Decree 8: “The Spiritual Formation of Jesuits,” General Congregation 31 (1966)

According to historian John Padberg’s historical account of the congregation, Jesuits sent more than 160 postulata (or petitions) on the topic their brethren’s spiritual formation for consideration at the 31st General Congregation (see Jesuit Life & Mission Today (2009), pg. 18–19). That formation, the following decree observes, “is the work of divine grace,” helping Jesuits in particular to “grow in faith, hope and love, to follow Christ ever more closely and become ever more intimately confirmed to him according to the grace of our vocation.” The decree seeks to help that spiritual progress by issuing several general norms (“all should have high regard to the account of conscience to superiors;” “Jesuits do well to cultivate sincerity, which is not genuine unless it be combined with loyalty to those norms given to us by the Church and the Society”). The decree also considers the formation that should take place at and following the novitiate and at tertianship, along with the process of “continuing formation.”

For more from the 31st General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, please consult this page.



To all Jesuits the General Congregation fraternally proposes the following norms as a kind of spiritual pedagogy, ardently desiring that each Jesuit may become that instrument joined to God which is demanded by our religious and apostolic vocation.


I. General Norms

1.     Since all spiritual progress is the work of divine grace, it is essential that each one should dispose himself to implore that grace by humble prayer and to respond to it with docile obedience in all his actions.

2.     Spiritual formation will assist Jesuits, as they grow in faith, hope, and love, to follow Christ ever more closely and become ever more intimately conformed to him according to the grace of our vocation. But since, though called to perfect love, we are still sinners, our following of Christ must take the form of continual conversion to him.

This progressive conformity to Christ can take place only on condition that we humbly listen to his word in Scripture, continually draw life from his sacraments, and follow him as present in the Church.

3.     Our following of Christ will be more genuine and intimate the more intent each Jesuit is on adopting that manner of serving Christ peculiar to this Society, which precisely “desires to be distinguished by the name of Jesus.” Let all, then, learn to esteem this vocation as God’s gift and adhere to it loyally. And let those attitudes of mind be cultivated which St. Ignatius held most dear: personal love for the poor and humble Christ, filial devotion to our Lady His mother, sincere zeal for souls, fortitude in undertaking even more difficult enterprises for God’s glory, a readiness for service founded on obedience and self-denial, the ability to find God in all things, development of skill in the discernment of spirits, ease in initiating spiritual conversation with others, a concern for thinking with the Church. . . .

4.     The Society’s apostolic objective is to be considered the principle which regulates the entire formation of our members. It should, therefore, inspire their formation in prayer, the aim of which is to fashion men who will seek God in everything, as well as that formation in the religious and apostolic life whereby Jesuits are trained to become “prompt and diligent” in sharing Christ’s redemptive mission in the Church with a magnanimity that embraces ever greater tasks and bears every adversity with steady cheerfulness.

5.     For the sake of each one’s spiritual growth, we should all cooperate actively in a spirit of fraternal love, bearing one another’s burdens according to the measure of each one’s grace and the work entrusted to each one by the Society. All should therefore have high regard for the account of conscience to superiors, which has been held in such honor by the Society’s long tradition, for conversation with the spiritual father, and also for fraternal gatherings which, if they promote a common seeking of God’s will, bring spiritual joy, encouragement, and apostolic fruitfulness to all.

6.     It should not be forgotten that the process of formation, a progressive and never completed work, is to take the form of an organic development in the various stages of formation, such that the spiritual life is never split off from the affective, intellectual, or apostolic life. Let us rather be directed by that discerning charity which St. Ignatius teaches us and seek to be able to recognize and choose the will of God in every situation.

7.     Following the pedagogy of the Exercises, spiritual formation should fashion men who have true freedom and maturity of spirit, who feel themselves to be freer, the closer they are dedicated through obedience to the will of God. This divine will is concretely revealed to us especially by the inner promptings of grace and the direction of superiors, as well as by the example of our brothers, by the demands of our apostolic work, of common life, and of our rules, and by the contingencies of our own life and the spiritual needs of our time.

This objective is unattainable apart from the constant cultivation of a spirit of initiative and responsibility within obedience, and of self-denial in working together at a common task. This, as St. Ignatius rightly perceived, can be obtained only through experience, which makes it necessary during the time of formation to provide opportunity for all to advance in freedom and maturity.

8.     Since St. Ignatius so strongly recommends to us a right intention, Jesuits do well to cultivate sincerity, which is not genuine unless it be combined with loyalty to those norms given us by the Church and the Society in accordance with the promises we have freely made. Thus all should be convinced that subjective sincerity must find its complement in objective loyalty.

