Promotion Takes a Bigger Role
By Cheryl Wittenauer
Until fairly recently, the job of attracting and recruiting good candidates to the Society of Jesus fell to the vocation director, or men entered the order after being inspired by a Jesuit they encountered in academia.
But fewer Jesuits in the high schools and universities have meant less exposure to Jesuit life. Ninety percent of inquiries about a Jesuit vocation now come through Internet searches, said Fr. Paul Deutsch, vocation director for the New Orleans, and, as of Aug. 1, Missouri provinces.
“The advantage for us is that we are larger and easier to find,” Deutsch said. “We have an active presence on the Internet. Once they get to us, they can begin to read what they can do.”
Fifteen years ago, Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach called for prioritizing vocation promotion (in tandem with vocation direction). He also made it clear that promoting vocations is not the responsibility of one man in a province office; but rather, the task of every Jesuit.
His successor, Superior General Adolfo Nicolás would ask in 2008, on the eve of General Congregation 35, a meeting of Jesuit representatives from around the world, “How come we elicit so much admiration and so little following?”
The way in which Jesuit vocations are promoted has begun to shift in New Orleans and Missouri provinces as they start to collaborate in an approach recommended four years ago for all provinces. It’s part of a greater worldwide push to increase vocations.
On Aug. 1, Deutsch’s vocation direction job was expanded from New Orleans province alone to also include the Missouri province.
Deutsch, who moved his office from Texas to St. Louis, was relieved of the responsibility of promoting vocations, which now falls to Fr. Andrew Kirschman in Denver for both provinces. Deutsch’s former counterpart in Missouri, Fr. Louis McCabe, left the vocation director job on July 31 for a parish assignment in Belize.
“We’re thinking about vocations differently since (General Congregation) 35,” said Kirschman, who also works part-time at Arrupe Jesuit High School in Denver. “There’s an acute awareness that our numbers are dropping, our average age is high and how do we attract young people?
“It’s not simply because we want Jesuits at high schools. There’s a bigger issue at hand... We need people to continue who we are.”
Vocation promotion is becoming more intentional, and invitations to consider the Jesuits are more explicit. Where the vocation director was the face of the Jesuits at all promotion events, Kirschman said it’s now his job to animate local Jesuit communities to be aware of prospective candidates, be intentional about spending time with them and ask them to consider becoming a Jesuit.
Once a man indicates a desire to learn more about the Jesuits, Kirschman accompanies him, to a point. Once he appears to be serious about applying, Kirschman refers him to Deutsch.
Deutsch then accompanies the candidate through a two-month application process, which includes a 10-page autobiography, interviews with four Jesuits, letters of reference, background checks, transcripts and a psychological assessment. Deutsch presents the candidate’s application to an admissions committee for consideration.
Deutsch said he has found that initial inquirers have a limited understanding of religious life beyond what they know of their parish priest or have seen in movies or television. Many express a desire to teach, yet they pursue the path to diocesan priesthood in order to be ordained more quickly; it takes seven years of preparation in the diocese and 11 years with the Jesuits. Others see the ministry of being a pastor as too limiting.
“To me, (the length of formation is) the gnawing difference,” he said. “They think, ‘if I stay in the diocesan seminary, I’ll become a parish pastor. Do I think that’s going to satisfy me for 50 years?’ They have a nagging sense that there are a limited set of options.”
Of course, vocation promoters and directors are weighing the candidates as well.
Deutsch said he wants to know about the candidate’s prayer life, his relationship with God, and dreams for his future as a Jesuit. He says he also wants to see an openness to travel and assignments that may not fit his own vision of what he’d like to do.
For Kirschman, a Jesuit candidate must know himself, or at least be open to learning.
“A guy out of high school has limited self-knowledge,” he said. “But if there isn’t an openness to discovering himself, he’s not going to make it.”
A candidate also must be willing to have his ideological views challenged, and adapt to his surroundings, he said.
“Ignatian charism is big on adaptation.”