Number of Jesuits decreases
Published: Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Updated: Monday, December 19, 2011 11:12
It is a question that has been addressed by everyone from Loyola's Board of Trustees to the Society of Jesuits to the pope. Why are the Jesuits in decline?
The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities prefaced a survey of mission and ministry at Jesuit universities by saying it was "not uncommon for some to question just how ‘Jesuit' and ‘Catholic' they (the universities) are and will continue to be."
The number of men entering the order in the United States and Western Europe has been rapidly declining for decades. The Society of Jesuits is still the largest religious order in the Catholic Church with 19,000 members. It reached its peak in 1965 with about 36,000 members. Still, Jesuits make up less than two percent of all faculty and staff at the 28 Jesuit universities. At Loyola, there are 22 Jesuits, though only 14 of them are directly involved in the school. According to the Rev. James Carter, S.J., president emeritus at Loyola, there were around 40 Jesuits at Loyola when he attended in the 1940s. There are two former Loyola students currently pursuing membership in the order, and one new Jesuit on campus seeking full ordination.
Why the decline? The 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesuits proposes mass culture is to blame. Decree 6 of the congregation says, "Exaggerated individualism and consumerism have encouraged resistance to the powerful call of community service found in our mission."
Carter agreed mass culture is partly to blame. "Totalitarian states submerged the individual to the needs of the state," Carter said.
According to Carter, the United States responded to the totalitarian cultures it was fighting against by putting "great stress on the individual." This mentality of individualism is alive and strong today.
Decline in interest in joining religious orders is also due to overall societal changes.
"Young people have far more options in today's world than what we grew up with," Carter said. And when times are good there are not as many people interested in joining religious orders as when times are bad. Tellingly, vocations in developing countries, specifically in Africa and South Asia, are actually rising right now, though modestly. This might be because of where they are in their cultural and economic development, Carter said.
The Rev. Ted Dziak, S.J., vice president of Mission and Ministry, said today's young people are less interested in life-long commitments, evidenced in the average age of marriage, number of children people have and radical changes in careers.
"We are a more mobile, secularized society," he said, "and it is more of a challenge to commit to a life-long religious vocation. You have to leave it to the Holy Spirit, to God's hands for where the future lies, and do what you can as a religious," Dziak said. "But I have hope, and there are still many young people very involved in the life of the church."
But that doesn't mean the Jesuits, universities and religious institutions everywhere aren't making plans. In a 1993 speech, Pope John Paul II conceded the decline in vocations in parts of the world made it necessary to share some aspects of the ministry of priests with lay people, calling for a priesthood of the laity. Carter said the big push for collaboration with the laity was not directly triggered by the decline, but the idea of lay ministry was put forth as far back as Vatican II in the 1960s.
Carter called it an "independent realization that no matter how many priests and nuns the church has, the future of the church was not going to be up to the clergy, but up to the people."
This September, four new presidents were inaugurated at Jesuit universities around the country: three Jesuits and one layman, Richard Beyer of Wheeling Jesuit in West Virginia. In his speech, Beyer discussed developing a strategic plan that will enhance the Jesuit mission.
"It isn't just a small number of Jesuits that makes a Jesuit school. There is a foundation here, we've come from a particular heritage and tradition, but in order to succeed, everyone has to be a partner in building the mission of the school," Dziak said.
The ultimate goal of his office is to attract people, and educate faculty and staff interested in the Jesuit mission, allowing them opportunities to experience and ultimately commit themselves to the mission. It will be up to all those who are a part of the greater Loyola community, Jesuit or not, to define the institution in the future.
"We don't know what Jesuit schools will be like in 50 years," said the Rev. Charles Currie S. J., a former AJCU president. "The schools are open to new opportunities, and more engaged with society than ever." Currie says that the happy, productive lives of seminarians and priests can serve as an example of how priesthood and religious life make sense today. Just as encouraging vocations is important, so is the "enthusiastic support for the increasing role of lay women and men in the work of the church," he said.
The Rev. Peter Hans Kolvenbach S.J., the former Jesuit General Superior, said the debate over the role of laity has changed.
"For there to be a partnership of equality, the question changes from: How can lay women and men assist Jesuits in their ministry? The new question emerges: How can Jesuits serve lay women and men in their ministry?" he said.
Andre Breaux, A'08, who is in the second year of training to become a Jesuit, said he is excited about this new challenge put to him as an up-and-coming Jesuit. He works closely with laity who run a Jesuit high school in Grand Coteau, La.
Breaux said he realized after graduation that joining the Jesuits gave him the most peace when trying to determine his future, but he believes that "there are many paths for Loyola graduates to fulfill the mission of leading meaningful lives with and for others, pursuing truth, wisdom, and virtue, and working for a more just world.."
Karin Curley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org