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Sam Sawyer, S.J.May 18, 2023
the ihs logo of the jesuits carved and with a wooden backgroundPhoto via iStock.

At about the same time that this column will be published on America’s website, I will be getting on a plane, heading into more than 20 hours of travel to South Africa, where I will spend the next three months. One of my colleagues will write the next edition of this column for the July/August combined issue—and by the time that column reaches mailboxes, I will have begun 30 days of silent retreat, making the full Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for the second time as a Jesuit.

Spending three months away, one of them completely cut off from communications, is not a usual move for someone recently installed as editor in chief of a magazine and media ministry. And what’s more, I will be doing this again in summer 2024, though without the 30-day retreat.

As some readers who are familiar with Jesuit formation will have already guessed, I am beginning the final stage of Jesuit formation, known as “tertianship.” That odd name derives from St. Ignatius’ definition of this period as the “third probation.” (First probation happens at the very beginning of novitiate; second probation includes the two years as a novice before first vows, the roughly eight years of formation after vows and then continues past ordination and up to tertianship.)

Tertianship is the last step in formation before final vows and “full incorporation” into the Society of Jesus. When I was in philosophy studies and had been a Jesuit for just over three years, I accompanied some medical students on a service immersion trip to Guatemala. They were just finishing their first year of medical school, and they were joking about how much more medical education they had in front of them: three more years of school, plus residency, plus fellowships. I laughed with them and then countered, “I’m doing the one thing that takes longer.”

St. Ignatius calls this final period of probation “the school of the heart,” to be undertaken after the long journey of intellectual formation, in order to seek “greater knowledge and love of God our Lord.”

There are some helpful parallels, perhaps, between medical education or other professional training and Jesuit formation. For one thing, the training continues even after you take on the role you have trained for. A doctor in residency or fellowship is already a medical doctor; a Jesuit awaiting tertianship is already a Jesuit (for 19 years in my case) and, for those of us who are ordained, a priest as well (I was ordained in 2014). So trying to explain what changes after tertianship can be a bit difficult.

I once heard another Jesuit attempt to explain final vows by analogy to another profession. It’s like making partner in a law firm, he said. The analogy limps badly, not least because there is no parallel in Jesuit life to profit-sharing. The best explanation I can give now—I may have a better one once I have done tertianship myself—is that final vows commit a Jesuit to even deeper availability, for any mission in any place where the Society’s ministry takes him.

St. Ignatius calls this final period of probation “the school of the heart,” to be undertaken after the long journey of intellectual formation, in order to seek “greater knowledge and love of God our Lord; so that when they themselves have made progress they can better help others to progress for the glory of God our Lord.”

And schooling the heart is demanding enough to require long stretches of time: from six to nine months straight through, or, in the form in which I am doing it, in two sessions of three months each over two years. During that time, I will pray more deeply, study the charism and the Constitutions of the Society and immerse myself again in the Spiritual Exercises. I am grateful both to the Society for calling me to such thorough formation and to my colleagues at America for making it possible for me to do it while serving as editor.

As I have learned over and over again during formation and ministry as a Jesuit priest, God reveals himself through accompaniment, companionship and communion. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). Our experience of God is mediated by what we share together.

For the past eight years at America, and in an even more profound way for these past six months as editor in chief, I have been privileged to walk the road of faith together with you, our readers, as well as my colleagues on the staff. So as I briefly step away from the editor’s desk, please be assured that I will continue to accompany you in prayer; and please pray for me, especially during the month of July, when I will be making the Spiritual Exercises.

More: Jesuits / Prayer

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