Fostering Jesuit Vocations: Two Perspectives
Eugene Curtin, Creighton University
Rev. Patrick Gilger, S.J. and Rev. Richard Hauser, S.J. sit at opposite ends of the Jesuit experience: Gilger, at 34, building bridges for young men who sense that ineffable calling to a Jesuit vocation; Hauser, at 77, bringing a revered and experienced voice to a process called “discernment,” the effort to discover what, exactly, that still, small voice is trying to say.
Their mission is ancient, and would be recognized by any of the early church fathers once tasked with facilitating the experience of God in societies that gave such matters little heed and were often even hostile to the effort. The church knows what it is to be counter-cultural, from ancient warnings against the worship of false gods to today’s hot-button issues of abortion, homosexual marriage and the ordination of women.
Such noisy social issues, Fr. Hauser says, magnified incessantly by an omnipresent media culture, can make it difficult for young people to hear the voice that spoke to him in the 1950s, and to Gilger 50 years later. It increases greatly, he said, the difficulty of attracting new generations to Jesuit vocations.
What, then, to do?
Fr. Gilger is the associate pastor at St. John’s Church at Creighton University and an instructor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. He suggests that the starting point is recognizing that spirituality is no longer handed down from on high, that people have taken charge of their own experience of God in a manner unknown to earlier generations, and that their objections to church teachings should be taken with a deep and abiding seriousness.
“The locus of religious authority in the West, after Vatican II especially, has completely changed, so that now each individual is in charge of his or her own religious life in a way that we’ve never really seen before, or at least we haven’t seen for a long, long time,” he says. “That provides incredible benefits. People are able to explore their own religious experience in ways we may not have seen before, or compose a mélange of different religious symbols that somehow speak to them.”
And if that seems disconcerting to the tradition-minded, then Fr. Gilger, a 2002 Creighton graduate, begs them not to be angry with the messenger.
“Even if we didn’t want it to be that way, there’s nothing that the Church could do about it,” he says. “You might look at it this way: Conservative dioceses or conservative parishes are fighting a battle that’s already over. The battle they’re trying to fight – not just in the Catholic Church, but all around in terms of religious experience today – is trying to recreate a religious world where people did not have the individual freedom that we have today, to choose whether and how they will be religious.
“When we’re considering how we might encourage people to think about Jesuit vocations, it cannot happen by putting a cookie-cutter interpretation of their own experience of God onto them, or putting them in a situation where they feel forced or controlled. That’s all over, for good and for bad.”
Fr. Hauser, professor emeritus of theology at Creighton, who has spent 35 years directing a discernment group at the University for students considering a Jesuit vocation, agrees entirely. He said a sense of calling cannot be instilled by an external force. It is a speaking of the Holy Spirit, a gift from God that might or might not be answered – that can be nourished, but not created.
“The culture and their age group is telling them what’s normal is to fall in love and eventually get married and have kids,” he says. “Taking an alternate path requires a deep connection with God’s presence in your heart that is calling you to a vocation that is not culturally conditioned.”
And youth open to vocation are very much of the culture. He says, “Most people who join the Jesuits are reflective human beings who have been asking whether God might be calling them to the vocation of the Society of Jesus, but at the same time have girlfriends, are doing well in their studies, and are planning a career.”
The example being set by Pope Francis, the church’s first Jesuit pope, is touching the souls of youth in a way that the Church has not seen in a long time. Fr. Gilger says, “He is taking people where they are, living the kind of humility that people want to see Jesus live, and that means avoiding public hypocrisy and challenging the Church on its own hypocrisy at times.”
Fr. Gilger is certainly not reaching for the panic button. He says that Catholicism today is what it has always been and what it will always be – the experience of Jesus as savior. It is a tree that has sometimes flowered in different ways but always stems from the same trunk.
“We teach the same things – the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery, the resurrection of the body, these things,” he says. “On the other hand, what we have to do with those teachings is the same thing that God does with God’s self – incarnate them. That’s our goal. And if the way they [were] incarnated in 1945 is no longer compelling for people, why would we even be worried about that? There’s nothing to be worried about. We take these same things and we continue to learn how to give them as a gift within this new culture.
“That’s what we’ve always done. We work against those places where our culture does not hold the teaching but we also celebrate the new ways that our teachings are incarnating in this culture now.”
It is perhaps an incarnation of the generational approach to encouraging Jesuit vocations that the young Fr. Gilger and the venerable Fr. Hauser have built a unified approach from opposite directions. Fr. Gilger is the founder of a blog, The Jesuit Post, where nearly 40 young Jesuits write about politics, sports and pop culture from an Ignatian perspective.
Fr. Hauser remains the master of the evening chat around a coffee table, and of the four- or five-day retreat, where the reality of vocation can be better assessed.
But always, always, Fr. Hauser insists, his is a background presence.
From the moment a student calls him, or sends an email expressing an interest in learning about a Jesuit vocation (firstname.lastname@example.org, just so you know), Fr. Hauser sees his role as a spiritual director not to advocate one way or the other, but to provide a sympathetic and confidential ear.
“The decision has to be between himself and God,” he says. “Spiritual direction helps clients come in tune with what’s going on in their heart. The director is not telling the client what to do, but to own what is going on in his own heart. The client makes the decision, or does not make the decision.”
Above: Photos of Rev. Richard Hauser, S.J. and Rev. Patrick Gilger, S.J. courtesy of Creighton University.