One could say that as a member of the Jesuits I trace my lineage back to 1540, when Pope Paul III confirmed the founding of our religious order, the Society of Jesus (Societas Jesu), or to 1534, when a group of seven Spaniards, Portuguese, and Frenchmen met in Paris to pledge their companionship (Compañia de Jesús) with religious vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. It might be said that these men and all the men who have served in the Society are my brothers. 

The structures and histories of our community have at times prescribed a kind of kinship among Jesuits, and I have formed close friendships with many of my fellow members. But the Society is not a family. The Jesuits are not my mother and father, brother and sister. The way to best understand this riddle of a brotherhood without brothers is, I think, to sink into story, a narrative teaching technique I first learned some forty years ago when I met the Jesuits at my undergraduate college. Indeed, narrative—story, images, even imagination—is fundamental to Jesuit spirituality, as we believe it is right in the drama of our lives and surrounding history that we encounter the presence and action of God, the divine and human in mutual search of each other.

Let’s start the story at the beginning, with Iñigo, a Basque of low nobility, later known as Ignatius of Loyola, whose conversion from soldier of fortune to spiritual mystic, guide, and preacher eventuated in his gathering fellow University of Paris students for a life of preaching, charitable work, and sacramental ministry.1 The companions, who also called themselves “Friends in the Lord,” developed a set of constitutions to govern an explicitly mission-oriented (versus contemplative or quasimonastic) order. To the three traditional vows they had already professed, they added a fourth, one of special obedience to the pope, making themselves available for any apostolic venture the pontiff might have need of them. 

The Jesuits—a nickname they adopted from their detractors, who found presumptuous their inclusion of the name of Jesus in their title—within fifteen years numbered more than a thousand men. The letters of their perhaps most famous saint, Francis Xavier, missioned at the pope’s request to spread Christianity in India, stirred the imaginations and apostolic zeal of young men at the seventy-four colleges, on three continents, the Jesuits were operating by the time of Ignatius’s death in 1556.2

My own encounter with the Jesuits came about with my undergraduate matriculation at the College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, Massachusetts) in 1977. I had applied to the college due to my interest in receiving a liberal arts education at a Catholic institution, but it wasn’t until later in the process that I learned it was a Jesuit school. I had a basic awareness that Catholicism had religious order priests, such as the Franciscans, who somehow were different from the diocesan priests who served our parishes in Northeastern Maine, but prior to arriving at Holy Cross, I had never met a Jesuit. 

I did, however, recall a 1973 Time magazine cover story, “The Jesuits: Catholicism’s Troubled Front Line,” which was illustrated with a portrait of the reformist Superior General Pedro Arrupe.3 I recalled a photo of a small group of Jesuit seminarians, in undistinctive clothes, sharing dinner in their Upper West Side apartment, and I had the sense of a historically powerful but now progressive order increasingly at odds with the Vatican. 

Within my first week on campus I had met Jesuit administrators, chaplains, and faculty, most of whom did not wear clerical attire but, rather, jackets and ties. Daily and Sunday Masses—all optional but immediately part of my routine—included stimulating preaching and robust student lay ministries. My academic and cocurricular life at Holy Cross proved a quick fit. A product of small-town-Maine public school education, I had nonetheless arrived with a growing interest in the reform-and-renewal trajectory of post–Vatican Council II Catholicism.4

That interest pressed me to get honest with myself about what particularly motivated my studies, such that upon matriculation I switched my intended political science major to religious studies. During the dean’s introduction to our newly assembled class of 650 men and women, he ran down a number of statistics about us, including the range of declared majors. He noted just one student in religious studies—me, of course. Engaging classmates in getting-to-know-you conversations in the dorm, at mixers, or in the pub inevitably included sharing one’s major, and, it turned out, mine invariably elicited the response, “Oh! Are you gonna be a priest?” I would squirm a bit and reply that while that was a possibility, I had chosen the major due to a fascination with theology, particularly in conjunction with philosophy and classical studies and languages. In fact, the major comprised just one-fourth of one’s total coursework. 

I demurred partly because of vocational uncertainty and partly because I knew that in the late 1970s becoming a priest was thought an odd choice, even among the Catholics of my generation and our parents. Since the late 1960s, the number of US Catholic seminarians had begun a steep decline while attrition among the clerical ranks climbed steadily higher (statistics for nuns were even worse).5 Still, the student culture at Holy Cross proved congenial toward me. I settled in, quickly made strong friendships, and joined the flow of mixer parties, dances, and sporting events.

