When Jesuits take vows after their two years as novices, it is for life. They do not take temporary vows for a period as stepping stones to perpetual vows, as other religious congregations do.
Still, Jesuits in formation do renew their vows. This is not a renewal in the sense of extending them for a longer period, like renewing your driver’s licence. It is more akin to a married couple renewing their marriage vows on the anniversary of their wedding. St Ignatius says it is good for those in formation to renew their vows twice a year as an aid to ‘greater devotion, and to refresh the memory of the obligation they are under and confirm themselves more solidly in their vocation’.
So it was that on 24 July, having completed his annual retreat, Julian Butler SJ renewed his vows at Mass in the Faber Community (pictured below). In this homily for the Mass, Jesuit Province Vocations Director Fr Robin Koning SJ explains the vows that Jesuits make.
Whether straight out of school or later in life, each of us here came, at some point in the sixty-seven years from 1950 to 2017, to move away from the usual path of life of the vast majority of our contemporaries, even those who were quite committed to the faith, and to enter the Jesuit novitiate. So we began our initiation into this way of life that has always been somewhat foolish by human reckoning (1 Cor 1:26-27), even when it was a more common life choice. Then, two years later, we each came to take our vows, to offer ourselves – vowing ‘forever poverty, chastity and obedience in the Society of Jesus’, and promising to lead our whole life in it.
And yet, while noting the undoubted cost of this self-offering, this sacrifice, the vow formula sets our offering of our whole selves for life in its proper context, a context where the focus is not primarily on us and our generosity, but on God whose generosity to us enabled our response. The words of the vows do this in a number of ways.
Firstly, they speak of our being driven to make this offering – ‘driven by a desire to serve you’ – to serve Christ. We had come to see before we joined, or perhaps far more clearly in the living out of religious life in the novitiate and beyond, that there was nothing in the other desires in our lives, good as they might be, that matched this desire to serve Jesus, the desire Ignatius prayed for so earnestly for the year leading up to his vision at La Storta, the desire to be placed with the Son, to serve under his banner.
Secondly, the words of offering at the heart of the vows are enclosed within affirmations of the grace of God which enables our offering: ‘I trust in your goodness and limitless mercy’, we say at the start, while at the end, we recognise that we will need to be graced if we are to be as generous in fulfilling our vows as we are in making them. And so we pray for that grace – the grace of God’s ‘unbounded goodness and mercy’.
Thirdly, if we were at all tempted to boast about the greatness of our desire and of our offering, the vows remind us, in their own way, to do what St Paul says – if we want to boast, let us boast about the Lord (1 Cor 1:31). For there is a little clause in the last sentence which makes clear where this all begins. It is not as though I generously make my offering and then God’s grace comes into play to help me to fulfil it. Rather, from the start, God has been at work. It is God who has ‘given me the grace to desire and to offer it’. The desire itself and my capacity to offer it are already the work of grace.
Finally, this grace is made available to us ‘by the blood of Jesus Christ’ – by way of the crucified Christ whom we preach, a Christ whose weakness, the weakness of God, is stronger than human strength, and whose foolishness, the foolishness of God, is wiser than human wisdom (1 Cor 1:23-25). If we are to live out the vows we have generously made, it is because God unites us with Christ, ‘has made us members of Christ Jesus’ (1 Cor 1:30), in Paul’s words, or branches of the true vine (Jn 15:5), in Jesus’, so that he can do for us what we, for all our generosity, cannot do for ourselves – namely, to live out our vows with some measure of wisdom and righteousness and holiness and freedom, for ‘by God’s doing, [Christ] has become our wisdom, and our righteousness, and our holiness, and our freedom’ (1 Cor 1:30).
Hence, our vows will bear fruit, for us and for the life of the world, if we keep that union with Christ at the very centre of our lives. If we remain in him, as he remains in us, if we make our home in him, as he makes his home in us, we will bear much fruit, fruit in plenty, to the glory of the Father (Jn 15:4-5,8) to whom, in his unbounded goodness and limitless mercy, we give all glory and praise, now and forever. Amen.
Almighty and eternal God,
I, …………, am quite unworthy of your divine presence;
but I trust in your goodness and limitless mercy,
and am driven by a desire to serve you.
So, before the most holy Virgin Mary
and the whole court of heaven,
I vow forever Poverty, Chastity and Obedience
in the Society of Jesus;
and I promise I will enter that same Society
to lead my whole life in it,
understanding everything according to the Society’s Constitutions.
I humbly pray, then,
by your unbounded goodness and mercy,
and by the blood of Jesus Christ,
that in your kindness you will accept this offering
as a fragrant sacrifice;
and that as you have given me the grace to desire and offer it,
you will be generous in gracing me to fulfil it.
Fathers Alan Wong and Kieran Gill also renewed their vows in a parish Mass at Norwood on Sunday 2 August, the day the parish was celebrating its patron saint. Alan is working in the parish, while Kieran is working at Saint Ignatius’ College, Adelaide.