9.      Since conditions in the modem world demand firmer foundations for the spiritual life, it is necessary that from the very beginning the scholastics and brothers be educated continually and progressively to a deeper knowledge of the mystery of Christ based on Holy Scripture and the liturgy, as well as on the Society’s traditional devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and on the teaching concerning the Church and other theological themes, always with the same purpose in view, that faith, hope, and love be together nourished and strengthened.

In mission lands it will help to enlist their rich heritage of sound morality and ascetical and mystical aspiration for the spiritual formation of Jesuits.

10.     Human virtues are to be held in high esteem because they make the apostolate more fruitful and religious life happier; among these virtues are “goodness of heart, sincerity, strength of mind and constancy, diligent care for justice, politeness, and other virtues which the Apostle Paul commends.”

11.     As other general congregations have already declared, special care must be paid to the selection of superiors and those who serve as fathers and masters of the spiritual life, so that the most capable men may be chosen for these offices which are more important than any other whatsoever. It is vitally important to be sure that, over and above knowledge and virtue, they are especially endowed with those human and spiritual gifts whereby they can inspire communities, foster fraternal cooperation, and help all towards greater spiritual maturity in discerning God’s ways. What must be looked for, therefore, is openness of spirit, ease in dialogue, and abundant talent in these men whose essential task is to stimulate and attract their brethren by means of new things and old

12.     For any spiritual pedagogy to be fruitful it has to be adapted to those for whom it is meant to be used. Hence it will be up to the superiors and those groups in provinces and regions which care for the formation of Jesuits to seek, under Father General’s direction, those means which are better accommodated to different situations. Throughout the indications set forth in the following chapters, this continued quest for adaptation is always presupposed.


II. The Novitiate

The content of this chapter pertains alike to the scholastics’ and the brothers’ novitiate. It will only be necessary to introduce such differences of method as are required by the different modes of one and the same service to which all are called. Whether the scholastics and brothers have the same master or different ones, care must be had to obtain a common formation.

This initial stage of formation is defined by its twofold purpose: it is a time at once of probation and of formation, during which the grace of vocation should be cultivated and during which it should already manifest its fruitfulness.

13.     To this end, sufficient human maturity is a requirement for candidates. Experience has shown, however, that in our own time affective maturity has become more difficult for adolescents. Deficiencies in this regard are difficult to detect, especially in candidates who in other respects are mature and intellectually gifted. According to circumstances, opportune provision must be made for this serious difficulty:

—by instituting a more searching examination of candidates, adapting the instructions given by St. Ignatius to our own times and having recourse when necessary to the recommendations of men skilled in psychology. The secrecy of consultation, the candidate’s freedom, and the norms established by the Church are, however, to be strictly safeguarded;

—by postponing, when it seems advisable, the time of admission. In such cases the applicants can be recommended to certain selected fathers who will help them towards obtaining maturity in their vocation while they prepare for entrance into the novitiate by means of studies and apostolic experiments.

14.     A vocation is then to be tested by various experiments which, in St. Ignatius’ view, constitute the specific characteristic of the Society’s novitiate. To achieve their purpose, however, these must place the novices in those circumstances wherein they can give evidence of “what they really are” and show how they have made their own the spiritual attitudes proper to our vocation. New experiments, therefore, which fulfill this purpose today, ought to be prudently and boldly pursued.

15.     The primacy in the novices’ formation should be given to the Spiritual Exercises, since of all the experiments they are the chief and fundamental one. Let them, therefore, be well prepared for, made at the most advantageous time, and presented in all their force and spiritual vigor. For it is by means of them that the novices are introduced into the heart, as it were, of their vocation, so perceiving its distinctive grace that they are able to bear witness to it.

16.     Education towards familiarity with God in prayer should be carried out in the apostolic atmosphere of the Exercises. The daily exercises of piety should tend to arouse personal love for Christ and teach the seeking of familiar communion with God in all things. Care should also be taken that the novices clearly understand how the different means presented in the Constitutions themselves (examinations of conscience, prayer, meditation, reading…) serve to complement one another. These modes of prayer ought to be nourished by assiduous reading of Sacred Scripture and participation in the sacred liturgy. The novices will thus be introduced more deeply into the common prayer of the People of God and each one’s sacramental life will be more abundantly fruitful. Primacy in this sacramental life belongs to the Eucharist, which from the start should be made our life’s vital center. The sacrament of penance, moreover, should be cultivated in such a way that it retains its theological and ecclesial value and exerts its full effect on spiritual progress in the way of the Lord.