My encounters with the Jesuits during my first year quickly found them telling lots of stories about the Old Society, as if they were trying to talk out, in the company of us students, their transition to the New. Narrative, especially life story, it turned out, was integral to Jesuit spirituality, a point many of us came to experience ourselves in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, which were offered during school vacation periods.6 In those years, roughly a quarter of Holy Cross students chose at some point before graduation to make the retreat, five days of strict silent listening to a Jesuit give morning and evening talks to guide individual prayer and contemplation. A dozen of us first-year men and women jumped at our first opportunity in January, just before the start of second semester. I found myself suited to contemplative prayer, and at the end of a one-on-one session with the retreat director, a sixty-year-old veteran of the New England Jesuits’ mission in Baghdad, he advised me to get a spiritual director. I began meeting monthly with a forty-year-old Jesuit administrator, who proved all the more given to telling stories, especially stories about his teenage and young adult Jesuit years that surely were meant to nurture my own reflection.

I quickly learned that family was very important to my spiritual director but in a sense that I’d later read anthropologists referring to as fictive family, when our kinship is based on social arrangements rather than through blood. He had entered the New England Jesuit Province’s novitiate, which is a house of initial formation or training, in the mid-1950s at age eighteen, straight out of high school. That was the typical age of young men beginning Jesuit life in the post–World War / Cold War era. Each year in the New England Province, several dozen eighteen-to-twenty-year-olds joined the highly institutionalized religious order, whose proliferating colleges, universities, and high schools contributed to US Catholicism, long the brunt of ethnic and anti-immigrant bigotry, rising into the mainstream of American society.7

In that pre–Vatican II reform period, the Jesuits ran their houses of formation in secluded locations in a quasimonastic fashion that would have made them a textbook case for the “total institutions” sociologist Irving Goffman described and analyzed in his landmark study, Asylums.8 The lads were stripped of both their personal names, therewith addressed simply as “Mister,” and their street clothes. They were issued instead a black soutane, the distinctly Jesuit cassock, to wear over the white T-shirts, black pants, and shoes they’d been instructed to bring from home. The superiors also read the novices’ outgoing mail before sealing and stamping the addressed envelopes. My spiritual director recounted to me the zeal with which he appropriated the novice master’s instruction that the young men should no longer consider themselves primarily members of their families, who were allowed to visit for just a few hours a couple of times per year, and only in the visitor’s parlor and front yard. With good humor he recounted to me how early on, Father Master called him into his office to discuss the salutation he had used in a letter to his parents: “Dear former family.” The superior wryly questioned, “Don’t you think you might be taking this a bit too seriously?”

As I entered my senior year in college, I too became a candidate with the New England Jesuit Province. The vocation director kept in regular contact with serious inquirers such as myself and hosted occasional one-day or overnight gatherings at which we could hear directly from Jesuits about their lives—their apostolic work, their spirituality, their companionship. Some of these events were held at the novitiate, which by that fall of 1980 had for more than a decade been relocated from its Berkshire Mountains seclusion to a row of brownstones in Boston’s Back Bay.

With that dramatic shift in location had come an equally radical reform in the norms and regulations for the novitiate in the Society’s constitutions. Gone were the soutanes, the suspension of individuals’ proper names, the mandatory sacred silence from a prescribed bedtime until after breakfast, the reduction of contact with family and friends to mere hours per year, and the inspection of outgoing and incoming mail. Although we still followed a daily order, including morning prayer, conferences (i.e., seminar-like study of the Society’s history, constitutions, theology, and vows), kitchen and housework, Mass and dinner, much of our time was left to our own management. Our novice director, who preferred not to be called master, explicitly indicated that the men in his charge were just that, men, not boys, who should be entrusted with meeting the amounts of reading, prayer, spiritual direction, and apostolic work expected of them. The atmosphere I observed during those visits was one of informality, conviviality, and purpose, with the various friendships and common life of the novices exuding the founding Jesuits’ self-understanding as Companions of Jesus and Friends in the Lord.

