Skip to main content
Euro-Mediterranean Province of the Society of Jesus
Suggested readings
Jesuits Suggested readings General Congregation Decrees The Jesuit Priest: Ministerial Priesthood and Jesuit Identity

The Jesuit Priest: Ministerial Priesthood and Jesuit Identity

General Congregation 34 - Decree 6


[158] 1. Dynamic movements in Church and society suggest that we undertake a specific consideration of the priestly dimension of Jesuit life more complete than the last three Congregations were able to offer. We present not an elaborated theology of priesthood, but only a way of considering the priestly dimension of Jesuit identity and mission in the light of our founding inspiration. We have in mind several concrete issues that affect the life of the Society in many parts of the world. Since Vatican II, the Church has undergone many changes which have also been felt within the Society. From different parts of the Society, Jesuits have requested a greater clarity and confidence about the nature of the priestly vocation as this is lived out in a Jesuit context. Younger Jesuits in particular, as they move towards priestly ordination, desire a deeper understanding of this aspect of our vocation.

[159] 2. In many countries, Vatican II has generated a powerful impulse among lay men and women to share more profoundly in the Church’s ministries. But it remains important that Jesuits continue to have confidence in the value of the apostolic service that they offer precisely as priests.

[160] 3. Since the Council, priests in Religious Orders have been called to a deeper relationship with diocesan bishops. While recognizing our clear duty to cooperate with bishops in and through the Church for the coming of God’s Kingdom, there is a need to express the particular quality of apostolic religiouspriesthood as part of our Jesuit contribution to the Church’s reflection and mission.

[161] 4. We are aware of the different experiences of priesthood in our various cultural contexts. Because the Society has never been more culturally diverse than it is today, and because a full engagement with human culture has been part of the Society’s charism, we wish to recognize these differences, while being at the same time confident of the fundamental common features of Jesuit ministerial priesthood.

[162] 5. Finally, we are conscious that Jesuit priests share a common apostolic calling with Jesuit brothers. Within this foundational union, the qualities of both vocations are an enrichment of the Society’s total identity and mission, and we have tried to describe the features of Jesuit ministerial priesthood with full respect for the quality of the brothers’ charism.

Our Common Mission

[163] 6. The Epistle to the Hebrews says that Christ is “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God” who makes “a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17). Through their baptism, Christians participate in Christ’s priestly work of reconciling the world to God and are called to mediate this reconciliation in their lives. As Jesuit religious, we give a particular expression to this dignity through our consecration and our apostolic mission in the Society: ours is a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18) in the service of Christ. We are deeply conscious that the Society of Jesus is made up of priests and brothers: we are a community of “friends in the Lord,” sent in mission by Christ, and together we form “a complex apostolic body, wherein each companion shares in and contributes to a single apostolic vocation, respecting the personal call of the Spirit.” Each Jesuit enriches the Society’s mission and contributes to what St Paul calls “the priestly service of the Gospel of God” (Rom 15:16).

Priesthood at the Service of the Church

[164] 7. By their ordination, Jesuit priests also share in the ministerial priesthood by which Christ, through the gifts of the Spirit, unceasingly builds up his Church, guides his people through the pastoral office and leads them into the Kingdom of his Father. The Companions of Jesus who offer themselves to the Church for priestly ministry do so because they discern this as the will of the Lord, which the Church confirms by ordaining and commissioning them for ministerial service in its name. In this way, the Society relates its apostolic charism to the dynamic of the Church’s ordained ministry; the Church, in turn, accepts this apostolic service offered by the Society and recognizes what Jesuits bring as an enrichment of the priestly office exercised in the Church.

[165] 8. At the time of its founding, and throughout its history, the exercise of ministerial priesthood has been regarded as central to the Society’s identity and apostolic mission. For this reason, when he addressed General Congregation 32 Pope Paul VI declared ministerial priesthood to be an “essential character” of the Society: it is directed towards and necessary for the Society’s apostolic mission to carry out whatever tasks the Church may ask of it. Jesuit priests receive ordination so that, by this commission, the Society can fully exercise the specifically Jesuit apostolic mission of “serving the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth.”

