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78 Jesuits go out to the desert to pray


When 78 men come together voluntarily to pray for eight days in silence, it is a phenomenal event. That's the number of Jesuits that gathered together this year for their annual retreat, and no one considered it unusual. Jesuits of the eastern provinces have been gathering for some years at the former Jesuit novitiate at Wernersville, a town near Reading, Pa. It is an event with lingering spiritual effects. I found it awesome and inspiring to be with these Jesuits. They are men of distinguished accomplishments. They have the same feelings of frustration and failure that every middle-aged Catholic has at the apparent decline in the institutional church.

Wernersville, once filled with 250 Jesuit novices and seminarians, is now almost empty, like scores of similar institutions across the country.

The novitiate prompted thousands of memories of the day when religious life was rigid in its rules and when Catholicism was portrayed as a religion under siege. What changed? Was there a reaction against the excessive formalism? Or did the country become so pervasively secular that religious institutions and especially vocations to the priesthood came to be perceived as almost irrelevant.

Few clear answers were available to the Jesuits who prayed for the eight days. They were led by the skilled direction of Jesuit Fr. George Aschenbrenner, former novice master and noted expert on the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. But if there were questions and misgivings about the future of the Society of Jesus and even the church in America, those concerns were temporarily set aside. The first obligation of everyone is to pursue self-sanctification, and the Jesuits showed by their unbroken silence and impressive devotion that they recognize that. If holiness is one's desire, God will bring about whatever results he wants from the prayers and aspirations of those who believe in him.

In retreat, one almost inevitably sees one's failings: excessive attachment to learning, addiction to worldly things and an obsession with trivia. Even a few days without the often inconsequential pursuits of daily life makes vivid the centrality of holiness, the abiding presence of God and the beauty of the invisible church, the mystical body of Christ. By the second day of the retreat, everything else seems unimportant and even banal. Why, why, the retreatant asks himself, can't this attitude be retained? From previous experiences, the person who has solemnly set aside eight days to pray in silence knows that he will relapse into what the spiritual writers used to call "effusio ad exteriora" -- a scattering of one's energies on external things.

Silence amid the hills of central Pennsylvania produces insights and revelations. Indeed, one feels that the truths revisited have never really been seen before. The mysteries of the cross and resurrection hit one as if they were new revelations. How could I have been this blind and deaf? Where have I been? I have allowed the world to drown out the voice of my creator, redeemer and sanctifier.

But the periods of realizing acutely the presence of God recede to the disheartening realization of the frightening problems God's church faces in America. Is the decline, even the disintegration, of the organized church due to the neglect and lack of holiness of those in charge? If there were a collective admission of guilt and sincere conversion by church professionals, would the devotion of the once faithful be revived? Would the millions of fallen-away Catholics return? Hard and imponderable questions. But they are inescapable for those who pause to consider their own responsibility for a church that is stumbling and groping in a world that deems belief in the supernatural to be irrelevant or even foolish.

The retreat in Pennsylvania placed special emphasis on the decrees of the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in 1994. That year, some 300 Jesuits out of the 24,000 Jesuits in the world prayed and deliberated in Rome for over three months. Their recommendations focused on the continued need to link the promotion of faith with the advancement of justice. The congregation also issued an extraordinarily compelling statement on women -- specifically, how the church and the Society of Jesus have denied the basic right to equality to women in the church and in the world. All of these mandates were the subject of extended prayer by the Jesuits at Wernersville.

The cosmic thrust of the directives of the 34th General Congregation focused my mind on the unbelievable reality that God has a special, unique love for every single one of his 5.7 billion sons and daughters in the human family. God extends loving care to each of them as if they alone existed in the entire world. And each of them has the aspirations, the yearnings for God and the thirst for justice that come to all human beings from God himself. He is an awesome and majestic God beyond all imagining.

There are literally thousands of graces that come during this annual retreat. One that became prominent in my mind was the solidarity and companionship that Jesuits share. St. Ignatius planned it that way when he named the order the companions of Jesus. The constitutions provide in dozens of ways for a society that, despite its presence in 120 nations, has pervasive fraternal spirit. That is why the departure of any Jesuit from the Society is so painful, so wrenching, so crushing.

On the morning after the retreat, it was edifying to talk to the Jesuits about their reflections. One priest, having spent 32 years in India, said that the Maryland province had made a magnificent contribution to that region. The church in his area of India now has 150 priests, 150 seminarians and some 250 nuns. The Maryland province was quite literally the creator of the church in that part of the world. Three African seminarians from Nigeria, whose hymns during the liturgy were moving beyond description, expressed gratitude for the heroic efforts of New York Jesuits in their country. A seminarian from Chile related all that the U.S. Jesuits had done for his country, especially during the dark days of the dictatorship.

Every retreat leaves memories and graces that are indelible in the soul. I remember vividly one morning at 5:50 a.m. The sunrise was spectacular. The grounds were resplendent. The whistle of a freight train echoed up the valley. My life as a Jesuit passed before me as I recalled my own novitiate 50 years ago in scenes like this.

How did I ever have the grace and the good sense to join the Jesuits who have been so supportive and so brotherly to me for all of these years? How am I worthy to share the brotherhood of these companions of Jesus?

The Jesuit retreat of 1996 will always be special days in my life. God usually hides himself but on those days he revealed himself to me. Though I cannot find words to express the content of his revelation, I know that my faith is stronger, my hope is more grounded and my love of God and humankind much deeper.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 1996