The great changes in the novitiate and throughout the ten-plus years of Jesuit formation, were undertaken by the New England Province’s leadership in response to the Second Vatican Council’s mandate that each religious order undertake a reform balancing “the primitive inspiration of the institutes, and . . . the spirit and aims of [their] founder” with “the changed conditions of our time.”9 And it was the worldwide Jesuit leadership’s socially and religiously progressive interpretation of that decree which landed them on that 1973 cover of Time, especially when Pope Paul VI issued a stern warning that put in question the society’s loyalty to the papacy. By the time I entered the New England novitiate in August 1982, after a postgraduation year of volunteer work in a remote Alaskan Native village, Pope John Paul II had placed the Society of Jesus under a sort of receivership, suspending the normal governance until the papacy could obtain assurance that the next superior general, who would replace the elderly, stroke-incapacitated Father Arrupe, would reset the renewal agenda on an acceptable path. For me, the tense, officially suspended state of the Society only added to my conviction in joining a daring group of 26,000 worldwide (5,800 in the United States) who were unafraid to make mistakes in their effort to help the church better serve the modern world.10

We entering novices numbered six—a record low in the New England Province’s history—ranging in age from twenty-two to thirty-one, all college graduates, even one medical doctor. We were joining another seven (out of an original ten, ages twenty-three to thirty-nine) who were beginning the second (and final) year of the novitiate. A concerted effort was made to help us and our parents cope with the huge life adjustment underway. On the day before the official start of our noviceship, the vice provincial for formation, the novice director, and three of the second-year novices hosted us for a sort of orientation day at the Province’s spirituality center on the outskirts of Boston. At one point, the novice director explained that while parents were welcome to phone, write letters, and visit their sons at the novitiate, which had a few guestrooms for the use of relatives and friends, the novices would not be coming home for Christmas. The surprise on many parents’ faces confirmed the slight nervousness in his voice as he tried to deliver the news gently. 

The next evening, after our parents had helped settle us into our rooms, shared yet another mass and dinner, and then said their goodbyes, the novice master said a bit more about the holidays. Both ecclesial and Jesuit laws required that novices complete a canonical year, whereby they were not to sleep outside of the novitiate although some of the novice experiments would allow the master to temporarily assign novices to other Jesuit houses. Still, he was going to allow us a one-night home visit on December 26.

The provincial superiors and novice director were thus bending the rules in a way that contrasted with the far more rigid pre–Vatican II novitiate regime. Nevertheless, keeping the novitiate community together for the most family-oriented of US Christian holidays was a highly affective and effective way of communicating the sense that the novice’s primary social group was now the Society of Jesus. On both Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, the novices spent the day volunteering with agencies that served people who were older, had disabilities, or lacked housing, while the novice director and his assistant priests on staff prepared the traditional holiday dinner, which was shared, of course, only after first celebrating together at “the one table of the word of God and the Body of Christ.”11 Indeed, daily celebration of the Mass, whose very purpose in Roman Catholicism is to build up the bonds of charity among the members as the risen Christ’s body now in the world, is a fundamental spiritual practice throughout Jesuit communities.

On a fundamental material level, the vow of poverty likewise contributes to maintaining the corporate, communal bond among Jesuits. Basically, each Jesuit is to depend entirely on the Society for his needs, such that he should not consider anything for his use to be of personal possession. The entire physical and fiscal operation of each community (or house) is managed by the community’s administrator (or minister) and treasurer, who work in close coordination with the house’s religious superior. In apostolic houses, that is, those composed mostly of working Jesuits, the men turn all of their income in to the treasurer. The houses of formation and of those who are older or disabled are financed by endowments raised from external donations and province-level funding collected from the apostolic houses. The bottom line—pardon the pun!—is that each Jesuit is to contribute financially as his mission assignment enables and to receive as his personal condition necessitates, all together within the Society. Although the communal goal is to prevent individuals from living at different levels of comfort and convenience, and to avoid dependence on any individuals or entities outside of the Society, the apostolic purpose of this poverty is to make Jesuits indifferent to their material circumstances and, thus, available for whatever mission the Provincial superior might decide to assign them.

In the prereformed, so-called Old Society, acquisition of necessities, as well as small amounts of leisure spending money, took the form of individuals constantly going to superiors to ask for things, such as a new pair of sneakers. I heard older Jesuits explain their understanding of the vow as a “poverty of permission.” The practice, however, did not reach down to the level of toothpaste and shoelaces; those sorts of necessities were openly available in the free desk, a walk-in closet stocked with such supplies. 

