Are Jesuits Too Worldly?

It’s something of a dilemma. On the one hand, Jesuits take a vow of poverty. On the other, as Nathan O’Halloran, SJ, wrote, “Jesuits in the United States usually dress like middle-class white men. We wear North Face and Patagonia and Keens and Chacos. We wear suits and ties and sometimes drive quite nice cars. We have flat screen TV’s and drink middle shelf scotch to relax.” But . . . Jesuits work in “the world.” Ignatius wanted Jesuits to live like the people they worked with.

O’Halloran’s blog post on the subject touched off a lively discussion about lifestyle. Some excerpts:

It seems to me that what is important is that religious do not acquire “stuff” or accolades for their own sake. If they come as a result of their work, accept it, say “thank you” and move on.

It’s also a challenge to us who live and work in poor countries. The house where I live is nice; my car usually works (and I have enough money to fix it); I can eat out; I have internet access; and so on. I feel all too comfortable.

The perception of authenticity is important, and unless you get to know Jesuits and spend time learning how they can live comfortably while keeping a vow of poverty, it is easy to scoff. I don’t think that Jesuit poverty has been evangelically effective for anyone I know.

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Jim Manney
Jim Manney is the author of highly praised popular books on Ignatian spirituality, including A Simple, Life-Changing Prayer (about the Daily Examen) and God Finds Us (about the Spiritual Exercises). He is the compiler/editor of An Ignatian Book of Days. His latest book is What Matters Most and Why. He and his wife live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

17 COMMENTS

  1. As somebody who is discerning a vocation to the Jesuits, I would prefer if they returned to the cassocks. If they are to continue to be abandoned, clerics should at least be worn more often. Clerics provide the opportunity for evangelization to be sure but also a source of comfort. If I see a man wearing clerics in an unfamiliar place, it is a reminder of my ability to rely on my Catholic faith no matter where I am.

  2. They are approachable. In today’s world to be held at more than arm’s length away from those who have a priestly vocation is just plain silly. We need to be eye to eye. They are men that became priests. I think they remember they are just like the rest of us. I like that!
    The Jesuits I know are not so fashion-forward, but they are in “civies” very often.
    m.

  3. I love the Jesuits because they are more liberal generally, but yes, most I’ve met can be worldly and very academic. They also seem to lack humility. haha 🙂

  4. There are many different kinds of poverty. When I think of giving up my individual freedom and living in community where someone else makes many decisions for me, that to me is a great sacrifice. Blending in with the culture of the people with whom we live, while remaining firm in their faith is a great witness to others. We cannot judge others on outward appearance – some Jesuits will admit that they purchase at stores where the clothes have been gently used – so don’t judge by the labels on the clothing. We must look at the work that is accomplished for the Lord by so many who sacrifice so much. I am extremely grateful for the Jesuits who have made a difference in my life and continue to lead me to a closer relationship with our Lord.

  5. There is an uncertainty in living with poverty (of all sorts, I suspect, not just material poverty) that is, I would think, nearly impossible to parallel in a religious community. When I stay with the homeless in a local shelter, one thing that never fails to make me stop and think is how safety nets are so intangible and yet worth so much.

  6. Interesting topic. I have to admit that sometimes when I receive a Jesuit magazine I’m startled to see a picture of the author in a shirt and tie, with S.J. after his name. What IS that about, really?
    I’m also curious about the Jesuit thrust for intellectual freedom at some of the universities, for example, the recent invite at Boston College of the abortion approving Irish P.M. Why does a Jesuit-Catholic university do something like that. The general public only reads approval into something like that.

    • I think it’s because we are not allowed to judge people, only their behaviours (love/be there for the sinner, hate the sin). The universities like the PM as a person and perhaps some of the things that individual does and supports those. The public reads approval into anything the world wants at the moment whereas the Bible never changes. The public, society, will continue to approve anything it can grind itself into the ground with.

      • Linda, you are right. Always love the sinner, hate the sin. But in a secular world we also need to be aware of how our actions can be viewed by others, i.e., the example we may give. I’m thinking of Catholic politicians who say they are personally opposed to abortion, but vote to allow it. I don’t think there is room to compromise on some issues. That extends out to Catholic universities as well

        • You’re right too. If you followed the recent provincial election campaigns up here in Canada you would see that there really is no choice as you either voted for public permissiveness or or you chose social acquiescence. There are thorns in every bush. I decided to not let issues such as abortion stand in my way because it is up to each individual to make a choice for God or against him. People will continue to do as they wish regardless of man’s law — or God’s. Sad but true. I figured out that the individual’s behaviours (abortion, sexual orientation, etc) are between them and God and that we can only continue to stand the holy ground. There are more of us than there are of them after all.

      • I suggest that the issue of dress is an opening to a larger issue, the question of how Jesuits and those of us who have been influenced by them can opt for the poor. In a world and in our own individual societies so badly divided between rich and poor, where it seems only the rich are getting richer, how we find ways to opt for the poor and empower our more poor sisters, brothers and their children must be an ongoing, loving discussion.

    • I think the shirt and tie is about the Jesuit preference for living like the people they work with–something Ignatius wanted his men to do. Living like them means looking like them.

      • Jim, I went to Jesuit college and graduate school and I’m not sure I heard this expressed by the Jesuits I knew, but no matter.
        I’m a deacon in a largely non-Catholic southern state. When I go to make visits at the hospital we are required to wear clerics. In a sense it is a form of evangelization. We get lots of eye contact, and we always smile and say something. Maybe, just maybe, the non-Catholic visitors, staff, patients etc. with whom we have this interchange may come away with a positive image of the institution we represent. We may be the only Catholic they’ve ever met. If I wore a suit and tie that would be a lost opportunity.

        • Bob,
          There’s a wide range of opinion about clerical/religious garb. I’d just point out that the Jesuit practice (and that of many other religious orders) is longstanding, rooted in tradition, and expresses a particular conception of ministry.

      • Well yeah, if Jesus walked the earth as man today he would wear the shirt and tie too — or perhaps a nice shirt and a pair of cargo pants and runners. There is a nun at church whom I didn’t realize was until it was told to me — she dresses like the rest of us (except she is a good speaker. People really should open their mouths and form their words and enunciate every letter like she does).

        • I generally find clerical clothing outside of worship to be off-putting. I’m so glad that the Jesuits who’ve been my spiritual directors and mentors have generally dressed in whatever other men around them are wearing, whether it be khakis and informal shirts or jackets and ties. Clericals are fine when the occasion demands them, but there aren’t many such occasions.

          • Hey Robin! Haven’t heard from you for a while — left a post on your own blog. As for the garb, yes even the nurses etc. up north here no longer wear uniforms. We like to make residents feel at home instead of that nursing home feel. Clerics are wise to do same, that way they move with the masses like our fabulous pope does. Gotta love that guy.

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