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By Jerry Duggan

For a man discerning his vocation, in-person interactions with vocation ministers, men in formation and other discerners are fundamental to the process. When COVID-19 rendered these meetings impossible, the vocation promotion team got creative in their outreach. They devised several new strategies to connect with discerners.

For starters, Fr. Eddie Gros, SJ, UCS vocation coordinator, reached out to discerners, emphasizing that the province cares about them beyond the context of vocation discernment.

“Guys were happy to hear we cared about their families in addition to themselves,” Fr. Gros said.

Next, he formed a working group of eight Jesuits in formation to brainstorm ways to communicate with discerners during the pandemic. Scattered across the nation, the men met virtually to discuss ideas.

One suggestion was moving a traditional vocation promotion event – a Come and See – online. Typically at these events, discerners learn about the Society of Jesus, converse with men in formation and active ministry, and spend time in prayer.

The group replicated many traditional aspects of the event. While one-on-one conversations with Jesuits proved beneficial for discerners, Fr. Gros was surprised how effective group sessions were, too.

“A discerner told me he enjoyed watching men’s faces light up when brother Jesuits told their vocation story,” he said.

William Manaker, SJ, took the lead on planning the weekend. He felt called to this role as part of his Jesuit vocation.

“I love being a Jesuit, and God doesn’t stop calling men to the Society during a pandemic,” Manaker said. “Men are still discerning, and as Jesuits we are called to accompany them in that process.”

Discerners also watched livestreams of the first vows and ordinations Masses, providing two opportunities to see important milestones in Jesuit formation.

The vocation promotion team also invited Jesuits in formation to create one-minute videos on what they love about their Jesuit vocation.

These clips were shared with discerners. Father Gros was pleased by their impact. “These videos leave you hungry for more, and with a real taste of Jesuit life,” he said.

Life at the Novitiate

The two years of novitiate are typically a pretty structured period following a time-honored methodology prescribed by St. Ignatius himself. A little of that structure has to be adapted to the current situation.

“The novitiate is steeped in tradition,” Fr. Drew Kirschman, SJ, director of novices, said. “It would be easy to say we’ve always done things a certain way. The pandemic has made us get creative, and I think that’s exciting and refreshing.”

The novices made sure St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Grand Coteau, La., received a thorough cleaning.

An important component of a Jesuit’s two years as a novice is apostolic work, often at schools, nursing homes and hospitals – places novices cannot currently serve due to the pandemic precautions for vulnerable persons in those settings. So, Fr. Kirschman is instilling a sort of “being available to serve where you are” mentality.

Set in the small bayou community of Grand Coteau, La., the novitiate is taking on manual labor projects during COVID by helping at Jesuit parishes St. Charles Borromeo in Grand Coteau and Immaculate Conception in Baton Rouge, as well as at the Thensted Center, a local community outreach center. Cultivating in the novices the desire to be available to serve in whatever ways are needed is key.

“As Jesuits, our instincts are to move toward people and situations of need,” Fr. Kirschman said. “We’ve had to reevaluate how to do that while keeping the safety of vulnerable people around us in mind.”

The consensus for both discerners and novices is that these adaptations are not inferior to the old ways; they are just different. However long the pandemic lasts, the province is committed to connecting with discerners and providing novices with meaningful encounters of service.