The issue of priestly vocations within the Society of Jesus, according to the following letter sent to all the Jesuit major superiors, is a troubling matter “much too serious to ignore or set aside.” Arrupe sent his letter on July 11, 1973, a time when worldwide membership in the Society of Jesus had dropped from a peak of 36,036 in 1964 to 29,436. Arrupe’s practical reflections on the “problem of vocations” center on four questions. First, can Jesuits present a more positive image of the Society of Jesus? Second, are applicants deterred by a crisis in the formation process? Third, is it necessary to increase contact among the youth in Jesuit apostolates? And, fourth, is better promoting needed to convince young men “of the value of our vocation”?
For more sources from Arrupe, please visit The Arrupe Collection.
The problem of vocations is vital for the Society today as always, for the survival of the Society and the efficacy of its service in the Church depend largely on the number and quality of vocations.
The capital importance of this topic was recognized without exception by those who dealt it in their “ex officio” letters earlier this year. I am very grateful to everyone for their generous cooperation.
Obviously the vocation question is not limited to the Society. Nor is it merely a matter of numerical increase. It is basically a matter of faith, rooted in the revelation of God calling man to enter into communion with Him.
Since the origin of every religious vocation is an encounter with Christ in faith, our efforts to discover and develop vocations to the religious life and to bring them to full maturity will lose their authenticity and inspirational value if they are not constantly related to this marvelous encounter.
In suggesting general causes that might explain the radical decline in vocations in the Church, frequent mention was made of such phenomena as secularization, a lack of priestly and religious identity, frustration, and so on. But are these not, in many instances, signs that at a deeper level there is a vacillation of faith with regard to the fact and value of God’s call to the present generation?
If we consider the situation of the Society from the deepest level of these perspectives, we may be able to discover a great number of factors that depend more directly on ourselves, for which we can then try to find some remedy.
Therefore I would like to select a few ideas that could help us in more realistic and profound personal or community, reflections, leading to practical decisions about the manner of cooperating with grace in the fostering of vocations. I will touch on the following four points:
I. The Image of the Society
II. Lack of Confidence in the Formation Program
III. Contact with Youth
IV. Promoting Vocations
I hope you will not expect a complete and exhaustive treatment, but rather some brief reflections at a practical level, meant to stimulate your prayerful consideration of them.
I. The Image of the Society
Religious should not forget that the good example of their own lives affords the highest recommendation for their community, and the most appealing invitation to embrace the religious life.
Sometimes it is said that one of the principal causes for the decrease of vocations lies in the fact that the present image of the Society as a whole is disconcerting to many outside the Society and not very attractive for the young who wish to offer their life to Jesus Christ, giving it meaning and consecrating it to apostolic work.
What sort of image do we project today with the “confusion,” “uncertainty,” “division,” “rebelliousness,” and “secularism” of which we are at times accused? Are these accurate evaluations of how our personal and community life and our manner of acting appears? Are they based on reality? Or are they, on the contrary, misinterpretations of what is seen? At any rate, such unfavorable judgments do provide matter for reflection.
Rather than considering the image, let us deal with the reality, for the image depends on the reality. An appearance void of content is called hypocrisy; a correct appearance that is true to the content is called an authentic image. If we are authentic Jesuits we shall appear as such. But if we do not appear as such to the eyes of the world that scrutinizes us, can it be because we are not authentic Jesuits?
Certainly, to be authentic we should, true to the charism of Saint Ignatius, strive for that profoundly spiritual way of living which, based on a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ (a free gift of God), makes us habitually adopt the “following” and “imitation” (conformes fieri) mentioned so frequently in the Spiritual Exercises. It is part of the essential dynamism of this very personal spiritual way of living to commit ourselves joyfully and enthusiastically to the urgent task of evangelization, according to Ignatian criteria, both as individuals and as an apostolic body. This way of living will make us feel happy, seeing that we are consecrated to an ideal that gives complete self-fulfillment.
