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The Jesuits—they’re adversarial, they have a long formation period, they don’t wear a religious habit. When Nader was trying to figure out how he was called to serve, the Society of Jesus had three strikes against it right from the start!

Nader grew up and went to high school in Egypt, before moving to France for his university studies. In 2018 he rejoined his family in Canada… but also, ultimately, the wider Jesuit family.

His advice to men who would also like to experience the novitiate of the Society of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid to do something new. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.”

From a God who is angry to a God who is friend, following Jesus

Nader grew up in Egypt, fearing that the sky might fall on his head. “The image of God was more of a God hidden in the heavens, watching everyone, angry all the time, waiting for the right moment to punish us.” So this young man was not very interested in having a relationship with such a God, apart from the obligatory prayers and Sunday masses—to which he was very happy to sometimes arrive late.

Following in the footsteps of Jesus as Ignatius of Loyola did was definitely not part of Nader’s plans. But when he became involved in the Eucharistic Youth Movement (EYM), he encountered a God who was something else entirely. “God was a real person who loves, who isn’t angry and who wants to become my friend.” This was the beginning of the story of Nader and Jesus, a personal encounter in true Ignatian-spirituality style. Nader only later realized this, because at the time, he was unable to put his spirituality into words. After all, it was as though his school and that of the Jesuits were rivals!

As time went on, Nader discovered his deep desire: to become a priest and serve God. Here again, the Jesuits—with their very long formation period—were not among his first choices. “My reasoning was: if I want to become a priest, why take the longest route, when I can take a shortcut and get to the same goal in the end?”

What’s more, the young man was initially attracted by the religious habit, but members of the Society of Jesus don’t wear any particular habit. “The Jesuits don’t have anything in the way of special clothing, they’re just there.”

It was with increasing maturity, finally making the connection between “Ignatian spirituality” and the “Society of Jesus” and reflecting on his vocation, that Nader decided to enter the Jesuit novitiate at the age of 24. Even though he didn’t tell his family about this call, his parents saw the signs, such as his strong desire to go to mass, and had guessed that he was going to become a religious.

The novitiate

So, without saying anything to anyone, Nader contacted those responsible for the Jesuit novitiate whom he had met at an EYM event in Quebec. A few signs confirmed that he was on the right path. For example: Since he wanted to ensure the confidentiality of an online meeting he was going to participate in, he decided to go out to a park. But it was a rainy day. “I said to the Lord, ‘You know what? I need about an hour.’ According to the weather forecast, the rain was to continue all day long. But I went to the park anyway, and it didn’t rain. When the meeting finished after an hour, a drop of rain fell on my head. And to me, it was like a wink… a wink from God.”

The process of entering the novitiate takes about a year. “When you feel ready and apply to enter the novitiate, there are lots of forms to fill out, medical appointments, psychological assessments, and formal meetings with Jesuits and non-Jesuits to talk about the vocation and ask questions. And then the provincial and his close collaborators discuss and decide whether to accept you. You have to really be motivated!”

Once he was accepted, Nader prepared to spend the next two years in the novitiate. Leaving his family was not easy, especially as he has a very strong and close relationship with them. “At the start of the novitiate, we call the first two months Media Fasting: no computer, no internet, no TV, nothing. You can only keep in touch with people through handwritten letters sent by post. It was hard. I cried a lot when I received the letters.”

“Then you get into a routine. It was very, very structured, with a set schedule. We were told what to do and when to do it.” Most of the novitiate, according to Nader, was about deepening his relationship with God, but also working in various places to experience Jesuit life. Some parts were very difficult, and it was really his relationship with Jesus that got Nader through, having “God as my only refuge.”

When asked about one of the key experiences of his novitiate, Nader talks about his work at Mother Teresa Middle School, where he had to learn to be present as a representative of a Church that had participated in the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples. He sought advice from another Jesuit, John Meehan, who suggested that he not only be prepared to be with Indigenous people in their anger, but also to welcome it. “How can I be there for them, with them, walking with them? Even if I, as an individual, did not participate in the acts committed in the residential schools, I am part of this institution that is the Church, and all I can do is be present to those who have suffered the consequences. Putting this into perspective has helped me a lot to move forward.” Over time, relationships were built between Nader and Indigenous children and adults, and he was invited to participate in a springtime prayer ceremony at the end of his experiment. “The elder said to me, ‘I’m going to pray toward two compass points, you’re going to pray toward the other two. You do as you like.’ The ancestors I prayed to are the saints, or those who came before us, who are now with God and who, in our belief, can listen to us and help us. It’s the same for them: the ancestors listen and help. The ceremony went well. I was given a lot of tobacco at the end, which I laid at the foot of a tree.” Afterwards, the students made him cards and wished him all the best for his future as a priest.

Also during this experiment, he tried something new at a youth rally for the Archdiocese of Regina. Filling out a form to offer his help, he put a checkmark beside almost everything, including, “Be open to learning something about the Backstreet Boys.”

“At the first meeting, I discovered that this meant I’d be dancing and singing a Backstreet Boys song on stage! I put on my Roman collar, a hat, and did it! With others, I sang ‘I Want It That Way.’” He then showed this video to the kids at school to let them know that he wasn’t just encouraging them to try something new, he was doing it himself.

On the road on pilgrimage

In the first year of their novitiate, young Jesuits make a month-long pilgrimage on their own, with $60 in their pockets. Nader knew the experience was coming, and it scared him, not least because he suffers from a health problem. Nevertheless, he was hopeful. The purpose of the pilgrimage is to trust God, but at first, Nader simply trusted in his own planning. “I was going to knock on the doors of religious communities and they would take me in. I was going to ask for alms, and because people are generous, they would give me money. Then everything would be all right.”

His theory didn’t pass the practical test. When Nader knocked at the door of the first religious institution, the priests there didn’t believe he was on a pilgrimage. When they finally accepted his story, they gave him $60, wished him well, and sent him on his way. “My original plan—that the religious would welcome me—fell through.” With the money, he bought himself a bus ticket to Trois-Rivières and, while waiting for the bus, he began to beg in the street. “I took off my cap to get some money, and people passed by without even looking at me. So, quite naively, I thought that maybe they didn’t understand that I was begging, so I wrote on a piece of paper ‘I need help, please.’ People would read the sign and move on. After two hours, only two old ladies had stopped, and I had only raised $1.75.”

When Nader arrived in Trois-Rivières, he didn’t know what to do or where to go. Finally, after knocking at the door of the bishop’s residence, all went well. He was offered a bed, and from then on, he slept for a few days in one religious community after another. Providence manifested itself in various ways during this month-long pilgrimage. Toward the end of his stay in one community, for example, Nader had planned to call another the next day to see if they could welcome him. “And then, the next day, we were having lunch and the phone rang. It was this very community calling: ‘We’ve heard of a novice on pilgrimage who’s moving among the communities. Would he like to come and stay with us?’ I didn’t call, I didn’t knock on their door, they called!”

From this pilgrimage, Nader learned an essential lesson. “I didn’t deserve everything I was offered, I didn’t do anything for it, but I received it anyway. I’ve seen how much God cares for me. He just wants me to trust him. I understand why it didn’t work out at the beginning of my pilgrimage. Everything had to fall apart. I had to be a bit desperate in order to accept to trust and see how God works.”

To someone who is thinking of becoming a novice but is afraid of the pilgrimage, Nader says: “It’s normal to be afraid. It’s only human. It’s completely understandable. But you’re going to receive far more graces than you can imagine. I can’t help you to not be afraid, but I can tell you that God takes care of us and surprises us.”

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