In the New England novitiate of the 1980s, however, material matters functioned differently. The novice director explained to us new entrants that the old system of constant permissions and amply stocked free desks was nothing short of infantilizing, causing far too many Jesuits to have immature notions and insufficient awareness of the personal and household costs the people with whom they worked and to whom they ministered faced daily. Thus, for our first year, we were to receive forty dollars per month to purchase toiletries and other personal items, to go to movies, to use mass transit, to pay for any long-distance calls we made (logged on a pad by the common telephone), and to pay for personal use of the house’s two cars (twenty-five cents per mile, logged on a pad in the glove compartment). We had each arrived with a couple suitcases of clothing, shoes, and other small durable goods according to a list the minister of the novitiate had sent us. The house, of course, provided food, drink, utilities, newspapers and magazines, one television, and a stereo for common use, as well as organizing occasional group outings for recreation. It was not difficult to go through forty dollars a month in Boston, even in the 1980s.

Still, as with time, so with money—family was a tricky business. In discussing financial matters with us new beginners during our initial conference with him, the novice director acknowledged that when visiting, our parents undoubtedly would want to take us out to dinner or give us a bit of spending money or a piece of clothing. He advised us to accept such modest gifts graciously, counseling that we should accept our parents’ need to continue showing their love for us and maintaining their maternal and paternal senses of looking after us, even as the degree to which they can and ought to do so decreased sharply now that we were adults. In that and numerous other cases I could discern a consistency in the novice director’s approach to forming us as individuals and a community, an effort to interpret the purposes of the rigorous novitiate that the Society’s constitutions prescribed in relationship to contemporary developmental, family, and social psychology.

To this day, I admire the novice director and the vice provincial for formation for carrying out one of Ignatius’s principles for spirituality and the governance of the Society, namely, a discernment of the particular circumstances of time and place that both allows for and expects modifications, so as better to help souls and pursue the greater good. Jesuit spiritual and apostolic life can be characterized as constantly and necessarily negotiating tensions that arise between two goods, such as prayer and action; indifference or detachment toward worldly desires and passion for “finding God in all things”; renunciation of exclusive, intimate relationships and the healthy value of strong friendships.12

A fundamental tension in Jesuit life for both individuals and the corporate body of the membership is the pull between the psychologically powerful natural and cultural phenomenon of family, which each man uniquely experiences, and the continuous construction of a brotherhood of such corporate and affectionate bonds as to refer to each and all as one of Ours. Depending on one’s family history and one’s personality within one’s family system, this tension can prove challenging to the point that an individual Jesuit finds the loss of family as the primary affective-social group unbearable, especially during the decade-long process of formation (i.e., during the novitiate, philosophical studies, regency years in the apostolate, and theological studies). That desire for family, whether for one’s family of origin or for the creation of one’s family with a partner, certainly was a key factor contributing to the departure of roughly half of the men who entered the ten US provinces of Jesuits in the 1980s, either during the formation process or within five years of their priestly ordination.

I recall a member of my community at the theological faculty in Berkeley, California, where we were preparing for priesthood, describing the depression he found himself falling into each Christmastime, a season that for him was a most precious family time. He, like myself, was from a Jesuit province that was far from Berkeley. However, we were allowed to travel back only in the summers, when we could combine participation in Jesuit priestly ordination days, an obligatory eight-day retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises, with possible villa (vacation) days with fellow Jesuits, as well as a one-week visit with family. That man left the Society a half-dozen years after his priestly ordination, transferring his service and obedience to the bishop of the diocese where he had grown up and where his family still lived.

Diocesan priests take no vow of poverty, nor are they bound to a rule of community, thereby enabling each priest to receive or inherit money, spend time with family to the extent his work schedule allows, and so forth. My own father, in fact, had been thrilled that I planned on becoming a priest but quite perturbed by the limits Jesuit life would place on my availability to him and my mother. During my senior year of college, as I was beginning my vocational discernment, he instructed each of my three siblings to talk me out of the Jesuit idea. Each told me about this, with varying degrees of mirth, realizing that my father would not easily accept the loss of familial influence and control over me.

Jesuit life inevitably functions in tension with conventional expectations about family life, not least concerning an adult child’s relationship with and availability to his parents and whatever immediate family he might have. Each individual Jesuit, of course, must work out those tensions according to his own personality, temperament, family history, and the evolving circumstances of his parents and, perhaps, certain other family members. Essential to such personal negotiation, I believe, is an open recognition of the tension, that is, of the clear difference between what a family is and entails in comparison and contrast to what membership in the Society of Jesus is and entails.