This same dynamism provides an effective means of witness and attraction, of “calling” those who “wish to give greater proof of their love and to distinguish themselves in total service….” It also inspires us to vigorous apostolic creativity, rendering us particularly sensitive and open to the Holy Spirit’s action in the changing circumstances of history and the urgent needs of the people. In this way the sensitivity of the young generation can and should provide valid data for discernment. For example, the present desires of the young for a more realistic poverty, for greater social justice, for effective aid to the destitute and the Third World are clear indications of the Spirit, showing that our apostolate should be pointed in that direction.
Of course, merely to “please” or attract today’s youth cannot be the criterion for such renewal. That would indeed be a poor service to the Society, and it certainly would not gain the esteem of the more respectable youth in our world. The high and demanding aims of our spirituality and of our apostolic mission should not be watered down. There must be no doubt or uncertainty regarding them.
But could it not be that the bourgeois, easy, or excessively secularized lives of some, or the inertia and spiritual and apostolic mediocrity of others, are precisely what waters down those ideals and that image which upright men of our times would like to see realized fully, even if differently from the past?
Thus the basic solution to this serious question of vocations is that we should lead an authentic spiritual life, that we should exercise a creative and imaginative apostolate for the Church of today, and that our life-style should express these spiritual and apostolic values, so that modern youth may recognize all this as a witness.
If we find that we do not have that spirit ourselves we should try to acquire it, instead of putting the blame elsewhere. On the other hand, if we do have that spirit we shall, without being too concerned about appearances, project our true image, in such a way that youth, as generous today as in the past, will feel attracted and called.
Our Novices and Scholastics will here find matter for personal and community reflection concerning their own conduct and the reality of the image they project in their surroundings. Today more than ever words lose their persuasive eloquence if they are not accompanied by a testimony of living which lets the light and joy of the Risen Christ shine forth.
II. Lack of Confidence in the Formation Program
Another point frequently mentioned as an explanation for the decline in the number of vocations is a lack of confidence in the program of formation. When judging the formation now given to our young members, quite a few Jesuits are of the opinion that it does not offer sufficient guarantees that those entering the Novitiate will be formed properly, and that there is a danger that they may not persevere or that they may develop into a type of Jesuit that is unacceptable.
This should give us cause to reflect, for in some instances this opinion is actually based on a lack of proper information or on rumors and exaggerations that distort the reality; at other times the opinion is based on the difficulty some have in accepting the needed changes in the formation process, as dictated by existing circumstances or as an adjustment to the personality of the present generation, which necessitates methods of formation that differ from the traditional.
However, I am fully convinced—and I want to use this opportunity to express this conviction—that those in charge of formation have in recent years and under very difficult circumstances made a magnificent effort worthy of our gratitude and acknowledgement. This does not prevent us from humbly recognizing that sometimes, either through objective difficulties of the moment, or through a shortage of suitable men to conduct a contemporary formation program, or through attempting too much in experiments carried out under unfavorable circumstances, or through the lack of proper collaboration and support on the part of everyone, or in many cases through not having followed the directives given by the Society after very careful consideration by the Commission of Studies, or for other reasons, we really find ourselves facing a more or less ambiguous situation that must be objectively evaluated so that we may confirm what proves valid, and correct effectively and promptly what is deficient and dangerous. This is a great responsibility, especially for Superiors and those in charge of formation.
I believe then that we should aim for several objectives. First, Superiors and those in charge of formation should conscientiously recognize their responsibilities. Secondly, they should very carefully select and prepare those who are to direct the formation process, and create a competent team for it, since its complexities require this especially today. Their duty is to project properly coordinated plans for the whole course of formation: Thirdly, they should inform the whole Province of the concrete plans that have been prepared. As some Provinces have successfully shown, it is a good idea to have the members of the formation team visit the different communities to present the plans and the means they intend to use for the realization of these plans, at the same time soliciting observations from the members of the Province about these plans themselves, as also about the effects they are producing. In this way everyone will feel involved and co-responsible in the fostering of vocations and in the formation of the young Jesuits.