[166] 9. Jesuit priesthood, therefore, is a gift from God for universal mission. By putting themselves directly at the service of the Pope, the first Jesuits expressed their readiness to be sent wherever there was hope of the greater glory of God and the help of souls. Ignatius and his first companions, therefore, placed their priestly ministry, not at the service of a bishop’s pastoral care for a particular diocese, but at the service of the Sovereign Pontiff for the service of the universal Church. Since the Society conducts its ministries with a constant readiness for new service, the scope of Jesuit priestly service is universal; its aim is apostolic and it is exercised under the Pope’s universal solicitude for the needs of the Church and the world.

Characteristic Activities

[167] 10. Inspired by Christ, “the first Evangelizer,” and by the example of Ignatius and his first companions, Jesuit priestly service is exercised through a wide range of ministries. The Apostolic Letters of Paul III (1540) and Julius III (1550) approve a whole series of activities proper to Jesuit priests: ministries of the Word and ministries of interiority; ministries of reconciliation and teaching; ministries of sacramental service; teaching catechism to children and the unlettered; ministries of social concern. These characteristic activities of the first companions are the archetypes of Jesuit priestly service as exercised on behalf of the Church’s mission, and they continue to inspire the Society today to undertake a programme of “integral evangelization” concerned with the good of the whole human person. The Church asks the Society to engage in whatever “will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good;” this is our “pathway to God.”

[168] 11. Since the foundation of the Society, Jesuits have exercised their ministry most particularly where the needs are greatest, where there are not others to minister to these needs, and where the more universal good may be found. Jerome Nadal expressed this central aspect of our charism:

“The Society cares for those persons who are either totally neglected or inadequately attended to. This is the basic reason for the founding of the Society, this is its power, this is what makes it distinctive in the Church.”

[169] 12. This spirit continues to shape what Jesuits do as priests: their ministry is particularly directed towards those who have not heard the Gospel; those who are at the margins of the Church or of society; those who have been denied their dignity; those who are voiceless and powerless; those weak in faith or alienated from it; those whose values are undermined by contemporary culture; those whose needs are greater than they can bear. For the Jesuit priest, the world is where he is to be most active, in the name of Christ the healer and reconciler. Pope Paul VI pointed to our presence at the boundaries between human culture and the Gospel:

“Wherever in the Church, even in the most difficult and extreme fields, in the crossroads of ideologies, in the front line of social conflict, there has been and there is confrontation between the deepest desires of the human person and the perennial message of the Gospel, there also there have been, and there are, Jesuits.”

Present tasks

[170] 13. Within the varied contexts in which the Society’s contemporary mission is conducted, common tasks are to be found: how to find words that speak to the men and women of our time who are no longer moved by the Christian message; how to be faithful to the tradition of the Church and at the same time interpret it in secularized cultures; how to minister effectively to both the poor and the rich; how to integrate our spiritual ministries with our social ministries; how best to serve in a Church in which there are tensions; how to make evangelical poverty part of our contemporary witness; how to mediate between different cultures and groups within the same country; how to enable the Church to be truly Catholic in the comprehensiveness and cultural variety of its practise and faith; finally, how to enable the world to become, in all aspects of its life, the Kingdom that Christ proclaimed.

[171] 14. A specific challenge today is to embody Christ’s ministry of healing and reconciliation in a world increasingly divided by economic and social status, race and ethnicity, violence and war, cultural and religious pluralism. These divisions must be a focus of Jesuit priestly ministry because Christ’s work of reconciliation breaks down the walls of division among peoples “in order to create in himself one new humanity” (cf. Eph 2:14f). We live in a broken world where men and women are in need of integral healing, the power for which comes ultimately from God. Therefore, Jesuit priestly mission is directed, inseparably, towards justice for the poor and the reconciliation of the world to God through the preaching of the Gospel.

