Most of their dinner conversations may be ordinary — mulling over the fate of the basketball team, taking stock of their new courses — but once a month this group of male students breaks bread over a weightier topic: the possibility of entering the Jesuit order.
The “Barbistes” — named after the college at the University of Paris where the candidates who first entered this Catholic order met in the 1500s — gather for informal meetings, consisting of Mass, dinner and discussion.
They typically include one of campus’s 64 Jesuits, who tells of his current work and reflects on his decision to enter the order. The number of participants varies, but generally remains under 10 students.
“Georgetown students have a phenomenal resource in the Jesuits on campus,” said Danny Gustafson (COL ’11), who is currently applying to enter the Society of Jesus. “Without the Jesuit community here there’s no way I would have even considered applying. I’ve found their support really moving and inspirational.”
The purpose of the group is not to “funnel people into the Society,” Fr. David Collins, S.J., a leader of the Barbistes, said. Instead, the meetings of the Barbistes offer an opportunity for what the Jesuits call “discernment.”
“It’s a prayerful way of making a decision,” Executive Director of Campus Ministry Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., said. “The students share with one another their desire for the priesthood, their questions and their struggles.”
For someone contemplating the Jesuit life, these hurdles are numbered. Potential priests must confront the fact that becoming part of the tradition means a lifelong commitment.
“It’s tough for a 20- or 21-year-old to think about entering for the long haul … especially when models of this kind of commitment are fewer and fewer,” Collins said.
Students who are contemplating a religious vocation must also consider the sacrifices involved in becoming a Jesuit.
“When I came to college I had my whole life plan built around my interest in politics and a desire to enter politics myself,” said Gustafson, a former president of the Georgetown University College Democrats. “The biggest challenge in this process has been letting go of my own expectations and the expectations that everyone else had for me in order to listen to God and think more critically about what I ought to do with my life.”
With the Catholic Church’s reputation shaky in recent years, students considering a religious vocation must also take into account the perceptions of others. According to O’Brien, the growing antipathy toward the Church means choosing to devote oneself to a religious life can be a difficult process.
“Especially in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, respect for the priesthood has diminished. Many people who don’t know the Church might not understand this decision,” O’Brien said. Gustafson has faced the doubters head-on.
“I’ve had to answer a lot of questions, especially from people who don’t have a lot of experience with the Jesuits,” he said. “Giving up sex, money and individual liberty is completely at odds with societal values. It’s easy for people to only think about the vows [of chastity, poverty, and obedience] as giving things up rather than seeing what’s to gain.”
In spite of these modern pressures, Gustafson says he feels accepted by his peers on campus.
“People here know what it means for me, and they’ve been incredibly supportive,” he said.
And support is essential, especially as the application to become a Jesuit is a long and arduous process. According to the Society of Jesus in the United States, about 35 to 45 men across the country enter the Jesuits each year. Applicants must write a spiritual biography, fill out biographical and financial paperwork, submit references, attend six interviews, and undergo four medical and psychological tests.
“It was mentally exhausting, but very interesting,” Gustafson said. “But this biggest challenge is not getting complacent in my decision but to continually reanalyze and pray, to reaffirm that this is what I want to do with my life.”