Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Studying the Jesuit Constitutions
Well, it’s February. Hard to believe that I’ve reached the final month of the Jesuit Tertianship program here in the Philippines!
We tertians spent the month of January in an intensive study of our Jesuit Constitutions. Like the 30-day Retreat, studying our Constitutions is a non-negotiable element of all Jesuit Tertianship programs. We Jesuits first study our Constitutions when we are in the novitiate – that is, within his first two years of our formation in the Society of Jesus. We return to a formal study of the Constitutions only one other time, and that is in our tertianship, many years later. Needless to say, my own study of the Constitutions in my tertianship has been a much more meaningful experience than it was when I was a 22-year old novice. A heap of lived experience as a Jesuit has given me a much greater understanding and appreciation of what St. Ignatius Loyola succeeded in doing when he wrote the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus.
Ignatius undertook the formidable and thankless task of writing the Constitutions soon after the Society of Jesus was officially established in 1540. It took him the better part of his remaining sixteen years to complete the project. It was not an easy task for Ignatius to document the many details of how his order was to be run, and even though he did have assistance, Ignatius’ hand is clearly in every one of the document’s ten sections. The Constitutions begin with the Formula of the Institute, an official document which makes explicit the purpose and function of the Society of Jesus. This is followed by the General Examen, a lengthy document written for men seeking admission to the order, outlining in a detailed way what aspirants can expect in their formation and apostolic lives as Jesuits. All of this is followed by the 10-part Constitutions proper, covering topics which include: admission into (and dismissal from) the order; the various stages of formation; the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; maintaining unity within the order; governance; and mission of the order. In addition to reading the Constitutions, we were also asked to read the Complementary Norms, a lengthy document promulgated by the Society of Jesus’ 34th General Congregation in the mid 1990s. Currently published in tandem with the Constitutions, the 10-part Complementary Norms are meant to be a contemporary “renewal” of our life and our apostolic work. Finally, our tertian instructor had us read and study a number of detailed, scholarly commentaries on both the Constitutions and Complementary Norms. Needless to say, our month-long study had us tertians feeling like we were back in graduate school!
Under the tutelage of our tertian instructor, we met every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday through the month of January (Tuesdays and Thursdays were meant to be “reading days”) to share our reflections, observations, insights, and questions about our “rule,” which we read and studied section by section. We prepared and analyzed a number of case studies, based on real-life situations in the Society of Jesus. These were a great help to us in appreciating the continued importance and relevance of the Constitutions and Complementary Norms of our order. Also invaluable in our discussions were the candid reflections and insights of both our tertian instructor, Fr. Roger Champoux, SJ, and our assistant tertian instructor, Fr. Bill McGarry, SJ. Their combined wisdom, gained from a wealth of practical experience in the Society of Jesus brought life ,to what might otherwise be seen as just so many words and ideas.
I have come away from my study of the Constitutions with a far deeper appreciation of our sainted founder’s pain-staking work in formulating the Society of Jesus’ “way of proceeding.” Amidst the hundreds of pages of norms and regulations, what stands out clearly to me is the centrality of mission in the Society of Jesus; that everything in Jesuit life is directed towards and is supportive of the world-wide mission of the Society of Jesus: the “helping of souls” through education, evangelization, pastoral and sacramental ministries, or any number of other ways. Our formation, our living the religious vows, our governance, our prayer, and our sense of unity are all clearly directed to the accomplishment of our collective mission.
While it was a challenging month of study, it was also a gratifying experience. Not many other religious orders grant their members time out of their busy ministerial lives to seriously consider the spirit and content of their founder’s rule. I am deeply grateful that the Society of Jesus gives us in our tertianship the opportunity to re-anchor ourselves in our founder’s vision. After the Spiritual Exercises, the Constitutions are perhaps St. Ignatius Loyola’s greatest legacy to the order he founded, a document which in its lived reality has fortified and sustained the Society of Jesus in its faithful service of the Church for over 450 years. Ad majorem Dei gloriam!