Wednesday, March 5, 2008

These new novices

A year back, while assembling the contributions from former Jesuits that appear in my book Unexpected Company, I was struck by how mixed were our reactions to the two-year period of training we all endured as novices. Those of us who aspired to become Jesuits were effectively isolated from the world--certainly no radio or newspapers, and limited visits from our families--in the religious equivalent of a Marine boot camp. Above all, we learned to conform to the expectations of our superiors to be part of what, sometimes disparagingly, would be called the long black line. For some of us this is a time we look back to with nostalgia while for others it is just a succession of less than pleasant memories.

The Second Vatican Council, which called on religious orders and congregations to revise traditional patterns, made a difference in two ways. One was clearly unintended when the old notion that it was just better in God's eyes to be a priest or a religious was discounted with the result that there was a steep drop in vocations. The second was that in adapting to today's world members of religious communities were no longer to be cut off as they had been in the past.

For the Jesuits the changes were possibly far more striking than they were in other groups. The old houses of study were largely abandoned or converted to other uses, and as the novices now ceased to be teenagers just out of high school it became possible to allow a far greater degree of independence than would have been the case before. At the same time the notion of what has come to be called a preference for the poor shifted the Jesuit emphasis away from education to a social ministry. I spent much of my time as a novice perfecting a skill in reading and even speaking Latin, at the time still the universal language of the church, with only a brief period away from the novitiate to work at one of our two retreat houses in the province. Today's American novices do not study Latin at all, and it is expected that they will spend much of their time away from a novitiate in one or another ministry, often enough out of the country.

Recent blogs and news articles have cued me to just how different things have become around the world. In several provinces novices are sent on pilgrimages, in one case being given a one-way bus ticket and just thirty dollars and no clear directions on what to do next. In others there are definite assignments, as in the note on an Irish Jesuit website about the work placement of two first-year novices in Dublin.

It is obviously far too early to determine how successful this new approach is in training men to be Jesuits who will meet the needs of the church in the twenty-first century. In particular, the sociologist in me longs to see data establishing the retention rate for these new Jesuits (essentially, how many complete the long period of formation leading to final vows for both priests and brothers). For the men of my generation, only a small percentage did not leave the Society at some point, often years after ordination. That alone would suggest that the old way of doing things was not all that successful, especially when we all were aware of the priest or brother who did not leave but perhaps should have. One possibility with these new novices and scholastics is that, even if their rate of retention is not significantly different than was ours, will be less likely to be as alienated from both the church and the Society as many of us have been.

1 comment:

brother Jim said...


I just had a couple of questions, largely based on your novices post.

Do those who leave the Jesuits, such as yourself, usually have a faith-based reason for doing so or not?

Why do many of those who should leave instead stay, in your estimation? --Just curious.