The Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, is notorious for its long formation. Jesuit priests are rarely ordained before serving well over a decade; the unordained brothers don't have it much easier. Full incorporation into the Society often comes 20 years after entrance day. One might be tempted to think of this slow and thorough process as an academic’s dream (or nightmare for the rest of us), but it isn't so. Intellectual development is only part of what the Society of Jesus demands of its men regarding formation.
One non-academic method of forming Jesuits is known as the "experiment." It's a way of throwing younger Jesuits into the deep end of the pool of ministry. It is a manufactured crisis, often tailor made to be ill-fitting. The hope is not that men in training shine under whatever conditions they find themselves, but rather that they learn to deal appropriately with insurmountable problems, relying on God alone where and when their own talents come up short.
One such experiment will forever mark me. My superiors discerned in early 2017 that nearly 11 weeks in Iraq would help round out my formation. There is no shortage of work to be done there, but I was very sure I was not the man to do it. I do not speak Arabic, Kurdish, or Syriani. I do not blend in, as I am unmistakably American. I would be assigned, not to an American military base, but to a refugee camp, where the Jesuit Refugee Service does its best to educate internally displaced Iraqis of all religious persuasions just 50 miles from ISIS-controlled territory. This was formation of the highest level.
It was a time of contrasts and contradictions. So many of the Iraqis are beautiful, God-loving souls who continue to hold in their hearts obstacles to reconciliation. So many are dedicated to rebuilding the destroyed world they knew before the wars, yet at the same time want to escape to America, Australia or Europe, if possible. So many love Iraq, but hate it too.
On Palm Sunday, our procession through the refugee neighborhood was clearly a celebration, with clanging symbols and songs and branches, but one accompanied by jeers and obscenities by some. The strangeness was only heightened by the presence of Muslims, a Zoroastrian, and a Druze – all non-Christians – in the procession singing Hoshana right along with us.
Once with a team from the Jesuit Refugee Service, I visited a convent, recently liberated from ISIS, in Ba’shirka, that had remained unexamined since ISIS was driven out. As we waded through the rubble and ashes and stench to make our way to what had been the chapel, I was overcome with the desire to save something, to bring something back to the sisters. I sifted through the debris until I found what had served as a tabernacle and recovered a very small, very humble monstrance inside. It was empty. As I returned the empty monstrance in its lamentable condition to the sisters, I noticed their tears. This gift was indeed precious. Their crisis was real, a purification by God. My crisis was manufactured, but no less purifying.
“These trials have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." (1 Peter 1:7)
The wisdom of Jesuit formation and the practice of "experiments" should give us all inspiration. Our own vocations are to reconcile the world with the love of Christ who dwells in our hearts, even if we don't feel up to the task. "Therefore, prepare your minds for action. Be sober-minded. Set your hope fully on the grace to be given you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 1:13)
Father John Brown, SJ, is superior of the Jesuit Community of the Immaculate Conception in New Orleans. He recently returned from Tertianship, a period of Jesuit formation prior to final vows. He wrote this reflection for publication in the New Orleans Clarion-Herald.