The Jesuits have two qualities about them that are inseparable, much like a teenager and a cell phone. The Ignatian charism and the priesthood. The Society was founded as a military company of priests. By most standards, they are a very strange religious order for two reasons.
a) They are the last religious order that was ever founded. At the time, the Church had not yet conceived of the idea of a religious congregation. The Jesuits live and work more like priests in a religious congregation than as members of a religious order such as the mendicants and the monks. They don’t have a real conventual life, which is atypical of religious orders. The term “order” comes from the Latin term structured. St. Ignatius deliberately avoided the structures that governed the conventual orders of monks and friars to liberate these priests. If they had been bound to the rigors of conventual life, as are friars and monks, they would have had to sacrifice some of the freedom and independence needed to be the kind of missionaries, preachers and teachers that the Holy Spirit was calling them to be. Theirs is a different style from that of the friars who were engaged in the same ministries.
b) The second thing that makes them a little different and hard for many people to understand and accept is that they are not bound to obey the pope the way that people want the to obey. They are bound to go where the pope sends them. This vow, of course, implies fidelity to the Holy Father and a willingness to serve the needs of the Church where ever the Holy Father feels they are needed and in the manner that the he feels. Recently, the Holy Father had strong words with them on this point. He reminded them that like every religious order, they are at the disposal of the Church. Unlike other religious orders, they deliberately make a fourth vow to be at the disposal of the Church. They are bound, by a solemn vow, to set the example of availability to serve the Church. The rest of us do not have that vow. We are bound to obey . . . that’s hard enough.
People often misjudge them, believing that they should be demure, which is silly. They are not Franciscans. If God had wanted Ignatius and his sons to obey without questioning, he would have called Ignatius into the Franciscans. If he had wanted Ignatius to obey and question later, he would have called him into the Dominicans. What God called Ignatius to do was to correct the errors of the time through careful study in order to preach and teach Truth. Scholarship always involves a degree of critical thinking. Often, the only way to arrive at the meaning of the Truth is to throw a falsehood on the table and then try to refute it. The Society was not called into existence to be catechists who simply learn and memorize what the Church teaches so that they can pass it on. It was called into existence to be counteract errors in the Church’s thinking and in the thinking of Protestants. This required that one identify the errors on both sides. The errors on the side of the Church were not doctrinal errors. They were disciplinary and legal errors. The Church had weighed itself down with a lot of baggage that only led to confusion and abuse. The error of the Protestants was to confuse the excess baggage with the doctrine. They threw out the entire set of luggage, instead of throwing out the unnecessary gear and keeping the rest.
I truly believe that today is a very exciting time to be a Jesuit, because once again we need a military company of priests who will challenge Catholics and non-Catholics. The Society is darn good at that. Ignatius was a genius. Freud had nothing on him when it came to understanding human behavior and the mind. The best part is that Ignatian spirituality integrates the soul into the study of the person. It’s looking at man holistically.
If you can identify with the mission and vision of Ignatius and see yourself as a brother to these other men, go for it. I always tell people who are thinking about the priesthood or about religious life the same thing. You are joining them. They are not joining you. Therefore, they do not have to meet your expectations or accommodate to you. You have to accept them where they are and be willing to be a brother who walks the journey with them. I hope that you will bring gifts to the table that will strengthen your brothers and they will have gifts that will strengthen you. If you are thinking that you can go in and do your thing or that they have to meet your expectations, then you’re not called to the religious life or to the priesthood. We are not who we are because we’re entitled to anything. We are who we are, religious or priests, or both, because the Church is entitled to our gifts.
Br. JR, OSF :)