[172] 15. In the light of our tradition, we can say that no ministry which prepares the way for the Kingdom or which helps to arouse faith in the Gospel is outside the scope of Jesuit priests. In recent years, we have come to recognize that “it is for the priest, as sign and minister of the Lord’s active presence, to be present in or to collaborate with all human efforts which help in establishing the Kingdom.” We have also described the Jesuit mission as engaging “under the standard of the Cross, in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and that struggle for justice which it includes.” The ways in which this is implemented must always be appropriate to the milieux in which Jesuit ministry is conducted: this will take different forms in different contexts, according to circumstances. Many have asked if this is appropriate for Jesuit priests: do not some activities lie outside the range legitimate for priests? We answer that the Society’s commitment to this mission is prompted, neither by a facile optimism about the progress of world history, nor by a specific social programme, but by a humble desire to share in the work of Christ who reconciled the world to God through his priestly death. Our Jesuit martyrs, who have died for their faith and their people in many parts of the world, show that Jesuits live under the banner of the Cross. And the Cross is the sign that, as followers of Christ, we will be spared nothing: our Jesuit mission is conducted with faith in the Resurrection since only God resolves the enigmas of suffering and death in this present age.

Drawing on our Tradition

[173] 16. The way in which Jesuits exercise their ministerial priesthood takes its character from our apostolic mission to labour with Christ in proclaiming the Kingdom. Our first companions envisaged a universal, itinerant ministry of evangelization, teaching, works of charity and poverty of life: an evangelical imitatio apostolorum, a radical pattern of apostolic discipleship, was to be the wellspring for what they did as priests. “It is the primary vocation to be like the apostles which marks henceforth the way of being ‘priest’ in the Society of Jesus.” Under the inspiration of the Spiritual Exercises, they wanted to be like Christ in giving freely of themselves to anyone in need; they wanted to live like him who came not to be served, but to serve; they wanted to act like him in preaching to the crowds; they wanted to share his concern for the needs of the poor and the sick. We recall that the Jesuit theologians at the Council of Trent were instructed by Ignatius to spend part of their time visiting hospitals and instructing small children; their public work of lecturing at the Council was to be balanced by acts of mercy which went unnoticed except by the poor who received them.

[174] 17. In the conduct of their ministries, Ignatius wanted Jesuit priests to avoid ways of proceeding which the Spiritual Exercises present as contrary to the Gospel: riches and success, honours and recognition, power, pride and prestige. He insisted that Jesuit priests should not accept appointment as bishops or to other ecclesiastical dignities, offices and benefices, but should have the poverty and freedom necessary for mission. Ignatius wanted them to ask for the grace to be truly poor in companionship with Christ, to be obedient in their mission, to be held in low esteem if God would be thus served, and to live as “priests of Christ freely poor.” Jesuit priests today are to be like them in doing what they judge to be the most urgent and fruitful apostolic tasks, in an apostolic horizon unrestricted by divisions of class or culture, and with no regard for their personal gratification.

[175] 18. Wherever they are, Jesuit priests make their apostolic contribution to the life of the local Church, while at the same time being faithful to their charism and keeping their freedom for mission. At any given moment, the Jesuit priest lives in a particular local Church, and willingly co-operates with the local bishop in the Church’s mission. But he recognizes that, in every local Church, it is the particular charism of the diocesanclergy to be the primary agents of the bishop’s pastoral care; because he is not a diocesan priest, he recognizes that he exercises his ministry in complementary ways. As such, a Jesuit tries to direct what he does as a priest towards those who are not easily reached by the Church’s ordinary ministry.

[176] 19. Just as Jesuit priests form a common apostolic body with brothers, so it is also necessary that they promote and enhance the ecclesial service offered by religious in other communities and by lay men and women who want to share more profoundly in the Church’s ministry. The recent growth of lay ministries in the Church, far from being a threat to what is offered by Jesuits in their priestly ministry, corresponds to one of the fundamental charisms of our Ignatian tradition. Through the Spiritual Exercises, Jesuits are particularly concerned with helping others enter more into their baptismal dignity as servants of Christ. Our Jesuit tradition recognizes that God deals with individuals, always to deepen in them the life of grace and always through them to strengthen the life of the Church; this is in perfect agreement with the perspective offered by the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the character of ministerial priesthood in the Church:

“While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace — a life of faith, hope and charity, a life according to the Spirit — the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians. The ministerial priesthood is a meansby which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church.”

