A Beginning and An End: Nineteen Years of Jesuit Formation

Nineteen years. Forty percent of my life here on Planet Earth. That’s how long I’ve been a Jesuit. Nineteen years.

It’s not uncommon at significant moments in one’s life to reflect a bit more acutely on where one has been, where one is, and where one is going. So it has been these past weeks leading up to my profession of Final Vows in the Society of Jesus, taking place this Saturday in Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart. To quote the Talking Heads, “Well, how did I get here?”

Rev. Greg Schenden, S.J., taking his final vows on February 6th, 2016.

Rev. Greg Schenden, S.J., taking his final vows on February 6th, 2016.

Since family and friends were present when I professed my first vows back in 1999, I’ve been getting countless questions from them as of late regarding my final vows. It was at my first vows after my first two years in the Society of Jesus, that I vowed perpetual chastity, poverty, and obedience in the Society of Jesus … to enter this same Society, and to spend my life in it forever. So, here we are seventeen years later; what more is there to vow?

Here’s one way to better understand it. Seventeen years ago I said “yes” to the Society of Jesus—to walk as a companion of Christ for the rest of my life uniquely as a Jesuit. Now, after the various stages of Jesuit formation, the Society of Jesus is saying “yes” in return. Some have likened it to making tenure as a professor, or making partner at a law firm. Given my penchant for Star Wars, I tend to liken it to being invited before the Jedi Council to become a full Jedi Knight (given St. Ignatius of Loyola’s background as a knight, I’m sure he would approve of the analogy). I just wish Jesuits received lightsabers at final vows.

In the interim years between first and final vows, throughout my formation as a Jesuit, I have gotten to know and love the Society of Jesus more fully and authentically, and I trust the Society of Jesus has gotten to know and love me more fully and authentically. It is to this spirit of trust in the Society’s “yes” that I profess my final vows.

All of this fills me with an incredible wonder and awe. The Society of Jesus knows fully both my gifts as well as my weaknesses. It supported and encouraged me as I wrestled mightily during my philosophy studies at Loyola University Chicago. This same Society bolstered me as I flourished as a high school English and TV Communications teacher at Gonzaga College High School here in Washington, D.C. The Society of Jesus recognized my pastoral gifts and love of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius when missioning me as a newly ordained priest to Holy Trinity parish just down the block and now here as Catholic Chaplain at Georgetown. Just as I said “yes” those years ago at first vows, I am extraordinarily grateful for the countless ways the Society of Jesus has said “yes” to me implicitly throughout my Jesuit formation. Supporting me in my weakness, challenging me to live more fully out of who I uniquely am as a Jesuit, forming me as I lived more and more fully out of my gifts, all for the greater glory of God.

From the vantage these days before professing final vows, I recognize that a facet of this grace of gratitude is how humbled I have felt and continue to feel each and every day as a Jesuit. I am humbled by my brother Jesuits—past, present, and future —with whom I walk in this life. From the greats,Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Pedro Arrupe, to the somewhat lesser-known,“the quiet companion” Peter Faber, the brilliant poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the worker priest and mystic of the everyday Egide van Broeckhoven. From my Jesuit brothers at Wolfington Hall with whom I break bread both at Mass and in the dining room to over 350 of my brother Jesuits buried in our Jesuit cemetery at Georgetown. I am humbled and proud to call each and every one of them my brother. From university presidents to those with deep commitment to the poor and marginalized, those whose names are both remembered fondly and lost to history. I am humbled to be counted amongst them—each understanding themselves and understood by the Society of Jesus as a loved sinner —yet each one called to be a companion of Christ as Ignatius of Loyola was himself.

I am equally grateful for and humbled by all of the lay women and men with whom I have walked these years as Jesuit. Each one of them has been integral in my formation – students, parishioners, classmates, co-workers. As the poet Hopkins wrote, “for Christ plays in ten thousand places/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

Wonder and awe, grateful and humbled. That’s where I find myself these days. So, as many have asked, what next? How does professing final vows change things? Even though my Jesuit formation has formally concluded, that does not mean the journey of being formed concludes.

Each of us, each day and every day, if we allow ourselves to be open, mindful, and authentic to who we are, continues to be formed. Formed more fully as to who each uniquely is, so as to be of greater service to God and to one’s neighbor.

The great singer-songwriter Joe Strummer once stated that the future is unwritten. Maybe in my hand it’s unwritten, but in God’s hand it is all written. It’s been written for me; it’s a matter of continuing to say “yes” and the ongoing formation that such a “yes” entails. That hand has written a pretty remarkable tale thus far, and I trust it will continue to write it. I am grateful, humbled and filled with wonder and awe with the journey that now has joyously elicited a “yes” from the Society of Jesus. As for now and each day forward, give me God’s love and God’s grace… that’s enough for me.

This article was originally written for the Georgetown Voice, published on February 6th, 2016, the day of his final vows, and is available online here.

Written by Rev. Gregory Schenden, S.J., Catholic Chaplain for Georgetown University.