17.     This familiarity with God depends on self-denial, a spirit of recollection, and peace of mind. In these times it not infrequently happens that conditions of life are such as to engender, even unconsciously, a certain disquiet or anxiety of mind which makes a life of prayer more difficult despite good will. All therefore need to understand how, in addition to a living faith, emotional balance, humble acceptance of oneself, trust in others, and freedom of mind constitute for each one virtually fundamental conditions for the enjoyment of true and familiar converse with God.

18.     The practice of community life should both develop the brotherhood of our members and benefit the affective maturity of the novices. This supposes that the novitiate community is already a brotherhood in the Spirit, which imparts to true friendship that perfection of charity to which the vow of chastity is itself ordered. The more fraternal is community life, the more will the novices grasp its meaning and its demands and feel themselves to be a part of the whole Society.

In the same spirit a suitable sharing of life and work should be fostered between the scholastic and coadjutor novices, whereby they can be familiarly known and helped in esteeming and realizing their own vocation. In external matters such as food, clothing, and lodging, there should be complete equality.

19.      Education towards a discerning charity by means of spiritual direction and obedience supposes that complete trust and freedom prevail between Father Master and the novices. A further necessity is that the novitiate’s way of life be not so rigidly determined that the novices, lacking in all initiative, can hardly ever practice spiritual discernment, or even obedience itself, except in the form of a passive and impersonal submission.

20.     Formation in self-denial will be more authentic the more closely the novices follow in the footsteps of Christ who took the form of a servant. Self-denial will be exercised primarily, humbly and simply, in the everyday demands of our vocation. Particular mortifications should, however, be undertaken, under the guidance of obedience, as indicated by the individual’s requirements, the Church’s call, and the world’s needs. Let the novices learn, in theory and by practice, so to shape their life by austerity and sobriety that, being “really and spiritually poor,” they may be that sign “highly esteemed today” which the Church desires.

21.     During the time of novitiate, the doctrinal elements referred to in No. 9 comprise both a deeper initiation into the mystery of Christ and a fuller knowledge of the sources of the Society’s spiritual doctrine and manner of life, chiefly to be drawn from the Society’s history and the examples of its saints. Faults and deficiencies should not, however, be systematically overlooked, in order that the novices may be more ready to follow in the footsteps of our better members and more aware of their responsibility to the Society.

Instruction should be given from the outset to the scholastic novices concerning the priestly character of their vocation, and to the novice brothers concerning the religious and apostolic character of their vocation and the meaning and value of work in accordance with the decree on the brothers.

22.     Although entrance into the novitiate should entail a real separation from the life previously led in the world, superiors should nevertheless provide that the novices, while consistently maintaining a spirit of recollection, should have sufficient social contact with their contemporaries (both within and outside the Society). Likewise the necessary separation from parents and friends should take place in such a way that genuine progress in affective balance and supernatural love is not impeded.

For this purpose the novitiate should, as far as possible, be located in a place where the novices’ probation can be conducted according to the manner of life proper to the Society.

23.     Since spiritual progress requires living conditions which stimulate rather than crush human virtues, care must be taken to prevent the novitiate’s being so remote from reality that novices’ difficulties are there overlooked rather than solved. The more the novices are stimulated to assume responsibilities with prudent and discerning charity, the more successfully will they acquire spiritual maturity and the more freely will they adhere to their vocation.

24.     Since human development does not proceed at the same pace in everyone, if, when the time of noviceship is ended, some of the novices, well endowed with the qualities requisite for this vocation, still have not shown sufficient maturity, major superiors should not hesitate to use the faculty given them by our law and postpone the taking of first vows or even extend the noviceship for a time by the introduction of some longer experiment.

25.     It will benefit the spiritual, intellectual, and affective formation of the novices if they are associated with some other selected men besides Father Master who at certain times can assist him in his work, in order to provide the novices with a richer and fuller image of the Ignatian vocation.

26.     The master of novices is to be assisted in acquiring ever better knowledge of the mentality of the candidates, so that he can adapt to it his spiritual pedagogy and the structural features of the novitiate. It is especially the provincial’s role to help him in this task, providing him with the collaboration of experts and fostering meetings between masters of novices and those who, within or outside the Society, are devoted to the formation of youth.


III. The Brothers’ Spiritual Formation after the Novitiate

27.     After the completion of the noviceship, the brothers’ formation should be continued until tertianship, both in the juniorate and afterwards with various experiments and assignments. Thus the technical, cultural, and doctrinal formation which renders them more apt for the service of God will be closely conjoined with spiritual development.

