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By Therese Fink Meyerhoff

Fr. Ron Mercier, SJ
Fr. Ronald A. Mercier, SJ

The notoriously long Jesuit formation program is undergoing a transformation. The entire 9-to-13-year period is being examined and reshaped, all with the goal of turning out men fully equipped to serve as pastors, educators, ministers and leaders in a contemporary context.

The man to oversee this makeover in Canada and the United States is known well to members and friends of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province: former provincial Ronald A. Mercier, SJ. In August, Fr. Mercier began his new assignment as the delegate for formation for the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.

“I have cura apostolica – care over the Conference formation programs – similar to the care provincials have over Jesuit institutions, like a high school or college,” Fr. Mercier said. “I will make visitations, etc., sharing oversight with the president of the Conference as his delegate.”

Fr. Mercier noted that this new vision of delegation comes directly from Jesuit Superior General Arturo Sosa.

First Studies First

There are about 300 Jesuits in formation in Canada and the United States. The stages of formation include the novitiate, first studies, regency (ministerial experience), theology and tertianship. Each stage is being reviewed, but the initial changes are being made in first studies, when a Jesuit typically earns a bachelor’s or master’s degree, depending on his background.

The current initiatives will impact all aspects of a Jesuit’s life, integrating his academic, spiritual, community and apostolic experiences.

Academically, the changes include making first studies more inter-disciplinary, focusing on the humanities, social sciences and language.

“We are trying to give Jesuits a broader vision,” Fr. Mercier said. “Often, people come out of school with undergraduate degrees, and they have so specialized early on that they don’t necessarily have the breadth that Jesuits once did. That breadth is what Fr. General Nicolás emphasized as context. We want to look at the ways the pieces fit together and especially with the Jesuit mission.”

The discernment process began in 2014 with then-Superior General Adolfo Nicolás. He called on Jesuits around the world to look closely at their formation programs and consider what changes could be made to train men in a contemporary context, with an eye to the future.

After more than two years of questionnaires, focus groups and careful analysis, the provincials of Canada and the United States released the Initiative for the Future of Formation (IFF). This guiding document outlined 12 characteristics that will shape the future of Jesuit formation.

The first fruits are a new pilot program at Fordham University called the Ciszek Hall Jesuit Residential College and a series of academic and other enhancements at Bellarmine House of Studies in St. Louis.

Ciszek Hall at Fordham University

Three Jesuit universities in the United States host a first studies program for Jesuits in formation: Fordham University, Loyola University Chicago and Saint Louis University. The house of studies at Fordham was suspended for two years to create a new program rooted in the IFF. This entailed the development of a new academic curriculum, a new service program and a complete renovation of the first studies community.

Jesuits in first studies at Fordham University listen intently as Vienchy Reyes shares information and insights about Ignatius School in the Bronx.
Jesuits in first studies at Fordham University listen intently as Vienchy Reyes shares information and insights about Ignatius School in the Bronx.

Father William Sheahan, SJ, of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province, was appointed rector of the new community.

Fr. William Sheahan, SJ
Fr. William Sheahan, SJ

“Ciszek is envisioned as a living-learning community,” Fr. Sheahan said. “The renovation included the addition of gathering spaces where Jesuits can gather and host others from our broader community.”

The community is meant to be the locus of learning, Fr. Sheahan says. “Fordham is key, but it is not the only place where learning goes on.”

The program is designed so that the academic coursework, the apostolic experience and the communal living experience complement one another intentionally, to be more closely intertwined than has been the case historically in First Studies.

Father Sheahan said each stage of formation focuses on one of the “four Cs.” In the novitiate, Jesuits learn the Society’s charism. During regency, Jesuits become more competent. Theology studies focus on content for being a minister of the Church. The aim of first studies, he says, is context.

“Studying the humanities allows us to deepen and broaden our ability to analyze context,” he said. The typical course load of philosophy and theology has also evolved. “The theology courses are meant to be more pastoral, to have an immediate pastoral application,” Fr. Sheahan said.

Father Michael Zampelli, SJ, an artist in residence and associate professor of theatre at Fordham, helped design and directs the academic program for the First Studies program at Ciszek Hall. He worked with a committee of educators at Fordham to design the new academic program. Degrees are granted through Fordham’s graduate school of arts and sciences.

Jesuits in first studies traditionally participate in apostolic ministry. The new program integrates academics with apostolic service through praxis education: one day a week serving in the community under the guidance of local praxis educators.

A final component of the Ciszek pilot emphasizes discernment and developing team-based leadership skills as a foundation for communal apostolic discernment.

Bellarmine House of Studies – St. Louis

While the Ciszek Hall program at Fordham was being developed as a pilot, the leaders of the First Studies program at Saint Louis University restructured their own program, announcing a series of initiatives in 2018 in accord with the IFF.

Like the Ciszek program, the Bellarmine House of Studies provides a living-learning environment that explicitly integrates academics with the spiritual, communal and apostolic dimensions of Jesuit formation.

Bellarmine House of Studies Community
Bellarmine House of Studies Community

A key component of the St. Louis first studies program is the “Ignatian Core,” consisting of four one-credit-hour courses in the humanities, natural sciences and fine arts.

Fr. Steve Schoenig, SJ
Fr. Steve Schoenig, SJ

“The Ignatian Core is intended to supplement a Jesuit’s studies by providing cultural context for the material learned in philosophy, theology and social analysis courses,” said Fr. Steve Schoenig, SJ, rector of Bellarmine House. “The Core classes help to connect Jesuits’ academic work to their life and spirituality as Jesuits.”

Bellarmine is also becoming more intentional with apostolic placements, with Fr. Jim Coughlin, SJ, overseeing men’s ministry assignments. These assignments prioritize direct encounter with the poor, including the low-income neighbors near Bellarmine’s location in midtown St. Louis, and service with minorities and migrants.

Brian Engelhart, SJ, a member of the Jesuits USA East Province, is in the inaugural class of Jesuits under the new program. Now in his third year at Saint Louis University, he will graduate in May with a Master of Arts in philosophy and theology for ministry. He’s excited about the way the Bellarmine program brought together his academic life with his ministerial assignments.

“Father General Nicolás used to talk about intellectual depth,” Engelhart said. “But what does it mean to bring intellectual depth to our ministry? I get it now. I can examine a particular ministerial situation not only philosophically, but through an anthropology course or a psychology course. How do we as Jesuits bring in our spirituality? How can we be effective ministers?”

The next steps for Fr. Mercier and all those involved with Jesuit formation include an equally in-depth review of theology studies, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that all the elements of the formation program work together to produce discerning men with a depth and breadth of learning and experience.

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