What Vows Do Jesuit Priests Take?

Francis I is the first Jesuit pope.
... Franco Origlia/Getty Images News/Getty Images

St. Ignatius Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits, back in 1540. In the ensuing centuries, it has grown to be the world’s largest male religious order, with about 19,000 members. The order is known for intellectual rigor, service to the poor, physical health and fitness and a great personal love of Jesus. Jesuits take more vows than most religious orders and spend many years climbing levels of the Jesuit hierarchy before taking their final vows.

1 Vows

Priests of all Catholic, orders, including the Jesuits, take three standard vows: chastity, poverty and obedience. The idea behind a life of celibacy is to keep the priest focused on those he serves, not on a relationship with another person or a family. Poverty forces the priest to live simply and promotes a feeling of empathy for the poor. Like Jesus and his disciples, Jesuit priests share possessions communally. Jesuits obey the will of God as it is revealed to each individual. Evidence of having lived an exemplary life in the past is not necessary to become a Jesuit. St. Ignatius himself was known for having a wild youth before dedicating himself to God.

2 Fourth Vow

Jesuits take a fourth vow that they will obey the pope regarding their mission. Whatever the present or future pope wants, Jesuits pledge to do. The original vow stated in part, “to go without subterfuge or excuse, as far as in us lies, to whatsoever provinces they may choose to send us--whether they are pleased to send us among the Turks or any other infidels, even those who live in the region called the Indies, or among any heretics whatever.” St. Ignatius called this fourth vow “our first and principal foundation.” This vow has given Jesuits their reputation for being especially faithful to the pope.

3 Formation Period

Once the Jesuits accept a new man into their community -- usually on Entrance Day in August -- the process of formation begins. After two years as a novice, which includes prayer, work and a 30-day retreat, he takes his vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Then he becomes a brother or scholastic and delves into academic work in theology and philosophy. This stage lasts three years. The three-year regency stage sends the Jesuit out to teach at a high school or university. The theology stage, which also lasts three years, increases his formal theology knowledge and prepares him for ordination as a priest. At ordination, the Jesuit receives his sacrament of holy orders and can take his first assignment as a priest. After about five years, he reaches the tertianship stage. He takes a year to review his life thus far as a Jesuit, goes on another 30-day retreat, and at last is prepared for his final vows.

4 Reflection and Final Vows

The formation process may be longer or shorter, depending on the person. Father Ron Gonzales reflected on the 18 years it took him to move through the stages of formation. By this time, he said, his fellow Jesuits were well aware of his weaknesses and his strengths. He likened their relationship to a marriage where partners feel acceptance and peace knowing there’s that commitment. At the time of final vows, Jesuits take the fourth vow to obey the pope.

Teresa Bergen writes about fitness, health, yoga, travel and the arts. She is the author of "Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide" and has written hundreds of articles for publications online and off. Bergen also teaches yoga, spinning and group fitness classes, and is an ACE-certified personal trainer.