28.     Where it has not been done already there should be instituted during the time of juniorate a complete and well-adapted course in theology as a principal discipline. There should also be among the other disciplines suitable instruction concerning “ways and habits of thought and opinion in contemporary social life.”

29.     After the juniorate the brothers should be sent to those houses where their progressive spiritual training can be provided for more easily. The superior of the house should have the greatest care for their formation and should provide them with appropriate means for developing their personal spiritual life at the same time that he entrusts them with increasing responsibility. He should especially urge their active and conscious participation in liturgical celebrations, particularly of the Eucharist.

They should have a qualified spiritual father who is seriously devoted to their care. Under his direction they should receive spiritual instruction by way of rather frequent conversations and private reading.

30.     A short course or program on spiritual and doctrinal formation should be set up each year especially for those brothers who have not yet completed tertianship. On such occasions, following a closely integrated program, lectures are to be offered on Sacred Scripture, liturgy, theology, or social doctrine.


IV. The Scholastics’ Spiritual Formation after the Novitiate

31.     The vocation tested and strengthened during the novitiate should continue its growth throughout the whole time of formation. Accordingly it is necessary for there to be an appropriate transition and continuity between the noviceship and subsequent formation, and between various stages of the latter. Intellectual formation and the genuine integration of human values can assume full meaning and importance only if they are accompanied by deeper knowledge and love of Christ, so as to bring about a unification of the whole personality.

32.     All ought therefore to read carefully what is said of formation in general in the decree on the training of scholastics especially in studies (Chapter I) and strive to put it faithfully into effect. Moreover, the scholastics should persuade themselves that the best way to union with God and the proper preparation for the priesthood are to be found in seriously striving to live the spirit of our vocation.

33.     Wise and competent spiritual fathers are to be chosen, who can offer fraternal help to the scholastics during their time of study to achieve a true discernment of spirits.

All the fathers who reside in houses of formation should also feel that each in proportion to his office shares in the task of providing for the scholastics’ spiritual growth and their apostolic preparation. Indeed, everyone in the province should be ready to offer generous help to the formation of our men.

It is further to be hoped that in particular regions meetings will be held, either independently or in collaboration with groups concerned with intellectual and pastoral formation, to develop an organized survey of spiritual training for the whole program of formation.

34.     Throughout all of their formation the scholastics should keep in view the priestly character of our vocation, with the result that study, prayer, and all other activities may be imbued with a desire of serving God and the Church with priestly love for men. Especially before they come to theology, they should be provided with opportunity to secure a deeper understanding of their priestly calling.

35.     A life of prayer should be cultivated which is suitable for a time of study. Each one should therefore earnestly seek, with the spiritual father’s help, a way of prayer which has vitality for him. To this end they should carefully search out among the different ways of prayer proposed by the Exercises, namely, meditation, contemplation, lectio divina, liturgical and vocal prayer, those which best lead them to God. This personal effort, pursued with constancy, will be a great help to the scholastics in acquiring familiarity with God.

The annual Spiritual Exercises are to be regarded as the spirit which animates our formation and brings us to fuller awareness of our vocation. The scholastics should learn to apply the rules and principles of the Exercises to those difficulties which are likely to arise during the time of studies. The scholastics should be permitted on occasion during their formation to make the Spiritual Exercises alone under the direction of an experienced spiritual father so as to have freer and more fruitful communion with God and respond with fuller and more ready availability to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

36.     The scholastics should recall that the virtues required by intellectual labor, such as attention, humility, readiness to serve, constancy, patience and tolerance of adversity, and love of truth, open up to them a most fitting way of finding God in studies.

It should also be kept in mind that the time of studies, undertaken according to the spirit of our vocation, provides valuable opportunities for obedience joined to personal initiative, for affective maturity and charity, and for a life that is poor and devoted to labor. The life of a scholastic should, therefore, be so arranged that occasions are not lacking for the truly responsible exercise of these virtues, so that Jesuits may personally experience the meaning of the evangelical counsels.

37.     At the same time that the scholastics, impelled by an apostolic spirit, seek to know the world with its aspirations and values, which today are so often alien to faith, let them earnestly nourish their own faith and each day shape their intellect more to the mystery of Christ, lest otherwise there should gradually develop a most serious divorce of human wisdom from faith. “Above all, let Sacred Scripture be daily in their hands, so that from reading and meditating the divine Scriptures they may learn ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:8).”

38.     Finally, scholastics, who are greatly affected by the aspirations and movements of our time, must respond to them as spiritual men, with humble loyalty to the Society. Thus by their vigor and alertness they will make a much desired contribution to the Society’s renewal and adaptation.