[177] 20. From their Ignatian tradition, Jesuits bring to their ministerial priesthood a profound respect for the ways in which God is already at work in the lives of all men and women. God’s action does not begin with what we do; already, in the blessings of creation, God has laid the foundation for what he will accomplish through the graces of redemption. Consequently, in the exercise of their ministerial priesthood, Jesuits try to see what God has already done in the lives of individuals, societies and cultures, and to discern how God will continue that work. By drawing attention to the graced character of all human life, this insight influences the way in which Jesuit ministerial priesthood is exercised in different areas:

[178] 20.1 — it is always aimed at building up the human person in the individual character of each one’s life of grace;

[179] 20.2 — it encourages us to become involved in disciplines which, although they may have no explicitly Christian perspective, are nevertheless central to the way in which human beings understand themselves and the world around them;

[180] 20.3 — it makes us take a positive attitude towards dialogue with the range of human cultures and the traditions of religious belief, morality and spirituality found in our world;

[181] 20.4 — it opens the way to a positive ecumenical commitment since it values the diversity and mutuality of charisms found in the different Christian traditions.

[182] 20.5 — it directs our attention towards those who, though they are excluded from power and wealth, are already rich in grace.

[183] 21. The ministries of the Word — the ministries named before all others in the Formula of our Institute — have always been of primary importance for Jesuit priestly ministry. These ministries, which take as many forms as are demanded by our mission, require for their effectiveness profound and dedicated study, especially a thorough knowledge of Scripture and tradition, skill in preaching, and a human maturity and cultural breadth. The tradition of learned priestly ministry and intellectual excellence is deeply embedded in our way of proceeding. In the exercise of Jesuit ministerial priesthood, knowledge is not power, but service of the Kingdom.

[184] 22. Christ’s own ministry of words and deeds reached its consummation in the saving mystery of his death and resurrection: so Jesuit priests join the many forms of their ministry of the Word to the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist by which Christ draws people into his Paschal Mystery. The Word of God is proclaimed in different ways so that all may find their place at the Eucharistic and Heavenly Banquet through the mercy of God. “God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4): this is the core of the Society’s apostolic preaching and the reality which the Church proclaims at the Eucharist. Here the Risen Lord bestows life and enables the Church to become what it is, the body of Christ. Here, too, this least Society of Jesus is constantly re-created by our reception of the Word of Truth and the Bread of Life.

The Stages of Ministry

[185] 23. Each stage in the preparation for and exercise of priestly ministry introduces a new element which modifies and strengthens a man’s identity as a Jesuit: he moves, first of all, from the life of a scholastic to accepting the Church’s call to ordination. Then, working through the challenges of being a young priest, he will undertake active ministries, eventually passing to the priestly apostolic life exercised in old age. Each of these stages — linked to the natural life-cycle — marks, not a diminution, but a deeper entry into the experience of Jesuit priestly life: what begins as a joyful act of trust in the call of the Lord, and is then lived out with generous self-giving in ministry, reaches its culmination when, in old age and perhaps great weakness, the Jesuit priest fully enters Christ’s Paschal Mystery. The way in which this occurs will, of course, differ for each one according to the way God leads him, but usually there are significant moments in the process.

[186] 24. As he moves closer to priestly ordination, a scholastic may be anxious about his worthiness and suitability as a minister of Word and Sacrament: this may be the call of Christ, but has he the personal strength to accept it and live it? He may feel uneasy about the public role in the Church which ordination will bring: in some countries where public criticism of the Church is strong, there may even be external pressure on him not to identify himself with the hierarchical Church in this way. In other situations, a scholastic may be tempted to see priesthood as a way of entering a world of clerical privilege, rather than as a path of humble service. In a very personal way, he will face the fact that priestly ministry is always exercised in the context of ordinary human weakness and the complex historical development of the Church’s life. Various factors can make a scholastic question the rightness of applying for ordination, and the Society must listen very carefully to his fears and help him choose priesthood freely as the way in which his Jesuit identity is to be placed at the service of God’s Kingdom and Church. This is an important moment in a scholastic’s discernment of the Ignatian tradition of sentirecumecclesiawhich is always prompted by a deeper sentire cum Christo — a desire to work with Christ in preparing the way for the Kingdom and, in this way, to serve the Church that is his Body. We should remember that Ignatius made a bold act of trust in Christ’s Lordship of the Church when he placed the Society at the service of the sixteenth century Papacy: it was a dramatic gesture showing that, in the Ignatian tradition, humble service of Christ is inseparable from a loving service of the Church.

