used to have one or two people doing vocations work,” Fr. Murphy says. “Then provincials like Fr. Thomas Lawler, SJ, and Fr. Brian Paulson, SJ, recognized the importance of having more people in vocations to do things well. Each of us brings different skills and gifts to the team, and we need all of those gifts to succeed in our mission.”
The team includes two vocation promoters (Fr. Murphy and Fr. Michael Rossmann, SJ); two regional vocation directors (Frs. Stoeger and Baumann); Br. Patrick Douglas, SJ, provincial assistant for vocations and regional vocation director; Cecilia Hernández, executive administrative assistant to provincial assistants; and Janet O’Keefe, administrative assistant.
When someone inquires about joining the Society, a vocation promoter begins the process of helping each inquirer see what Jesuit life is like and whether he might be suited to the vocation. If there seems to be a fit, the candidate begins working with a vocation director.
That process, during which a candidate discerns whether he will apply, involves the director accompanying and supporting his decision-making journey, often fora year or longer. At the same time, the director determines whether he thinks the candidate should in fact apply.
“On behalf of the Society, the Church, and our institutions, we need to get to know a person well to assess his aptness to be a Jesuit, in terms of our prayer lives, community life, and mission,” Fr. Stoeger says. “With fewer Jesuits available, we need priests and brothers who are capable, well-rounded leaders with diverse skills more than ever. Candidates must be willing and able to be ‘formed’ in Ignatian spirituality and in the capacity for effective ministry.”
“At the same time,” he adds, “discerning whether you have a call to be a Jesuit can be challenging, so our support is vital to the individual. He might have a call to religious life, but not to the particular life of the Jesuit. We want to help him make the best possible decision for himself as well.”
When the candidate and vocation director agree that the candidate should apply, he begins a lengthy application process, including a spiritual autobiography; data about family, education, professional development, and reasons for wanting to become a Jesuit; interviews with four Jesuits (including a formal session with the vocation director); an interview with a woman who is familiar with Jesuit life and ministry; and a session with a psychologist.
“Once all the reports are in—thanks to Cecilia Hernández!—the vocation director writes up an extensive description of the applicant and his likely Jesuit vocation, which goes to the provincial for final approval,” says Fr. Stoeger. “To outsiders, this might seem overly meticulous. But in constructing this final application, it is vital to our mission to invest the time and effort.