Become a Jesuit
Stages of Formation

When hearing about priestly or religious training, what quickly comes to mind is the seminary — which marks the beginning of ministry training for many who enter the clergy and religious orders. A person begins this training and, usually two or three years later, comes out ordained.

In the Society of Jesus, the approach is different. For one thing, a seminary is typically understood as a place where people eat, live, study, and pray. That’s not the Jesuit way. Like all seminarians in the United States, Jesuits carry out their studies leading to a professional ministry degree, but they do so at a university. And they live in the neighborhood. More to the point, these studies are but one stage of Jesuit formation — and hardly the beginning.

By the time a Jesuit is deemed ready for graduate theological studies, the “S.J.” has been affixed to his name for quite some time (between seven and nine years for priestly candidates). He has already passed through three distinct stages of Jesuit formation, and he has at least one more to go. The full journey will normally take at least 10 years for priests and a couple of years less than that for brothers. But from the start, the person being formed is considered a Jesuit, a member of the Society of Jesus. He has been accepted into the order; he is a Jesuit in formation.

What are these five distinct stages of Jesuit formation?

Five Stages of Jesuit Formation
  • Novitiate: Leading to first vows.
  • First Studies: Philosophy, some theology, and other studies.
  • Regency: Work in the active apostolate.
  • Theology: Leading to ordination (for a priestly candidate).
  • Tertianship: Toward final vows.
They begin with the novitiate. During this two-year phase, a Jesuit novice is inculcated into the spiritual and communal life of the Society of Jesus. Key to this part of the journey is the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, a rigorous 30 days in which the novice seeks to hear more clearly what Christ is calling him to do. The whole novitiate is a time of testing and experimentation. After the 30-day retreat, there are pilgrimages to distant, unfamiliar places. There are other experiences that test the novices — preaching, ministering (including service in hospitals), and living in Jesuit community. All that prepares Jesuits to make their first vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. 

After that, they take up first studies, which ordinarily involve two years of graduate study in philosophy and one year of graduate-level theology. These studies are grounded more broadly in the liberal arts. Increasingly, Jesuits in formation also receive master’s degrees in other subjects that reflect their gifts and interests, as well as their need to better understand the Church and world they are looking to serve. All the while, the men continue to deepen their experiences of service, community, and prayer. Those aspects of Jesuit formation continue through all stages of formation.

Then comes regency: Up to three years in an apostolate or religious outreach. The regents have traditionally performed this service as teachers in Jesuit high schools, though they are often assigned instead to Jesuit universities or social and pastoral ministries. During these years, a Jesuit becomes fully involved in the apostolic work and community life of his province.

That leads the men in formation back to theology, for three years. In the United States, these are the studies that lead to the Master of Divinity professional degree for those in priestly preparation. The brothers usually work toward a master’s degree in theological or religious studies. At this stage, Jesuits also often work toward another degree, usually the Licentiate in Sacred Theology, which focuses on research in a specific subject area such as Scripture or theological ethics.

The vast majority of Jesuits in the United States spend these years at either Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry or the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, now affiliated with Santa Clara University; a few are sent to schools outside the United States. Along the way, those on the priestly track are ordained as transitional deacons, before ending this stage with their ordination to the priesthood.

The journey of Jesuit formation does not end there, however.

For a few years after, the Jesuits engage in further graduate study or fulltime ministry. Then they enter the phase known as “tertianship”: up to a year of intense spiritual reflection combined with ministry among the poor and close study of foundational Jesuit documents. The tertian, in a sense, revisits the experience of the novitiate. He reflects on why he became a Jesuit and what Christ is calling him to do.

This brings a Jesuit to the verge of final vows, full membership in the Society of Jesus. The Provincial can make a recommendation, but only the Superior General in Rome can call a man to these vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. A Jesuit takes the final step when he has reached a deeper level of discernment, and when he is ready to place himself at the complete service of the Church.

Since St. Ignatius bought a printing press in 1556, the Jesuits have been involved in communications. Today the Society of Jesus publishes a number of award-winning journals and publications. Click below to access our latest issues.

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