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Father Barton Geger, SJ
Jesuit Vocations and the Art of Fishing

By Tracey Primrose

March 17, 2017 — Around the world, the Society of Jesus employs hundreds of vocation promoters: Jesuit priests and brothers specifically missioned to recruit new members.

As followers of the Society’s first great vocation promoter, St. Ignatius Loyola, co-founder of the Jesuits, they practice the art of fishing.

What’s fishing? It’s a term used by St. Ignatius and the early Jesuits to describe a strategic recruiting technique of well-planned conversations. For instance, Jesuits who are teaching at Jesuit colleges keep their eyes open for prospective candidates, confer with one another, and then decide who among them should reach out and begin the conversation with a would-be prospect.

Commenting upon a recent article that he wrote for the journal Studies in the Spirituality of the Jesuits, editor Father Barton Geger, SJ, says the Society of Jesus needs to make “explicit, deliberate, concerted efforts” to recruit new members. “We need to go out there and beat the bushes.”

Fr. Geger believes that, among Jesuits, there are generally two approaches to vocation promotion. In one camp are those who support a more laid-back, trust-in-the-Lord philosophy, fearing that too much focus on vocation promotion takes away from the Jesuits’ mission. In the second camp, there are those who favor more proactive outreach.

Fr. Geger maintains that St. Ignatius was firmly in the second camp, as was Jesus, with his invitation to St. Matthew, “Come, follow me and I will show you how to fish for people.”

St. Ignatius was such a believer in vocation promotion that he even counseled another religious order on the need to be proactive. Several years before he co-founded the Jesuits in 1540, St. Ignatius wrote to the co-founder of the Theatines and told him that he was making a mistake by not actively recruiting new members.

“The Theatines’ spirituality was based on trust in the Lord without any consideration of human intervention,” says Fr. Geger. “They believed, ‘we’re not going to look for benefactors because we’re going to trust they will show up on our doorstep, and we’re not going to recruit because God if he wills it, will send us men.’ While this particular spirituality has a venerable history in religious life, it is also true that the Theatines remained a relatively small religious order. Today, there are less than 200 in the world.”

And what about that old maxim, God helps those who help themselves? Here, Fr. Geger offers a word of caution. “There’s a truth there, and yet there’s a danger in that phrase as well. Absolutely, Ignatius would agree that we need to expend every human effort, and God appreciates it when we use all legitimate, morally acceptable strategies to get the job done. However, we have to be careful not to make it sound like God is obliged to respond to us because we have acted in this way.”


Brother Pat Douglas, SJ

Brother Pat Douglas, SJ, a vocation promoter for the Jesuits’ Midwest Province, takes the fishing analogy one step further. “The fish can come to the boat, but if you don’t put your net in the water, you can’t get the fish into the boat.

“We’re not salesmen, and I think the first camp is worried about that – that we’re just going to go out and sell vocations. And that’s a valid concern, and we don’t want to do that. But we’ve got to bring these guys into the boat somehow – by inviting them to events, by supporting them along the way.”

And, Br. Douglas offers, it’s paying off. “In the Midwest, we’re now a vocation team of five Jesuits, which is the largest in the U.S., and our numbers of novices entering the Society have doubled in the last two years.

“If God is calling these young men to join the Society and we don’t have enough nets in the water, we can’t bring them in.”

To read Fr. Geger’s article, click here.


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