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Jesuits Eric Immel and Garrett Gundlach share their formation experiences.

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“The drama has something to do with trusting that God’s hand is actually guiding me through all of it. ”
~ Eric Immel, SJ

By Brian Harper

A man enters the Society of Jesus as a novice. A decade or so later, he is a brother or an ordained priest.

Many people wonder what happens during those 10 years of “formation,” as the Jesuits call it. Four young Jesuits in formation — Eric Immel, Garrett Gundlach, Jeffrey Sullivan, and John Roselle —  addressed this question at a recent Jesuit Nation event hosted by the Midwest Jesuits. Attendees at the April 28 program in Milwaukee included young adults and professionals who share a connection to the Jesuits and enjoy learning more about the Society and its ministries.

“The experience of applying to the Society of Jesus, let alone being accepted, is one of the healthiest things I’ve ever done,” shared Immel, currently a Jesuit scholastic studying philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. “There’s something really exciting about the process of beginning life as a Jesuit, but the reality is I walked through the door, and nothing that incredible happened.”

Instead, said Immel, God and the Jesuit superiors at the Jesuit Novitiate of St. Alberto Hurtado in St. Paul, Minn. gently guided him through the initial phase of the two-year novice formation process. The novitiate is filled with a variety of communal, educational, and ministerial experiences, but it was the 30-day silent retreat prescribed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, that most frightened him.

“I am not a quiet person, so the idea of making a 30-day silent retreat quite frankly terrified me,” Immel recalled. “My father, very wisely a couple of weeks before, said something like, ‘Well, Eric, your tongue’s not going to fall out. Like, what’s the problem here?’”

Perhaps more shocking is that Jesuit novices embark on a one-month pilgrimage with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, $35, and a one-way bus ticket.

“The drama of it all, at the end of the day, had nothing to do with whether or not I was going to have food to eat or a place to sleep,” said Immel. “I realized that even sleeping on the streets, I could still rest my head at night, because the drama has something to do with trusting that God’s hand is actually guiding me through all of it.”

See more photos from Jesuit Nation. 

Jesuits John Roselle, Garrett Gundlach, Eric Immel, and Jeffrey Sullivan (from left) after their presentation and Q&A with Jesuit Nation attendees

Gundlach, who just completed a Master of Social Work degree at Loyola University Chicago, said the second year of the novitiate “slows down” and involves a longer period of time working in a single ministry and living “the life of a Jesuit.”

“In that time,” said Gundlach, “we answered basic questions like ‘How do I feel wearing the Jesuit duds every day?’ ‘How am I going to get to work?’ ‘What am I going to do during the work day?’ ‘How am I going to feel as I enter into the role of a Jesuit?’ And during that experience, we started to ask the question, ‘Do I want to do this with the rest of my life?’”

If the answer to that final question is “Yes,” said Gundlach, a novice professes perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience before moving on to first studies, which in most cases involves taking philosophy classes. Sullivan, who is currently in the regency period of Jesuit formation and serves as a teacher and coach at Loyola Academy near Chicago, said he was not initially enthused about this step.

“Philosophy is like shrinking the world into your room,” he laughed. “It’s not what we signed up [for]. We’re not like, ‘Oh, I want to go study philosophy. Yes!’”

Ultimately, it was an exchange with a new acquaintance that helped Sullivan realize the value of his philosophy pursuits. A burgeoning philosopher was turned off when he learned Sullivan was religious and began to engage him in a debate about faith.

“It was funny, because philosophy gave me all these ways of argumentation,” Sullivan remembered, “but it was interesting because I started to listen more.”

Listen to Sullivan talk about his Jesuit formation and his path to the Society of Jesus.

“What it ultimately came to was [he] came from a broken family, a broken life, had a lot of hurts from the Church, and he had used his intellectual capacity to block off God. We use our reason to protect what hurts us, right? And this is the great thing about philosophy: that I was able to sit and ask some probing questions but eventually defuse what we think about the world so that we can get to the heart of the matter. This is what Pope Francis is doing with the world. He is saying, ‘Yes, secular world. Yes, Modernism. Yes, you have good questions. There are real concerns, but let’s get to the heart of the matter.’”

After first studies comes regency, which places Jesuits in full-time ministry for three years. Roselle, who is nearing the end of his first year of regency as a teacher at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, said if the novitiate is boot camp and first studies is special operations, regency is getting in the trenches.

“A lot of Jesuits will tell you that regency is the happiest time of their lives as Jesuits,” explained Roselle. “I mean, it’s hard, and you’re exhausted at the end of the day, but it’s a good exhausted, and you feel like every single day, I really made a difference.”

Roselle said the time he spends with the students in his Bible and Church History courses means a great deal to him.

“They’re the closest thing I’m ever going to have to sons,” he said. “I like what the Jesuit Fr. Bill O’Malley said: ‘It’s not so much about converting the students. They do need conversion, but they’re not ready for conversion for the most part. Your job as a teacher is to help them be ready to be less unready for conversion when that soul-searing time of life comes.”

After regency, each of these men will go on to theology studies – “God willing,” added Roselle – before being ordained priests. Their Jesuit calling could then take them any number of places, which is fine with Sullivan.

“I mean this, and it sounds cliché, but I think I just want to love and be loved no matter where I am,” said Sullivan. “We are human, as Pope Francis has commented. We’re human, we’re flawed, we’re broken, but we all want connection.”

Mandi Davis, a high school Spanish teacher and 2010 Marquette University graduate who attended the event, said she appreciated learning what the speakers go through to become Jesuits.

“I really enjoyed hearing about the different phases of formation and getting some of the personal experiences and stories that helped you visualize what it’s like to go through that formation process,” she said. “The Jesuits have always been an example of such a loving, solid way to live life after Christ’s example and have really impacted the way that I live my own life and view the world and my goals in making the world a better place.”

Learn more about the different stages of Jesuit formation and a vocation with the Jesuits.

Jesuit Nation is an initiative through the Wisconsin Province of the Midwest Jesuits. Its purpose is to connect Jesuit-affiliated individuals to socialize, collaborate, and learn more about Jesuit ministries. Jesuit Nation meets four times a year at various ministries and other locations in the Greater Milwaukee area. To learn more or attend an event, please contact Dan O’Brien, Regional Director for Milwaukee and Omaha for the Midwest Jesuits, at

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