While it is true that couples who undertake marriage must negotiate the ongoing construction of their nuclear family in relation to their two families of origin, the situation of each Jesuit, I have come to conclude, is only analogous—if that. The dynamics of religious community life versus those of intimate, lifetime partnership are significantly different, such that I have never agreed with some Jesuits (and other vowed religious) referring to their religious community as a family or to themselves individually as married to God or to Jesus or to the church. 

Long before I reached my current, sixty-first year, I realized through the privilege of so many couples inviting me into their lives in friendship, as well as listening to marriage partners in the sacrament of penance, how great are the challenges of the shared marriage vocation and how different those challenges are from the challenges we face in the vowed religious life. I hold the opinion that any appropriation of the symbols of marriage by a vowed religious betrays a significant lack of respect or knowledge or humble appreciation for the courage, fortitude, patience, and other virtues marriage partners must practice together and, so often, in raising a family.

In the end, my argument is that Jesuits, individually and together, do better by recognizing that our company is not a family, by recognizing that our vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are not even remotely marital. That kind of clear-eyed distinction frees us up to discern both the joys and struggles, the gifts and lacks, peculiar to the Jesuit vocation. Therein, I am convinced, lies the possibility for greater personal satisfaction and happiness in the vowed religious life, as well as more professional and pastoral effectiveness in the apostolate.

  1. See St. Ignatius’ Own Story: As Told to Luis Gonzales de Camara, with a Sample of His Letters, trans. William J. Young (Chicago, IL: Loyola, 1982).
  2. For a critically acclaimed historical account of the founding persons, events, and documents of the Society of Jesus, see John W. O’Malley, The First Jesuits (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
  3. “The Jesuits’ Search For a New Identity,” Time, April 23, 1973,,33009,945242,00.html; the cover can be seen here:,16641,19730423,00.html
  4. For a concise review and assessment of the council and its aftermath by a prominent theologian of the period, see Bernard Cooke with Bruce T. Morrill, “Interpreting and Implementing Vatican II: History and Theology,” in The Essential Writings of Bernard Cooke: A Narrative Theology of Church, Sacrament, and Ministry (New York, NY: Paulist, 2016), 4–24.
  5. The percentage of US Catholic parents who approved of their children pursuing a religious vocation declined 25 percent between 1964 and 1974, with that phenomenon only accelerating in later decades, and the number of men preparing for the priesthood in the US Catholic Church fell 37 percent between 1970 and 1980. See Laurie Goodstein, “No Longer Eager to Say, ‘My Son, the Priest’; Religious Careers Lose Luster for Catholic Parents,” New York Times, November 19, 2000,; and Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, “Frequently Requested Church Statistics,”
  6. See Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. George E. Ganss (Chicago, IL: Loyola, 1992).
  7. See David J. O’Brien, From the Heart of the American Church: Catholic Higher Education and American Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994).
  8. See Irving Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1961); for an autobiographical account of Jesuit formation in the neighboring New York Province during the 1950s and 1960s, see F. E. Peters, Ours: The Making and Unmaking of a Jesuit (New York, NY: R. Marek, 1981).
  9. Perfectae Caritatis, Second Vatican Council, October 28, 1965, no. 20, For an autobiographical account of one young Jesuit’s experience of recovering the original genius of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and the underway reforms of the Society of Jesus that influenced Vatican II’s decree on religious life, see Cooke with Morrill, The Essential Writings of Bernard Cooke, 64–69.
  10. Pope John Paul II’s extraordinary intervention in the governance of the Society of Jesus began after Superior General Pedro Arrupe suffered a paralyzing stroke on August 7, 1981. By spring of 1983, the pontiff, having satisfied his concerns about the Jesuits, allowed them to call the 33rd General Congregation. The assembled Jesuit representatives from every province around the world accepted Father Arrupe’s resignation on September 3, 1983, and then elected a new superior general.
  11. Dei Verbum, Second Vatican Council, November 18, 1965, no. 21, Also, see Morrill, Encountering Christ in the Eucharist: The Paschal Mystery in People, Word, and Sacrament (New York, NY: Paulist, 2012), 66–67.
  12. For a series of chapters pairing such tensions, written by two leaders in the renewal of Jesuit spirituality and religious formation, see William A. Barry and Robert G. Doherty, Contemplatives in Action: The Jesuit Way (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2005).