Erik Sorensen, left, and Matt Hendzel are navigating their way through the long process of Jesuit formation. Photo by Michael Swan

Jesuit students set to ‘roll up their sleeves’ in next formation step

  • April 11, 2018

Erik Sorensen got his first job at 12, shovelling snow for an apartment building in his hometown of Red Deer, Alta. In high school he worked in a grocery store stacking cans and filling up the bins of potatoes.

At 27, Sorensen is looking forward to getting back into the workforce —a three-year stretch that is one more step in the 13-year process of Jesuit formation.

As he finishes a Master of Theological Studies degree to go with his undergraduate education in engineering, Sorenson’s next assignment is likely as a high school teacher this fall.

“The really holy people I know can really roll up their sleeves and encounter people where they are,” he said. “They’re people who work.”

Sorensen will be followed into this three-year work term — referred to as regency — a few months later by his friend Matt Hendzel, who entered the Jesuits a little later in life when he was already embarked on a PhD in theology. As the 32-year-old from Winnipeg finishes up his doctoral thesis on purgatory and the problem of evil in a universe created by a good God, Hendzel expects his superiors will place him in a Jesuit job starting in January.

Plain, ordinary hard work is an essential part of living a Jesuit life, Hendzel said. Among the Jesuits Hendzel admires most is a priest who lives in his house who typically starts his day by 6 a.m. and seems to be working from that moment until he retires to pray his breviary about 9 p.m. Despite those hours, it’s never a grim gulag of endless drudgery.

“It never seems like work for him,” Hendzel said. “He’s always working without making a big deal or show about it.”

Regency is the third major block of time in the Jesuit formation process that begins with two years of intensive spiritual direction and community life as a novice. That ends with first vows, and then Jesuits are sent for at least two years of philosophy studies. In a modern context where most young Jesuits come into the society already in possession of at least one degree, the definition of philosophy can be stretched to ensure the young men are equipped in diverse ways to contribute to various Jesuit missions.

saint ignatius loyola claudio coello 17th centuryAfter the long years of study, Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola determined a young Jesuit needs to work, thus the three years of regency. After this taste of labour, Jesuits return to university for four years of theological studies ending in ordination. 

But that’s not the end of the road. When first ordained they are still living under temporary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Final vows typically are made a year or two after ordination, though it may be longer.

Vows are separate from ordination and do not apply to secular priests who make promises of obedience to their bishop, have no limits placed on their personal wealth and are bound to celibacy by Church law.

Sorensen looks forward to a less structured life during regency. As a Jesuit scholastic his life is tightly bound into his academic schedule, living in a community that celebrates Mass together six days a week and takes all its meals together. Jesuits in studies typically need permission to be absent from the community for even one meal.

A working Jesuit community typically includes men with various ministries and obligations. While these communities meet frequently and nurture their commitment to one another, community life has to account for their diverse schedules and needs.

Teaching is an exciting challenge for Sorensen. Beyond mastering the curriculum, Sorensen hopes to engage his students in the formation of their faith.

“I want them to encounter a Church that is caring about what they care about,” he said.

For Hendzel, who has no idea where he might be assigned next year, a work ethic isn’t something new to be explored. Any PhD represents a long and deep commitment only realized through years of hard, often lonely, work.

Hendzel looks forward to a new set of relationships with co-workers and “something that doesn’t always follow a school rhythm.”

The meaning of work is more often found in relationships than a grand mission, Sorensen said.

He remembers the older men he worked with at the grocery store in his high school years.

“Guys who had been at that store for 20 years and they loved it,” he said. “They found meaning in it based on the people they were working with.”

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