[187] 25. The first few years after ordination present a new set of challenges: priestly ministry is itself something new; only time, pastoral experience, reflection, and help from others — both from fellow Jesuits and from the people he is called to serve — will allow the full development of confidence, wisdom and compassion in this vocation. He is simultaneously engaged in the task of integrating himself on a permanent basis into the apostolic body of the Society; it is a time when he is particularly in need of the support of superiors and the friendship of his fellow Jesuits. There is a certain ordinariness to his life: he no longer finds himself moving through the various stages of formation and receiving, at each juncture, formal approval from superiors.

[188] 26. In his work as a priest, as well as in encountering the diverse and sometimes conflicting expectations of the people he seeks to serve, he will also receive the warmth of their appreciation as someone who is compassionate and is trying hard to be of service. Lay people have an important role in building up his confidence in his ministry. The young priest will surely recognize that ordination has not taken away his human weakness. Sometimes these first few years can be a time when things go wrong, and the young priest may be confronted by an unexpected lack of coherence in his life: he may realize that the peace he is ordained to give to others is not completely filling his own heart. If he comes through this — and every Jesuit, in some cases dramatically, has a strong experience of his sinfulness — it can be a profound moment of grace as he confronts the frailty within which his ministry is exercised. In the words of St Paul, who himself had to come to this understanding, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7).

[189] 27. In the years after final vows, the ordained Jesuit experiences all the pressures and complexities of priestly ministry in the Society: he will probably be engaged in a ministry which makes constant and exhausting demands on him; in addition he may be asked to undertake other responsibilities in the Society. He may find that much of his time is taken up with work that is directly neither pastoral nor sacramental, but is a response to the demands of our corporate mission and the broad range of activities proper to our Jesuit vocation. These are not peripheral to Jesuit priesthood, but are the acts of service by which we address the apostolic needs of our world.

[190] 28. Like every Jesuit, he holds himself in readiness to move at the request of superiors in the service of the Gospel — a readiness that does not become easier as he gets older. These are the years when only deepening love of Christ can balance the pressures of work. The task for the Jesuit priest, in the midst of these multiple demands, is to continue a life of faith and a generous and humble service of Christ. Even if he is not primarily involved in direct pastoral service of others, it will help him to keep his priestly identity alive if he is able to minister regularly to a sacramental community; lay people, especially the poor, build the personal faith of those who serve them.

[191] 29. Although the typical Jesuit priest continues to be engaged in apostolic work well beyond “retirement age,” there generally comes a time when such external work must cease. When this happens, he can be tempted to think that his life has lost its primary purpose; he needs to learn from the Lord that, on the contrary, he is being offered a new way of carrying out his Jesuit apostolic mission. Old age in no way diminishes his priesthood and true apostolic vitality. Even if he can only attend the Eucharist and pray privately for the Lord’s blessing on the work of the Church and his fellow Jesuits, it is precisely in this that he continues to be a valued apostle and worker. Here, perhaps most of all, he is called to live a life of priestly prayer for others, in union with Christ the High Priest who has gone before us as the pioneer of our faith (Heb 12:2). In his address to the Society, towards the end of his life and when he was very frail, Father Arrupe depicted the experience of many older Jesuits:

“More than ever, I now find myself in the hands of God. This is what I wanted all my life from my youth. And this is still the one thing I want. But now there is a difference: the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in his hands.”

[192] 30. Finally, we ask all Jesuit priests to have confidence in the charisms of their ministry, and we also ask all brothers and scholastics to have confidence in the charisms which they receive: these are complementary gifts of the Spirit by which the Society is able to serve in the name of Christ. We ask for God’s blessing on all that we do.

Recommendation to Father General

[193] 31. General Congregation 34, while in full accord with the Society’s charism and its desire to be available for mission, nevertheless firmly restates the Society’s tradition to resist, insofar as is compatible with obedience, nominations to the episcopacy. For Saint Ignatius this principle was vital for the mission and well-being of “this least Society,” and was not contradictory to his desire to be available for mission. Jesuits were to serve the Church and the Supreme Pontiff, but not as bishops. To clarify this issue, the General Congregation urges Father General to continue in dialogue with the Holy See on this matter and, if it would be useful, to issue as a result further clear norms to be followed by any Jesuit informed that he is being considered as a candidate for the episcopacy.

Other readings
View all readings
Latest news
View all news