From the Novitiate on, Jesuits in formation should learn about the Society as delineated in the Formula, the Constitutions, and the official documents, and they should familiarize themselves with the living history of the Society in so far as it contains a re-expression, explication, and constantly renewed application of the Ignatian charism. They should also come to know the Society as it is in everyday life. Thus, although formation is primarily the responsibility of those who direct the program, it must also be the concern and the fruit of a Province-wise collaboration. Hence in one way or another, directly or indirectly, the communities must contribute to the formation process in its various stages or aspects. What excellent matter this is for our reflection! Those in charge of formation should with special interest devise ways of establishing links between the young men and our ministries and the Jesuits engaged in various apostolic tasks. This will be a valuable contribution to the maturation and formation process. Such a sense of corporate responsibility will strengthen our spirit and promote the “togetherness” proper to our “unio cordium,” so much needed in the Society today.
It is necessary to foster, or in some cases to restore, everyone’s confidence in the present formation given to our young Jesuits. As I have said, this requires, besides skilled men in charge of formation, well defined plans and their constant and faithful execution.
III. Contact with Youth
This is another point made with reference to the decrease in the number of vocations. The number of Jesuits who are in actual contact with the young men has been reduced (e.g. a shortage of Scholastics in the schools, fewer Sodalities, fewer retreats for youth, and so on), and fewer Jesuits feel prepared to deal with students, laborers, office-workers, apprentices, young professionals, because of the special difficulty in such apostolates today. Could it be that coeducation and the need to work with mixed groups is diverting our attention from the needs of the young man, causing this apostolate to lose the vitality that is proper to it?
The new psychology of youth demands that this apostolate be carried out in ways and circumstances that differ from those of a few years ago. It is a fact that the level of contact with the young has been reduced in some Provinces. We should seek remedies for this, and we should consider the ministries with youth of extraordinary importance today, as they have always been. Although nowadays there are new and special difficulties, the vocational apostolate, of key importance to the Church, should be strongly fostered.
All those in contact with youth both in Colleges and other areas of our work should, while bridging the gap and breaking down tensions between generations or between professors and students, try to establish strong personal contacts with the young. This can be difficult in the actual circumstances, for it can at times require a change of mentality and great dedication. It may also take time away from other activities, and it demands constant adjustment, not too easy once a person has reached a certain age. But the way things are, the shortage of young Scholastics must be compensated for by others more advanced in age. Apart from the personal enrichment which these encounters with the young can entail, the importance of these encounters is such that they can be considered a profitable “investment” in our lives, in collaboration with the Lord working through men.
I would like to insist on this point and to exhort those teaching Ours and others in Colleges and Universities to promote and foster these contacts as an essential part of their educational apostolate. If they really try to establish such contacts they will find numerous opportunities, especially in the Ignatian Exercises for the young and in the Christian Life Communities which since their renewal are yielding good results, so much so that they could be a formula for pre-novitiates. Other opportunities can be found also in the class room; in private conversations and counselling; in summer camps; in simply being with young people in their social activities, works of charity, literary gatherings, sporting events, and the like. It is on such occasions that we will show forth our true image as interior men, joyful and happy, united to Christ; the image of the Jesuit apostle whose life is filled with meaning; an image which the keen intuition of the young will immediately perceive as different from that of just another “chum.”
IV. Promoting Vocations
While expressing my gratitude to all who are making such strong efforts to promote vocations I would like to help them a little to reflect on the full extent and depth of this problem.
Some of the difficulties already mentioned, such as the diversity of viewpoints concerning religious life in the Society, the lack of confidence in the formation given, and so on, have been considered by some Jesuits as reasons for not proposing a Jesuit vocation to possible candidates. In some instance this is no doubt only a symptom of other more profound attitudes that should be examined before the Lord and then duly corrected.
