New Jesuit Priests Enjoy Bonds of Brotherhood
As the Society of Jesus’ numbers in the U.S. and Canada stabilize, a new generation of Millennial priests is coming into its own.
Lying face down on the linoleum floor, his arms and legs outstretched in the form of the cross, the newly ordained Jesuit Father Vincent Strand was comforted as he listened to the chanting of the Litany of Saints — invoking the intercession of holy men and women he counts as his friends — in Milwaukee’s Church of the Gesu, and priests came forward to pray for their new brother.
For Father Strand — and the 19 other Jesuit priests ordained this year for the U.S. and Canada between May 26 and June 11 — ordination marks the completion of a 10- to 12-year journey they began in the Society of Jesus.
They also represent a new generation of Jesuits, Gen-Xers and Millennials, who are coming into their priesthood at a time when the world’s eyes are fixed on the highest-ranking Jesuit in the Church, Pope Francis, and his example of what it means to be a priest and a son of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
As with any life-changing vocation, reality often hits in the midst of daily duties. Father Strand told the Register that the other day, as he was getting ready for Mass, “I was putting a stole on, and I was thinking, ‘This isn’t a deacon’s stole; I have to find a deacon’s stole’ — and then I realized, ‘No, I’m a priest now.’ Certainly hearing confessions is also when it dawns on me.”
The new Jesuit ordinands come from a variety of backgrounds, but all have advanced degrees from Jesuit universities. They will serve at Jesuit high schools and colleges, parishes, prisons and ministries working with migrants and the poor.
According to Father Sean Michaelson, executive secretary for the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, Jesuits have two tracks in the order: Approximately 95% choose the scholastic route, studying to become priests, while 5% choose to live their vows as professed brothers in the society.
The number of Jesuits worldwide peaked in 1965, when they numbered more than 36,000. The Society of Jesus worldwide experienced a precipitous collapse in the social upheaval of the late 1960s and 1970s, when 800 to 1,000 men walked away from the order each year. Today, the Jesuits number just over 18,000 members — approximately the number they had 100 years ago. But the society is seeing growth propelled by the Global South (particularly from Africa and the Indian subcontinent), which, by 2010, accounted for 75% of all new Jesuits.
The Society of Jesus had approximately 2,700 members as of 2010 in North America. The Jesuit numbers are still declining, as age now takes its toll on the society’s numbers — the average age of its priests in North America is approximately 65. However, Father Michaelson indicated that the trends of new Jesuit entrants show demographic stability is on the horizon.
“There’s an uptick in more recent years,” he said.
The Millennial Jesuit
So far, the provinces that have seen the most growth in inquiries and vocations are on the West Coast, which has a large Catholic population, and the Upper Midwest.
The Millennial candidate approaching the society has a different profile than previous generations, explained Father Michaelson: As Jesuits they have a strong commitment to the Church’s social teachings — particularly in life, the environment and migration — as well as youth evangelization. But he explained that the Millennial-age Jesuits in general also have a stronger interest in the Church’s history and traditional forms of prayer and worship, such as Benediction, Exposition and Liturgy of the Hours. They are also more drawn to live out communal life and to work together in teams.
“They really want to live, work and pray together,” Father Michaelson said.
Pope Francis’ high profile as a Jesuit, he added, has helped the Society of Jesus see an increase in serious inquiries into their way of life and spirituality. However, measuring any kind of “Francis effect” is a long way off, due to the order’s decade-long formation.
However, having a Jesuit at the head of the Catholic Church, captivating the attention of the world with his example, impacts how a Jesuit thinks about and lives his vocation. Father Michaelson said Jesuits often hear and see in Pope Francis’ words and actions their own tradition, priorities and values, handed down from St. Ignatius and the other founders. For the Jesuit, this is both “consoling and challenging.”
“I think it makes us very conscious that what we say and do is very concurrent with what the Pope is saying and doing,” Father Michaelson said.
Holy Spirit’s Call
Jesuit Father Marc Valadao told the Register that only in the quiet of his room, as he packed his clothes, did the wave of realization finally hit him: “I’m a priest now.”
Looking back on his vocational path, Father Valadao can see how the Holy Spirit called him throughout childhood, but it was in college that he became drawn to the Jesuits and their ministry of teaching. That calling was renewed throughout his life as a Jesuit scholastic. And in San Quentin State Prison, ministering to the convicts and their families, he experienced in a powerful way the Jesuit mission to “agree to go with Jesus” to all people and places. The men in prison who mistook him for a priest (he was then a deacon) and asked him to hear their confessions also reinforced how much people are looking for priests to bring them Jesus. Father Valadao said he is looking forward to serving in a parish where he can hear confessions: “There is clearly a great need for that.”
“There are always those little moments along the way that have been big for me,” he added, “where I’ve been able to be there and help people encounter Christ in some way.”
Religious Priests on Decline
According to Jesuit Father Thomas Gaunt, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, although diocesan priestly ordinations in North America are starting to trend upward, religious priestly ordinations are not. According to CARA’s data, the number of religious priests, brothers and men in formation outnumbered diocesan priests by 2,500 in 1970. Now, diocesan priests exceed the number of male religious by 8,000. However, Father Gaunt said “what has slowed is the steep decline.”
Smaller orders that do not have the higher profile of larger religious communities are most impacted, he said. Distinctive habits are key to self-advertising, he added. Religious priests have to make it known they belong to an order, particularly if their habits are not distinctive from a diocesan priest.
Father Gaunt explained that one major difference in the recruitment rates between diocesan priests and religious priests is the ability of young men to identify with them. CARA has found that religious orders’ recruitment efforts can benefit from providing a service year that gives young men an opportunity to experience religious life up close, working alongside the orders’ priests.
He added that CARA is just starting to analyze the numbers of those entering religious life.
“There has been a little bit of an uptick,” Father Gaunt said regarding the number of U.S. entrants for the Jesuits. Back in 1982, the number of Jesuit entrants was 102, but the decline appears to have bottomed out at 45 in 2010. This year, the number of new entrants for North America has risen to the mid-50s, by his latest count.
A professed Jesuit makes permanent vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Father Strand explained that these vows are symbolized by the three nails crucifying Christ on the cross. The Jesuits also make an additional vow of special obedience to the Pope. Much like any vocation, he said, there are difficult times, but the vows, like nails, “have held me to that life” and become a way to enter into the love of Jesus on the cross.
“As we say when we profess vows, ‘We trust in God’s abundant grace to fulfill the vows we have made,’ and those words have always meant a lot to me, and they’ve carried me through some of the more challenging times,” he said.
Community life, he added, can be “the greatest blessing and the greatest challenge.” But, ultimately, communal brotherhood helps Jesuit clergy “grow in charity and in the expansion of one’s heart.”
As a new priest, Father Strand is uniquely blessed to have his older brother, Luke, and younger brother, Jacob, as priestly models — they were ordained for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, in 2009 and 2012 respectively. He said it is a “great gift” to ask them for advice, from the practicalities of Mass to much deeper existential questions about what it means to be a priest.
Of course, Father Strand says his brothers have been overjoyed at his ordination — but he won’t rule out a bit of friendly sibling rivalry along the way.
He added with a smile, “Who knows, maybe when we start preaching, there will be a little bit of that ragging going on.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a
Register staff reporter.
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