Sowing the Seeds of Discernment

By Rev. James J. Miracky, S.J., Provincial Assistant for Higher Education (Maryland and USA Northeast Provinces of the Society of Jesus)

Photo courtesy of Rev. James J. Miracky, S.J.

Photo courtesy of Rev. James J. Miracky, S.J.

Rev. Adolfo Nicolas, S.J., the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, once wrote that “the intellectual dimension is part of all our ministries.” In whatever field, “the Jesuit mode of involvement in apostolic life... requires openness to intellectual reflection,” including reflection “on the social, economic and political context and on the anthropological questions of our time.”

Of course, this call to the intellectual apostolate is at the heart of the Jesuit mission in higher education. In my role as Provincial Assistant for Higher Education in the Maryland and USA Northeast Provinces of the Society, I have the privilege of helping to promote our continued commitment to the intellectual dimension of our work in the twelve Jesuit colleges and universities on the East Coast, and to encourage younger Jesuits to take up the challenge of the intellectual apostolate to establish, in the words of Fr. Nicolas, “a bridge of dialogue between Gospel and culture, between sciences and religious traditions.”

When I assumed my position in 2014, having served for nearly twenty years as a professor and administrator at the College of the Holy Cross and Loyola University Maryland, I knew from first-hand experience that, to be perfectly frank, we Jesuits have not always been proactive in helping younger Jesuits in the process of discernment and preparation for the ministry of higher education. Given the fewer numbers of Jesuits in formation, as well as their higher median age upon entrance, it is imperative that we become more intentional and strategic in working with young Jesuits who have the passion and abilities for ministry in higher education so that they are ready for a rich apostolic life with our lay colleagues in the schools. With that in mind, I set out to think holistically about how someone in my position could help develop the next generation of Jesuits in higher education, with the following results.

As the seeds of discernment can never be sown too soon, I have made it a practice to visit our novitiate in Syracuse and our house of first studies at Fordham University at least every other year to speak of the Society’s call to the intellectual apostolate and to gently invite the novices and scholastics to consider whether they have the desire and abilities to serve in higher education. While trying to avoid a qualitative comparison with other ministries or make a “hard sell,” I share with these men the joys and challenges of work in the colleges and universities and stress the importance of the intellectual apostolate not only in our past but also as a current priority of Pope Francis and our current Superior General, Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J.

When a young Jesuit is identified as a candidate for ministry in higher education, we begin an informal mentoring relationship to consider ways in which he might prepare for such ministry without impeding the focus on and integrity of his Jesuit formation. This may include such things as, for those who anticipate being in academic ministry, pursuing language acquisition, getting some teaching experience or keeping a hand in research. Or, for those who are drawn to student life or campus ministry, training in counseling or spiritual direction.

Although some Jesuits in formation come to the Society of Jesus with a terminal degree, most Jesuits who go on to work in one of our schools do their graduate work after they have completed the course of formation. This period of further or “special” studies is preceded by a period of discernment in which the Jesuit writes a proposal for graduate studies that not only lays out the applicant’s desired field of study and the schools to which he plans to apply, but also includes a prayerful reflection on how the proposed course of study will support the Society’s mission of laboring with and for the poor, being prophetic, and dialoguing with culture and other religions. The proposal would also explain how graduate studies will prepare him better to collaborate with lay and Jesuit colleagues in our schools.

Once a Jesuit is missioned to graduate studies, we engage in a more formal mentoring relationship that includes regular communication and an annual visit, in which we discuss his progress toward obtaining the degree and strategize about preparing for comprehensive exams, writing a dissertation/thesis proposal, and setting up goals and a timeline for research and writing the dissertation. Looking ahead to the job market process, we also discuss ways in which the Jesuit can set himself up to be a strong candidate for searches, such as getting appropriate teaching experience, giving papers at conferences, and submitting articles for publication. In the final year of the degree program, we work on preparing materials for the AJCU job search process for Jesuits, discerning (in consultation with the Jesuit's Provincial) which invitations from interested schools to pursue, and discussing effective approaches for job interviews and presentations. The process, we hope, leads to a successful conclusion, but it does not end there – in future years, I continue conversations with the Jesuit as he transitions into ministry in his new apostolate, and offer further guidance as he pursues tenure or continues to develop in pastoral or administrative work.

In my annual visits to our schools, one of the greatest challenges I face is when I end a conversation with the President, Board Chair, or other administrators by asking, “How else can I be of help?” The primary answer is, “Send us more Jesuits.” While my regretful response usually includes a throwaway line such as, “I’m afraid the pool isn’t too deep,” or “I wish I had more of a bench to draw from,” I can also say that one of my greatest hopes is found in the future ministry of the impressive younger Jesuits I help mentor. Though smaller in number, these men who are preparing to serve in our schools as teacher-scholars, pastoral ministers, and administrators will be every bit as committed and inspiring in this important ministry as their predecessors.