It may happen that some are not convinced of the value of our vocation. They must, before all else, seek a solution to their own personal problem. However, it can be quite useful for us to reflect on such an attitude and to consider it before God, trying to find out if it perhaps results from a personal resistance to the changes consequent upon the renewal inspired by the Second Vatican Council and the last General Congregation, or from a lack of understanding and acceptance of the ways in which these changes are being realized. In the first case, opposition to genuine post-conciliar renewal would clearly be opposition to what the Church, mainly in the Second Vatican Council, and the Society have asked of us. Such an attitude cannot be tolerated. In the second case, rather than adopting a negative attitude, how much better it is to develop an attitude of collaboration, and by means of truly and evangelically constructive criticism to contribute elements of a basic solution or at least some partial correction of situations that are considered unacceptable.
Let us not forget the following points: (1) Today’s young men are in many ways quite different from those of even a few years ago. (2) We must form them in and for a world of rapid change, with a rhythm of change much more accelerated than in the past. (3) The young have to face these present difficulties, and even greater ones, no matter what way of life they choose. (4) We cannot find the real solutions to the problems of our religious life and of the apostolate of the future without being experientially united with these generous young men who feel called by Christ. (5) These candidates ought to know that, on being admitted to the Society, they join an apostolic group of men who are convinced of the validity and vigor of their vocation in essential points, and who are seeking a full renewal and adaptation of it in order to render better service to the Church and humanity; and that, therefore, they too should be ready to abandon themselves unconditionally to the Lord, and to run the risk and suffer the insecurity proper to the life of an apostle, if they wish to collaborate in the immense task of the Society today. (6) All of us, and our candidates as well, having heard and answered the call of the Kingdom, must know that precisely in this surety of our spirit and vocation and in the risk we run in trying to render better service to the Church and our fellow humans, we have a basis for true confidence, security and evangelical enthusiasm, as well as a perfect witness to our total abandonment to the Lord.
It is not out of place to recall here the words of Saint Ignatius when faced with serious material difficulties in Rome: “We judge that we cannot and should not close the door to those who, under God’s holy inspiration, are called to our Society.” The reason which he then invoked is all the more valid in our own present difficulties: “We have put the anchor of our hope in the goodness of God.”
Let us then present the vocation to the Society with the satisfaction and joy of men who really want to live the greatness of its spirit and of its ideals, of men who feel completely identified with it, of people who confidently accept and know how to put in their proper perspective all the risks inherent in the adaptation of such a vocation today; because actually no risk is unsurmountable to those who “have placed their trust in the Lord, who watches over us.”
The problem of vocations is much too serious to ignore or set aside. We should all be aware that it touches a vital need of the Society which we love, and we should be united in our efforts to find the best means of facilitating the promotion and increase of vocations.
There can be no doubt that in the promotion of vocations the Ignatian Exercises are the most effective “instrument of grace,” as is shown in all of our history. Everything we can do in this area will be but little.
However, since a vocation is a grace—“You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you”—the first thing we must do in our search for vocations is to pray, constantly asking the Lord “opportune et importune,” that He may favor many with the grace of a vocation to the Society. “Ask and you shall receive”. The harvest is great and is increasing each day with apostolic opportunities, but “the laborers are few”, and are decreasing in too great a proportion. It would be hard to find a more urgent intention for our prayers than that of vocations.
Thus I would suggest that all, individually and in community, following the example of Saint Ignatius when confronted with special difficulties, should frequently offer Mass for this intention and ask the Sacred Heart of Jesus to kindle in the hearts of many generous young men a vocation to the Society. Let us follow the mandate of the Lord: “Beg the harvest master to send out laborers to gather his harvest.” Let us also ask for the prayers of the people we direct, our friends and benefactors, contemplative religious communities, etc., and the Lord will not delay in sending us abundant vocations of men who want to consecrate themselves unconditionally to His service in the Society.
Devotedly yours in Christ,
Superior General of the Society of Jesus
Challenge to Religious Life Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—I, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1979, “On Fostering Vocations,” pg. 101–111.