39.     During the time of teaching or experiments, treated in the decree on the training of scholastics especially in studies (No. 30), care is to be taken that the scholastics’ spiritual life not only does not thereby suffer damage, but on the contrary that it derive therefrom a proper growth. For inasmuch as such experiments represent at once testing and formation, their particular circumstances should contribute to that full apostolic and religious maturity to which the entire education of Jesuits is directed.

40.     The scholastics should therefore be seriously concerned to seek their own spiritual growth and to adapt it more closely to the particular conditions of an apostolic life. If in the process they experience greater difficulties in prayer and work, let them learn to overcome these with magnanimity and patience in the Lord.

41.     Superiors should take care that only those apostolic works are entrusted to the scholastics which are consistent with their spiritual progress. Let them provide the spiritual help which such a time most requires. Thus superiors should see to it that the scholastics are accepted in a brotherly spirit into the community of members already formed, and that they are assisted by some suitable spiritual father so that these experiments strengthen them in their vocation.

Scholastics are not, however, to be sent to such experiments before they have acquired the doctrinal formation which will enable them to fulfill them profitably. Special care should be taken of those destined for secular studies that they may secure a doctrinal formation adapted to their particular studies and requirements.


V. Tertianship

Since the General Congregation has already promulgated a decree on tertianship, urging instructors to undertake experiments with a view to rendering it more profitable, only its place and importance in the organic process of the fathers’ and brothers’ formation are treated here.

42.     Tertianship aims at perfecting the formation of the affections and testing whether the tertian, imbued with the Society’s spirit, shows promise of continuing to make progress himself and of helping others in the Lord.

43.     The expression school of affection characterizes that institution in which members of the Society are so “filled with love of the true doctrine of Christ” that they “progress in the Spirit and seriously follow Christ our Lord” and “love and ardently desire to put on the Lord’s own clothing and insignia for his love and reverence.” This schooling consists in concrete and personal contact with the things of the Society, consisting on the one hand in a vital confrontation with the Institute both in documents and in religious and community life itself, and on the other hand in actively participating in various experiments, first in the Spiritual Exercises, so as to develop a deeper practice of prayer (and in it “to seek God and direct all their affection towards the Creator”), and then in other experiments, which in the case of the priests should be of a pastoral nature, so that they may be practiced in the discernment of spirits while working in the varied circumstances of the world.

44.     To bring this about it will help most if the tertians have an instructor who is in the first place a genuine spiritual teacher and who will examine the experiences undergone in the course of formation and help each one by means of the rules of the discernment of spirits to find his own way to greater progress.

45.     The greatest benefit is rightly expected from this final probation, namely, for each one to bring to completion the desired synthesis of spiritual, apostolic, and intellectual formation which makes for the fuller integration in the Lord of the whole personality, in keeping with the Society’s objective as St. Ignatius described it: “that, since they themselves have made progress, they may better help others to make spiritual progress to the glory of God and of our Lord.”


VI. Continuing Formation

46.     Closely following the Church, which, in liturgical renewal, biblical and theological reflection, and attention to the changing conditions of the times, is led by the Holy Spirit to complement the wisdom of antiquity by means of new developments, all, even those who have already completed their formation, should strive constantly to draw from these sources renewal for their own spiritual lives. Their apostolic activity will thus be enabled to answer more effectively the needs of the Church and of men.

47.     The means commended by our Institute are therefore to be carefully preserved (the annual Exercises, recollections, etc.). Prudently adapted to the requirements of age or spiritual condition, these means are purged of all taint of formalism and exert their proper effect. Those new means should also be adopted (special courses, meetings, etc.) which commonly serve to promote renewal in the contemporary Church. It will be up to superiors to provide opportunities for these, especially for those men who are usually kept from them by duties and occupations.

48.     It is likewise desirable that for the Society as a whole as well as for its particular regions, the tools necessary for spiritual formation may be made available also in vernacular languages, as, for example, St. Ignatius’ works and the texts of our spiritual tradition, theological writings of outstanding worth, news about enterprises undertaken in other regions, etc. Thus will the whole Society be enabled to accomplish in common the study and discernment of the will of God, which is the principle and goal of all spiritual growth, so that all “may learn to live in close and familiar fellowship with the Father through his Son Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.”




Original Source (English translation):

Jesuit Life & Mission Today: The Decrees & Accompanying Documents of the 31st35th General Congregations of the Society of Jesus, ed. John W. Padberg. St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2009, General Congregation 31, Decree 8, “The Spiritual Formation of Jesuits,” pg. 69–80 [75–140].

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